Three roads up the 'hill': early challenges traversing Blue Mountains

Two centuries ago, only one road ascended the Blue Mountains eastern escarpment, built over six months in 1814-5 by William Cox.

It was repaired regularly by convict road gangs, with sections improved by William Lawson when Superintendent at Bathurst from 1819 until his 1824 retirement.

However, despite attempts to improve the ascent, the Lapstone monocline was still hard to maintain in trafficable order into the 1820s.

Cox himself had crossed the Nepean at Emu Ford, proceeding south along the river bank until he headed west at "the Long Hill". This was the first difficult section of the early road.

Governor and Lady Macquarie and their party in 1815 had no trouble traversing it but they were on horseback. Other travellers in buggies and drays were not so fortunate.

Even William Lawson himself, crossing the Nepean on July 21, 1815 with 100 cattle, found the journey up the eastern escarpment tiresome. The drovers and their dogs had to work hard to get the cattle safely to the summit.

Elizabeth Hawkins and her family in 1822 took almost a day to reach the top of Lapstone Hill. Although they had a buggy for Elizabeth, her mother and her seven younger children, the way was so steep that they all had to walk beside their vehicle.

Barron Field, again in 1822, complained about the hill and the inconvenience to travellers.

When he arrived in 1825, the new governor, Lt-General Ralph Darling, realised that he could not ignore the many complaints.

On January 6, 1826, he appointed William Dumaresq, Napoleonic campaign bridge-builder and his brother-in-law, Inspector of Roads and Bridges.

Dumaresq oversaw the construction of a new road further north from the old road, zig-zagging up the mountainside. Starting at the lowest point of the incline, this road ended 800 feet above on the summit. Sixteen bullocks and a dray took a whole day to climb the escarpment. The curves were especially problematic as the longer teams had difficulty navigating them. The road needed constant repairs, with Governor Darling suggesting stationing a permanent repair gang there.

Surveyor-General Thomas Mitchell thought a permanent repair gang a waste of resources. Instead, he constructed a third road up the eastern escarpment, midway between Dumaresq and Cox's roads. The road gang housed at Emu worked the road which had fewer curves to impede the bullock trains than on Dumaresq's (Old Bathurst) road, especially when David Lennox successfully bridged Brookside (Lapstone) Creek.

In July 1833, Governor Bourke traversed the new road to the Pilgrim Inn, near McDonald's in current Blaxland. This road with its stone bridge remained the main route west until 1926 when the road over Knapsack Viaduct was opened.

Robyne Ridge is publicity officer for Blue Mountains Historical Society