Timber has always been a major construction material in Australia. With the discovery of gold in the 1850s, rapid development commenced in many parts of the country. This lead to a huge demand for building materials. Taking advantage of fine stands of excellent hardwood in virgin forest, one of the major challenges facing the early sawmillers was transport.
Their problem was how to get this timber to the nearest railway, river or port. In winter roads were impassable and road metal was impossibly expensive. But the pioneers' ability to improvise lead to the construction of timber tramways. On closely packed sleepers wooden rails were laid, and trolleys, drawn by horses, carried the logs and sawn timber to the nearest railway station or jetty. During winter, many timber tramways also provided farmers with the only means of getting produce to the market.
As the timber industry developed the tramway networks grew. Steam locomotives and steel rails began to be used on some lines. Isolated sawmilling settlements in the depths of the forest were totally dependant on the tramways for their every need.
Ingenuity and economy characterised these tramways. Earthworks were kept to a minimum by extensive use of timber trestles, gullies were spanned by tall but flimsy bridges. Steep grades were surmounted by use of winches. It was in the 1940s that the construction of logging roads in forest areas lead to the wholesale abandonment of the tramways.
Today physical relics of these tramlines are rapidly decaying. Bridges are collapsing, thick vegetation grows on the roadbeds, while bulldozers have permanently destroyed many of the earthworks. But in some cases the tramway formations have been cleared to make excellent walking tracks.
Timber tramways operated in all states of Australia with the apparent exception of South Australia, where the dry climate did not lead to the growth of dense forests of tall hardwood trees. In Western Australia large companies were formed to extract the timber, and their tramways tended to be more sophisticated than those in the eastern states. The densest, most complex networks of tramways probably occurred in Tasmania and Victoria, in the areas about fifty miles to the south of Hobart, and fifty miles to the east of Melbourne.