The Dorrigo Story
European knowledge of the Dorrigo Plateau began when 18 year old Richard Craig escaped from the notorious Moreton Bay Penal Settlement in 1830. Travelling south, he met and lived with friendly Aborigines on the Clarence River. During seasonal hunting trips, he explored the river to its headwaters including the western section of the Dorrigo, Guy Fawkes Plateau. After reporting the rich resources of the 'Big River', and eventually being pardoned, Craig returned and used his unique knowledge of the area to blaze a trail from Guy Fawkes (Ebor) to The Settlement (South Grafton). This track was known as Craig's Line and pioneered the traffic link between Grafton and Armidale, allowing the movement of large parties of new settlers into the Clarence Valley.
There is continued debate about the origin of the name Don Dorrigo, or as it is now more generally called, Dorrigo. It is often asserted that Major Parke, the first settler at Guy Fawkes, named Don Dorrigo after a Spanish General with whom he fought in the Spanish Carlist Wars. Edward Parke fought under General Shaw and General De Lacey Evans. It has been established by a local researcher in a recently published book, "Dorrigo and the Carlist Wars Connection", that the Spanish General Don Dorrigo never existed, according to the Spanish War Museum. However, other reports cite the Aboriginal name of the area, 'Dundurrigo', which is pronounced quickly and sharply and is thought to mean stringybark.This origin is the one officially recognised and registered by the Geographical Names Register of NSW."
By the early 1840s, cedar cutters were working the Bellinger River, scouring each successive coastal valley in their northward rush for 'red gold' as the valuable native red cedar was known. The precipitous escarpment halted their push upstream, and they soon moved on to more accessible cedar supplies in other valleys.It was not until 1857, when Mr M.Cloggen settled at Bostobrick from the west, that pit sawyers were sent into the forests of the Dorrigo Plateau. then known as the Bostobrick Cedar Scrub. Later settlers penetrated the scrub to claim natural clearings at Little Plain (North Dorrigo), and Paddys Plains, utilising the native grasses as feed for their bullock teams.
After felling by axe, these rainforest giants were cut up into flitches using a double-handed cross saw over a deep pit. In this difficult and dangerous work the cedar-cutters would draw straws for the "most distasteful task" of sawyer in the pit. Emerging from the gloomy rainforests after months of hard labour, sustained only by salt beef, damper, tea and sugar, they stood out from other outdoor bushworkers by being "as pallid as corpses".
Wastage of this beautiful and durable timber was enormous, only the best parts of the tree being used. Faced with dwindling cedar supplies, attention soon shifted to other valuable softwoods, such as rosewood, hoop pine and coachwood.
Government Botanist J.H. Maiden focussed attention and expectation on the Dorrigo Forest Reserve after a visit in 1893, detailing the variety, size and quality of the species in this spectacular area of rainforest. Previously, there had been sporadic logging via 'Fernyface Shoot', where logs were shot over the Dorrigo mountain edge down into the valley, but by 1900 the newly built mountain road to Bellingen facilitated "the almost daily departure of horse and bullock waggons with loads of the Dorrigo timber wealth". Hoop pine was the next timber bonanza, and several tramways and timber shoots were established to remove the giant logs from the plateau forests.
One of the most ambitious ' 'pine lines' was the Syndicate tramway, used to transport hoop pine down the mountainside north of Dibbs Head to Gleniffer between 1912 and 1928. The onset of World War One and completion of the railway to Dorrigo in 1924, followed by the Depression, all combined to bring this grand scheme to a close. However, tramway relics remain as mute sentinels of the pioneer era on the Syndicate Ridge Walking Track in Dorrigo National Park.
The improved access from the cast, and the 1894 release of small dairy blocks, encouraged the closer settlement of the Dorrigo Plateau. Word quickly spread of the agricultural potential of the area's deep basalt Soils, and with Government regulations requiring selectors to improve the value of their land, farmers immediately set to work to clear the scrub for pasture.
Rainforest clearing was backbreaking work. Trees were ringbarked or felled, and burnt in 'great conflagrations'.
"During the last twelve months it is estimated that fully 3,000 acres of timber have been committed to the flames so that at the present rate it will not be very long before the entire original scrub has disappeared." (Agricultural Gazette, 1911).
The 1917 Guide to the Dorrigo Shire extolled the plateau as "an enormous area of splendid, delightfully, watered agricultural and dairying lands, upon which are many smiling homesteads and herds of well-bred cattle and adds "notwithstanding wanton destruction of enormous areas of timber, magnificent supplies yet remain for posterity".
However, the luxuriance of the rainforest growth exaggerated the fertility of the underlying soils. Most of the valuable plant nutrients were derived from the rich and constantly recycled litter layer of the forest floor, and after forest clearing and subsequent burning, these nutrients were quickly depleted.
It was a hard life for early settlers, with distant markets and decreasing soil fertility offering poor returns. However, many were successful and dairying, beef cattle and logging are still major industries of Dorrigo today.