Mountains of Ash

A History of the Sawmills and Tramways of Warburton and District

By Mike McCarthy

When I pulled this 1.5 kilogram hardcover A4 book out of its protective cardboard mailer the quality of this production was obvious. It sets a production standard that few publishers aspire too. I opened the cover and the atmosphere is set by the superb illustration of three men each guiding a double-bogie load of sawn timber down a steeply-graded wooden-railed tramway snaking through the forest. This was an excellent choice for so many Warburton Tramways used gravitation as their motive power. (Page 106 reveals where it was.)

I always scan a book first. One with ante-title and title pages, and a full page frontispiece for every chapter! There are many more full page photographs, of superb quality and a number are bled out to the edges of the page where this was an appropriate choice.

As you would expect for a history of the era, the photographs are monochrome. A number of them are in sepia which not only adds interest but also gives a better quality reproduction through a double-printing process. There are hundreds of photographs, full, half, third and quarter page, all close to the text they illustrate, and arranged with variety. The captions have been well written to help the reader understand each scene.

The text is arranged in two columns, something I regard as essential for an A4 format. The chapters have appropriate sub-headings. The only colour illustration is on the cover, a reproduction of a tramway painting. The publishers have opted for a dust jacket rather than the now common process of printing on the cover with a celloglase finish. The book ends satisfyingly with endnotes, bibliography and index.

Another striking feature of this book is its maps and diagrams. Most of the book’s 13 chapters cover a geographical section of the Warburton forests, a treatment that is appropriate given the richness of the sawmilling and tramway activity of this small area - less than a 1000 square kilometres is small by Australian standards. Each of these chapters has its own large map, complete with contours, very valuable in understanding the tramways and their construction. Many had astonishing grades. The use of green and brown helps make these complex maps clearer, and the distinction between tramways covered in the chapter and others is a nice touch.

I am pleased to have had these first impressions and to have read three chapters before I knew I was to review the book.

The text quickly demonstrates that this is a painstaking compilation of decades of meticulous research. Mike McCarthy has thoroughly mastered the intricacies and complexities of the subject. So many diverse tramways are described that there is no room for padding in these 320 pages. Tramway operations are clearly the main focus of this book but it is still true to its subtitle. Mill development, changes in ownership and the processes of acquiring leases of forests are treated well, and are vital to understanding tramway construction and operation.

The book begins with an introductory chapter explaining the construction of the railway and its role in the economic exploitation of the forests. It has a map with all the tramways marked, although thicker black lines would have shown clearly how numerous and pervasive they were. I would recommend consulting Appendices 1 and 2 at this point. The map of the carve-up of the forests on page 297 is a useful adjunct to the whole book. The locality map on page 1 is rather perfunctory and fails to mark Lilydale (at the junction of the Healesville and Warburton railways).

Although the book was printed in Hong Kong the end product shows no weakness from that cause. There are a few quirks in the typesetting of the early pages. Some large numbers have been split between two lines. Typographical errors are few, and so I mention the caption on page 219 to prove I found one. ‘Picnicer’ appears consistently instead of picnicker. I am pleased that original measurements were retained, but the conversion table is of uneven accuracy (especially hectares) and conversions for miles and tons are not correctly rounded.

With so many competing and cooperating sawmillers operating in a small area, this is a text for serious reading. While the geographical treatment works well for the early chapters, the complexity in the later chapters is challenging. The chapters are arranged in a steady development but the numerous interacting players and places are a test on the memory of those not familiar with the area. It is useful to refer back to previous chapters and maps which sometimes need careful study, as some important streams are noted in quite small lettering. The text shows care in writing and editing but in places I wanted more active than passive verbs. Only a few sentences had me puzzling over their meaning. I would have liked at the end to have learned the fate of the railway, more of the present state of the forests and how the Sanitarium Company came to be so pervasive.

I came to this book well aware of wooden-railed and incline tramways, but not of this area. I was still amazed by many achievements of sawmillers who, with scant capital and little fuss, built and operated tramways to heights above 1000 metres and through terrain that looked impossible. The ability, stamina and imagination of those involved is a constant theme. It is interesting that so much was achieved with a comparatively small number of steam locomotives and tractors involved. Some readers may wish to have more explanation of basic sawmilling and tramway construction practice.

For me the chapters on the Mississippi Creek and Warburton Steam Tramways were highlights, chiefly because of the opportunity to examine a single operation in more detail and over a greater span of time. ‘Towards Starvo’ gives a wonderful insight into the ingenuity and perseverance of a single individual undertaking a tremendous task and his interaction with the government regulator. There are many people in this book, including women and children, and much to illuminate the social role of the tramway. How rural lifestyles have changed. There was little room for luxury and the only villain in the book was the company, which found itself able to make handsome profits while most millers made little more than wages and ploughed profits into capital assets with a limited life.

This is a book for anyone interested in tramways, the forests, or the Warburton district to enjoy and appreciate a great labour of love.

John Kerr