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Omeo, VIC

Historic goldmining town on the Victorian side of the Snowy Mountains.

"The creek valleys narrowed, the forests closed in, until suddenly the Omeo basin fairly burst upon us - an open treeless plain, encircled by a rim of mountains upon which the peaks of Mount Tambo and the Three Brothers stood out distinctly ... from its expanse came the shimmer of two lakes, one large, one tiny." is how the novelist Stanley Porteous described first seeing the Omeo Valley. Omeo is an historic gold mining town in the rugged country on the edge of the Snowy Mountains. Today it is a quiet and sleepy township servicing a district known for its cattle, sheep and timber production.

Location

Omeo is located 400 km north-east of Melbourne via the Princes and Omeo Highways and 430 km via the Hume Highway and Bright.

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Origin of Name

There is an argument about the meaning of Omeo. The pioneer naturalist, John Lhotsky, named the area "Omeo" which, he claimed, was the name the local Aborigines called the valley. Other interpretations include the idea that the word meant "Mountains" in the local Jaitmatang language.

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Things to See and Do

Omeo Town Walks
There are four good town walks around Omeo. They are described in a two page downloadable brochure which has detailed maps of each walk. See http://www.eastgippsland.vic.gov.au/files/assets/public/documents/plancom_directorate/strategic_plans/map_track_notes_-_omeo_walks_print_ver.pdf.

1. Heritage Trail
A walk down the main street which includes ten points of interest each of which has an interpretative sign outside. It is one km long and takes around 30 minutes. It includes:

Historical Park and Justice Precinct
Located in Day Avenue, the Historical Park and Justice Precinct is the town's most impressive collection of historic buildings. The Heritage Council writes of the Omeo Justice Precinct: "The Omeo Justice Precinct is the most intact example of a nineteenth century police and court complex known to survive in Victoria. It is significant because of the presence of a number of elements which are architecturally and historically significant to the State. These are the Log Lockup/Gaol (1858), the Court House (1859-61), the Police Cookhouse (1882-83), the Police Residence (1882-83), the Police Stables (1882-83) and the Court House(1893).

1. The Omeo Lockup is architecturally and historically significant as a rare example of primitive log construction in Victoria. It is unusual in retaining its internal log walling between cells and internal doors so that its original function can be clearly seen. Although not the earliest, it is the most intact lockup in the State and in itself is of State significance as a rare example of a particular type of vernacular building construction seldom used in Victoria. It gains added significance in its context in a remarkably intact example of a nineteenth century justice precinct. It is remarkable that it was still being used as recently as 1981. It was finally closed because a newspaper article declared it a "rat infested log cabin". The external logs are Mountain Ash and the internal logs are Blackwood.
Historically the Omeo goldfields were policed by the miners and people who were declared prisoners were chained to a tree. This was followed by a simple slab and calico structure. The police did not arrive in the area until 1858 and they built three log lock-ups. "The Omeo log gaol was completed in October, 1858 by contractors Roy and Dalrymple. With floor, walls and ceiling of squared logs under a shingle roof. However, by 1862 the green logs had shrunk enabling prisoners to communicate with their friends outside. Therefore the inside living was added. ... the last prisoner in the log gaol was released in June, 1981."

2. The Court House (1859-61) is historically significant as a rare and intact example of a small country goldfields court of the 1850s. It was a symbol of the extension of the power of the State government to impose justice on a small and remote goldfields community and demonstrates in its fabric part of the story of Victoria. Its strong association with Arthur Currie Wills and Alfred Howitt, is clearly documented in Howitt's papers describing the way he worked in the two small back rooms, and this gives it added historical significance. [It is now a museum.] 
There is a wonderful description of the life of the magistrate from the local paper in 1884: “In fancy we can still see the acute agony on his honour’s face, as, with a roaring fire within two feet of his back, a heavy draught on each side and a prevaricating witness in front, he still manfully strove to do his duty. Add to this the ‘celestial’ aroma arising from the usual crowd of Chinese suitors and witnesses, and the nervous movement of the judge’s jewelled hands accompanied by the slight elevation of his well trained nasal organ may well be accounted for. It must have been a heavy task to administer law in such trying circumstances.”

3. The Police Cookhouse (1882-83) is historically significant as a rare example of a police building which demonstrates nineteenth century policing practices.

4. The Police Residence (1882-83) is historically significant as a representative and intact example of a nineteenth century timber police house and station which demonstrates the importance of the police presence in a remote mining town.

5. The Police Stables (1882-83) is historically important as a representative and intact example of a timber stables, which demonstrates the way of life of nineteenth century police officers and their reliance on horses for transport.

6. The second 1893 Court House is architecturally significant as a fine and rare example of A. J. McDonald's work, whose small but remarkable output for the Public Works Department during his brief architectural career was influenced by H.H. Richardson of Chicago and many other styles, such as the Arts and Craft Movement. McDonald went on to work as Walter Burley Griffin's assistant in the construction of Canberra. 
The 1893 Omeo Court House is particularly significant as a rare example of a court house in the Federation Romanesque style in Victoria. The inlaid white quartz pebbles on parts of the exterior were collected from the local gold diggings and are said to represent the Warden's Court function in settling mining disputes. The Court House is also historically significant as an element within the justice precinct which is a rare and intact example of a complex of nineteenth century court and police buildings. For more information check out http://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/895/download-report.
Other buildings in the park are a blacksmith's shop, a water wheel (taken from Zulu Creek where it drove a 5 head stamper), a post office built in the 1890s and the town's first state school (1866). There is also a canoe tree and miscellaneous pieces of old machinery  Tel: (03) 5159 1515 or check out http://www.omeo.org.au. The grounds are always open. The museum and the buildings are open from 10.00 am - 2.00 pm seven days a week.

Golden Age Hotel
Built in 1940 to replace an earlier Golden Age Hotel which was burnt down that year by the Black Friday bushfires, the Golden Age is a fine example of an Art Deco country hotel which dominates the local townscape. The first Golden Age Hotel was uilt in 1854 and was nothing more than a slab hut. It was replaced in the 1860s with an hotel which was destroyed by fire in 1870. That was replaced by a two storey building which was destroyed by fire in 1891. The fourth Golden Age Hotel was built between 1892-1894 and had two dining rooms, a ballroom, 40 bedrooms and two parlours. It was destroyed in the bushfires of 1939.

 

Post Office
A prominent landmark in the town, the Post Office, which stands at the top of Day Avenue, was built in 1891 for £1068. It was the local meeting place for the 6.30 pm coach to Bairnsdale. It once had gold weighing scales, wind up telephones and telegraph lines connecting it to the world outside the valley. Ornate pillars are features of the interior and externally it has rendered arches and balustrades.

Lands Department Office
Just down the hill from the Post Office in Day Avenue is the Lands Department Office which was built in 1872 for James Stirling, the local Land Surveyor. It is one of the four oldest buildings in the town. In later life Stirling became a botanist and named a number of native alpine flora in the district.

Colonial Bank
Built in 1889 and a prominent building in Day Avenue, the Colonial Bank served the local diggers and squatters until the 1930s when it became the National Bank. Gold from the surrounding mines was weighed and stored in a walk-in safe which is still in the building. It closed around 1940 and for some years was the office of The Omeo Standard, the local newspaper.

There is an excellent brochure - Omeo Region Walking Tracks & Trails - which is available from the Omeo Visitor Information Centre. It provides maps and details of the things that can be seen on each of the walks. An excellent PDF can be downloaded by typing "Omeo Region Track notes" into Google.

2. Livingstone Park Loop
This is a short, one kilometre walk which takes around 20-30 minutes. There was a time when Livingstone Park was alive with miners and the sounds of panning, sluicing and dredging. Today it is a recreation park ideal for picnics and barbecues. There's a swimming hole in the creek and walking paths around the park. The walk starts at the information board before crossing the bridge across the creek and following the path towards the rotunda. If you head up the hill you will see Griffith Tunnel on one side and the town swimming hole on the other. The 75 metre Griffith Tunnel was cut by miners (led by a man named Griffith) in 1868. It was designed to divert water from Livingstone Creek so the creek could be mined without the miners having to deal with constantly flowing water. It was cut through a high rocky bluff known as Frenchman’s Hill. By diverting the creek waters, the party was able to re-work a large section of the Livingstone Creek bed.

3. Livingstone Park to Caravan Park
A one kilometre walk taking about 30 minutes. This short, easy walk is primarily for those who want attractive views over the town and want to see the local wildlife. It follows the course of the Livingstone Creek from Livingstone Park to the Omeo Caravan Park. Note the poplar trees which are over 50 years old - they are particularly impressive in autumn - and keep an eye out for the local wildlife which includes honeyeaters, robins, cockatoos, parrots and whistlers. Wombats, echidnas, wallabies, kangaroos and platypus can also be seen along the creek.

4. Livingstone Park to Oriental Claims
A longer walk of 3.4 km return taking about an hour to 90 minutes, this is another scenic walk along the Livingstone Creek. The path continues towards the area of the gold diggings known as Oriental Claims. Offering panoramic views over Omeo and the surrounding high country, there are pleasant places to pause and enjoy the views over the town and the wildlife which lives in the area. The walk starts at Livingstone Park, passes Griffiths Tunnel and follows the creek passing remnant alluvial gold workings which extend to the Oriental Claims area. The entrance to the reserve is signposted and from here the track follows the huge clay cliffs created by hydraulic sluicing for gold. Silver Banksia and Woolly Grevillea grow abundantly here, attracting a variety of honey and seed-eating birds including Crimson Rosellas and White-eared Honeyeaters.
The walk connects with Ah Fong's Loop Track and the Pioneer Claims Loop Track.

Oriental Claims Historic Area
At Oriental Claims, across Dry Gully Creek, is a suspension bridge built to honour the miners who came to the Livingstone Creek diggings. The Oriental Claims area produced an estimated 58,000 ounces of gold.
The Oriental Claims Reserve is located on the Great Alpine Road to Mount Hotham, about 2 km from the centre of town. Small gold workings can be seen along the banks of Livingstone Creek. Spanning the creek, a little upstream from the Dry Gully Suspension Bridge, is the Memorial Bridge, built as a practical war memorial by returned diggers in 1919.

Ah Fong's Loop Walk 
On the far side of the old bridge is a parking area and a sign which points the way along a walking track, known as Ah Fong's Loop Walk (it is 1.5 km takes about 45 minutes), which crosses the creek by footbridge then moves along the river banks and past the old brick pumping station.  Ah Fong was hugely successful. His claim yielded a total of 6,000 ounces of gold (around $3 million in today's terms) and he subsequently opened a shop in Omeo.

Pioneer Claims Walk
Beyond Ah Fong's Loop, up the valley, are the old  'oriental claims' where Chinese workers operated the world's largest hydraulic sluicing operation. This historic site is surrounded by man-made cliffs up to 30 metres in height which still have minute traces of gold. Old tunnels can be seen in the hillside. The earth which comprises the huge cliffs was shifted with water. A dam was built 19 km away, up Livingstone Creek. The water was carried by races, which can still be seen along the sides of the valley, to a level well above the site of the operations. It was then pumped through pressure nozzles which were used to spray water at high velocity against the cliffs. The gravel was washed into trenches, in which were placed sluice boxes to catch the gold. The silt and water flowed into the creek while larger rocks were removed by hand. The size of the stones in the mullock heaps suggests how difficult the labour could be. Pieces of petrified wood can also be found in the rock piles. If you don't want to do the walk you can drive to a parking spot on a gravel road which runs parallel to the Great Alpine Road and heads off near the entrance to the Oriental Claims Historic Area. The view from the cliffs is impressive and their is a track down to the base of the hills.

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History

* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area was home to the Jaitmatang Aboriginal people.

* The first Europeans into the area was pioneer naturalist, John Lhotsky, in 1834, who saw a wide plain that the Aborigines called 'Omeo'.

* In 1835 George McKillop journeyed south from Monaro in New South Wales in search of new pastures.

* A member of McKillop's party, James McFarlane, founded what was probably the first cattle station in Victoria - Omeo B at what is now Benambra - which he sold in 1859.

* John Pendergast arrived with his two brothers in 1836 or 1837 and established the Mount Leinster station. A hut from the property, built in 1868, is now on display in Omeo's historical park in the centre of town.

* John Hyland, settled west of Morass Creek but sold his run to Edward Cooke in 1841. Cooke bred thoroughbred horses for the army of India.

* The explorer Angus McMillan rested in the Omeo vicinity in 1839 while following an Aboriginal track south to establish Numblamunjie station on behalf of Lachlan Macalister.

* Numblamunjie was changed to Ensay in 1844 by Archibald Macleod, after an island off the coast of Scotland.

* During the 1840s squatters moving south into Gippsland used the area as a transit camp.

* In 1851 pioneering geologist, Reverend W.B. Clarke, discovered gold at Livingstone Creek.

* By 1853 there were 70 men, all living in 30 tents, panning for alluvial gold along Livingstone Creek.

* By 1856 a settlement with a hotel and two stores had sprung up along Livingstone Creek.

* A police officer arrived in 1858. That year a Post Office was built.

* By 1863 the population was around 600.

* The goldfields were lawless and by 1866 a police magistrate and resident warden had been sent to the area.

* An influx of miners occurred and new goldfields opened at Gibbo, Dry Gully, Cassilis, Dartmouth, Brookville, the Wombat and Stirling.

* Land settlement began in 1870. A Wesleyan Church was opened that year.

* Omeo Shire was declared a municipality in 1872.

* A Roman Catholic Church was consecrated in 1874.

* By 1875 there were 445 diggers of whom 195 were Chinese.

* A racecourse was built in 1876.

* By the 1880s reef gold had been located at Sunnyside, Dry Gully, Glen Wills and Cassilis. Heavy machinery to work the reefs was hauled over the mountains by bullock teams and hydraulic dredges were used.

* The town suffered an earthquake in 1885 and again in 1892.

* In 1888 Rolf Boldrewood wrote Robbery Under Arms about the area.

* During the 1890s the town saw the building of a brick court house, post office, shire hall, bank, hospital and the first Golden Age Hotel. Around this time the town's population peaked at 10,000.

* The Church of England was opened in 1892.

* The Presbyterian Church was consecrated in 1894.

* In 1900 20,189 ounces of gold were extracted from the area.

* The gold fields were abandoned by 1918.

* The bushfires of Black Friday in 1939 did serious damage to the town.

* By the late 1940s the economy of the district was driven by cattle and sheep.

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Visitor Information

Omeo Region Visitor Information Centre, 152 Day Avenue, tel: (03) 5159 1679.

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Useful Websites

There is a useful local website. Check out http://www.omeoregion.com.au.

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