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Great Ocean Road History

Early Days

For thousands of years various clans of the Wathaurong and Gadabanud tribes lived in the coastal regions along Victoria’s south-west coast, harvesting food from the bush and from the sea. But this lifestyle was disturbed forever after the discovery by Europeans of the entrance to Port Phillip in late 1801. Rough weather and the dangerous bay entrance delayed the arrival of the settlers, but on February 14, 1802 Lt. John Murray “took possession” for Britain, calling the area Port King. Port King was later renamed to Port Phillip, in honour of Captain Arthur Phillip who led the First Fleet from England to Australia in 1788.

By the 1840s, pastoralists had taken up large runs behind the Otway Ranges and timber cutters had settled around what later became Lorne and Apollo Bay. Fishermen plied their trade in the bountiful ocean waters and settlements were developing at Aireys Inlet, Bellbrae, Anglesea, Fairhaven, Eastern View, Lorne and Apollo Bay.

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Early proposals

From the 1870’s onwards demand grew for a road or rail connection between the isolated coastal communities. The coast was notoriously treacherous for sea-going vessels and the only land-based links at this time were rough inland routes across the Otways. With the dawning of the 20th century, Geelong businessmen E. H. Lascelles and Walter Howard Smith proposed a road from Geelong to Lorne, and the formation in 1912 of the Country Roads Board was an important stepping stone towards making the Great Ocean Road a reality.

At the conclusion of the First World War the Country Roads Board chairman William Calder proposed a to employ returned soldiers on a number of road-building projects. Among his ideas was a road stretching from Barwon Heads along the coast through to Warrnambool. Geelong mayor, Cr Howard Hitchcock saw Calder’s plan as a way of attracting thousands of visitors to Geelong and the coast, and as a means of constructing a permanent memorial to Victorian soldiers killed in the war.

The proposal to employ returned soldiers was initially unpopular with some who considered it an inappropriate “punishment” to put soldiers to work on such an arduous project. It was suggested that using prisoners would be more appropriate, but proponents insisted the fresh coastal air and camp life with opportunities for swimming, fishing and shooting would help restore those jaded by war.

The Great Ocean Road Trust

gor-trustAt a Colac meeting of 500 people on March 22, 1918, the Great Ocean Road Trust was officially formed. Cr Howard Hitchcock was elected president and the budget was set at 150,000 pounds ($300,000) for a road that would run for 100 miles (160km). Not everyone backed the great plan. There were some on the Winchelsea and Barrabool shire councils who said they had no money “to waste on tourists”.

At the meeting a brochure was distributed billing the Great Ocean Road as a “worthy memorial to all Victorian soldiers and a national asset for Victoria .The carrying out of this scheme would provide the finest ocean road in the world. Travellers throughout the world know of nothing which would compare with it.

“Mention might be made of ocean roads such as ‘The Riviera’ (south of France); road from Illfracombe (north coast of Devonshire); coast of Tasmania; San Francisco Road (going both north and south); Cape Town to suburbs; Bulli Pass (New South Wales); but none of these equal the Great Ocean Road for beautiful ocean, mountain, river, or fern gully scenery.

“Tourists from ‘up north’ will appreciate this cool proposition, within a few hours run of their homes in the hot districts. Visitors could spend some weeks moving from one seaside town to another along the Ocean Road.”

At the trust’s first meeting 7,000 pounds were subscribed, of which 3000 came from Apollo Bay’s population. But such subscriptions were infrequent and various fund-raising schemes were resorted to including the sale of land along the Great Ocean Road’s planned course.

Work Gets Under Way

The task of surveying the road’s route was assigned to a party of returned soldiers led by Warrant Officer John Hassett. Expecting the job to take 3 months, they started work in August 1918 but, due to the difficult terrain, by March 1919 only 10 miles had been successfully pegged out.

The project was officially launched “with a bang” on Friday September 19, 1919 by the Victorian Premier. A series off charges was detonated near Lorne, although diggers had already been at work on the Great Ocean Road for a month. The Lorne-Apollo Bay section was to employ up to 50 men.

The Labourers

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During the 13 year construction period, nearly 3000 returned soldiers laboured on the Great Ocean Road. Bush camps were established near the construction areas, with the workforce at times numbering in the dozens and at times in the hundreds. The difficult and dangerous nature of the work led to a high level of turnover and a small number of deaths.

The soldiers were paid 10 shillings and sixpence ($1.05) for an eight-hour day and worked a half-day on Saturdays. Accommodation was in individual tents, with a communal dining marquee and a kitchen. Food cost up to 10 shillings week. The soldiers mixed hard labour with simple pleasures including swimming, fishing and hunting. The camps were equipped with a piano, gramophone, playing cards, games, newspapers and magazines.

Stranded high but not dry
In 1924 an old steamer, the Casino, became stranded near Cape Patton after hitting a reef. In order to float free it had to jettison its cargo, which included 500 barrels of beer and 120 cases of spirits. Naturally, the diggers helped themselves to the abandoned alcohol, which resulted in an unscheduled drinks break lasting two weeks.

The Official Opening No. 1 – 1922

The Lorne to Eastern View section of the Great Ocean Road was officially opened on Saturday, March 18, 1922. Major celebrations were held as nearly 80 cars full of tourists travelled to Lorne where an official reception was held. But the road’s opening was short-lived as it was closed from May 10th so further work could take place. When it re-opened on December 21st, tolls were introduced in a bid to meet construction costs. As the Great Ocean Road gained popularity, the tolls were quite lucrative, netting the trust some 250 pounds in the first four weeks. The tolls remained in place for the next 14 years until the trust was dissolved and the Great Ocean Road was handed over to the government in 1936.

In the middle of 1922 work recommenced on the original section of the Great Ocean Road with diggers employed to create a track between the Cumberland and St George’s rivers. Difficult terrain made progress extremely slow and it took another 10 years before the Great Ocean Road stretched from Geelong to Apollo Bay. Thousands of tonnes of rock were blasted into the ocean below as a roadway was slowly forged through.

The Official Opening – No. 2 – 1932

At long last, on April 27, 1932, the Great Ocean Road Trust announced the completion of the road and a second official opening was set for November. Including the sections completed by the Country Roads Board, the Great Ocean Road now extended all the way to Warrnambool.

On Saturday November 26, 1932 a weekend of festivities commenced. Celebrations included official dinners, displays of gliding and soaring, concerts, tennis, cricket, swimming, bonfires, fireworks, balls and fishing competitions. The Great Ocean Road was officially declared open at a ceremony near Lorne’s Grand Pacific Hotel, the site where the first survey peg for the road was hammered into the ground 14 years before.

On Friday October 2, 1936, the Great Ocean Road was gifted to the State Government by the Great Ocean Road trust. The deeds of the road were presented to the Victorian Premier, at a ceremony at the Cathedral Rock toll gate.

Memorials

The Great Ocean Road is recognised as the world’s largest war memorial and is dotted with numerous structures that honour the memory of those who lost their lives fighting in the First World War and other conflicts.
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Mt Defiance Memorial Wall
This section of the Great Ocean Road was the most problematical and took a fighting effort to blast out the route from almost perpendicular cliffs. A memorial wall and tablets were unveiled at Mt Defiance in 1935, honouring the contribution of Howard Hitchcock, the Great Ocean Road Trust’s founding president and the men who served in the Great War.

The Eastern View Memorial Arch
Four memorial arches have to date stood over the Great Ocean Road. The first was at the site of “The Springs” toll-gate, near Cathedral Rock. It read: “Returned Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Great Ocean Road” but was demolished in 1936 when tolls were removed.

A second Great Ocean Road arch was constructed at Eastern View in 1939. The arch weighed 50 tonnes and stood until 1970 when the Country Road Board indicated it wanted to demolish the arch because it was too narrow and a traffic hazard. A public outcry prevented its destruction, but the job was soon completed free of charge by a wayward truck.

In 1972 a third, larger arch was built also at Eastern View, but was reduced to charcoal by the devastating Ash Wednesday bushfires of February 1983. Initially it was decided not to replace the arch, but public opinion was too strong and a fourth Great Ocean Road arch was built on the same spot where today it remains a popular photo stop for visitors to the Great Ocean Road.