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Local History

Aboriginal people inhabited the alpine valleys and high country for thousands of years, and knew its flora, fauna, geography and seasonal changes intimately. Groups visited the Alps in summer to hold ceremonies and gather the nutritious Bogong moths that shelter there.

Sadly, most of the aboriginals where killed or forced out of the area when settlers moved in after the exploration of Hume and Hovell in 1824.  Much of the land was cleared to make way for stock grazing.  Mutton and particularly beef became the local fare and horse and buggy were the means of transport.

High Country beef came into existence in the middle of the 19th century after much of the valley grazing land was incinerated by bushfire.  Local cattlemen discovered the high plains plentiful with summer feed for their cattle.

In 1853, after the gold rushes in the Beechworth area had subsided, a new, rich gold field was discovered in the Buckland Valley, 10km from Bright. Shanties sprang up along the roadside and hold-ups and robberies were a common occurrence.
 

Bright was called the Ovens Township or Morses Creek Settlement in 1856 and several reports of groups of indigenous people living in the area during the early days of settlement have been documented by early pioneers.

Gold fever brought in the next wave of visitors from other Australian goldfields and also international seekers came from China, America and Europe.  Alluvial gold was washed out of the river gravel and was taken first from the Buckland Valley with many other finds along the Ovens River to Harrietville and its tributaries such as Morse’s Creek to Wandiligong.  This was followed by reef mining where shafts were dug and tunnels followed the quartz rock underground.

Although plenty of gold was found in the area it is often said that those who grew and produced the miners’ food and drink serviced their needs or governed their lives made more money out of the fertile valleys than did the miners themselves. 

The Chinese in particular brought with them their skills in growing fruit and vegetables and provided a much needed supplement to their own and others miner’s diets.Amidst the miners, tourists, botanists, artists, mountaineers and field naturalists could be seen starting to explore the region.The new railway line to Bright that was completed in 1890 opened up the area further for the movement of produce and people.  Mt Buffalo, Bright and the High Plains were even more accessible.

The turn of the century saw the coming of huge dredges with their numerous buckets descending into the holes created in and along the river courses. 

These dredges, using wood fired steam power engines, resulting in the denuding of many of the local forests and the degradation of the area for half a century.  Topsoil from the dredged areas was swept down stream and huge gravel areas were left behind.The Chinese where not accepted byt the European settlers. They kept to themselves and usually just sifted the abandoned claims. Their success provoked jealousy among the Europeans. The construction of a Chinese temple in 1857 provided the justification for hostilities.

On July 4, it was decided at a meeting to evict the Asian miners at gunpoint. Despite a calm start, matters soon got out of control. In a fit of violence, the Joss House, stores and dwellings of the Chinese were raided and destroyed.

The Chinese were robbed of their property, viciously beaten and cast into the river. Others were forced into trenches where they were shot and buried. Matters became so extreme that some of those who had originally supported the eviction helped the Chinese to escape. By the time the Beechworth police, under the command of Robert O'Hara Burke, had travelled 80 km to the area, 2000 Chinese had either been massacred or fled.

With the population and economy growing rapidly, mainly due to the rich gold finds in the area, shops, hotels and banks were soon established. Sports days and races were very much part of the social agenda and were usually attended by people from every corner of the district.

The newly surveyed streets were named after politicians and lawyers of the time. As the gold finds began to dwindle, many miners turned to farming. The rich soil of the Ovens Valley proved adaptable to a diverse range of agriculture, with tobacco, hops, vineyards, oats, maze, nuts and fruits grown along the valley. Pine trees were planted on land that was ruined for agriculture by the destruction caused by the gold dredges that had worked and scraped their way along the valley floor during the early 1900s.
 
Today, evidence of early mining activities can be found on the hillsides and along the riverbeds. Sluicing races, rock stacks and open mines are testimony to the beginnings of the township.
             

The Chinese where very adept at market gardening and their vegetables were highly sought after. Indian hawkers trundled their wares around the district and they were always a welcome sight to children who delighted in the mystery of such an array of goods.

 
During the 1920s large numbers of Italian migrants arrived in the district and established themselves in the tobacco industry. Through sheer hard work, they were able to buy their own farms and the tobacco industry began to boom, especially following a second influx of Italians after World War II.
 
The industry flourished until 2006 but tobacco is no longer grown in the area.  By 2006 many of the smaller farms, plus other fertile areas had been converted to growing a variety of other horticultural produce including nuts, apples, wine grapes, berries, asparagus, green tea, lavender, etc.  The region now has a reputation for fine produce that takes advantage of the fantastic soil and ideal climate.
 

Recent developments have meant that cattle have been prohibited from entering the High Country.  The issue is political and still under debate. 

The railway line has been pulled up and the track converted to the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail. Today forestry is still a significant industry in the area, together with the horticulture industry.  However tourism is now the predominant industry in Bright and the Great Alpine Valleys. 

For details on publications relating to the History of Bright local author and historian, Diane Talbot, has just released a book on the full history of the gold rush era in the area. You can also visit the Bright Library to view photograph albums of Bright’s History.

 

 

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