Wahgunyah

Wahgunyah
A small town on the Murray River.
Wahgunyah is a small Murray River town of some 500 people located 272 km north-east of Melbourne via Wangaratta which is 39 km to the south-west. As the river forms a substantial portion of the state border Corowa, just 2 km away on the other side of the river, is part of New South Wales. The main employer in town is the Uncle Toby's Factory although there are also four wineries in the vicinity.

The land around Wahgunyah was once occupied by the Whroo people, a subgroup of the Bangerang tribe. Charles Sturt explored the Murray River area in 1829-30 and, in 1838, led a droving party with 300 head of cattle through the district, en route to South Australia. It was also in 1838 that the party of John Foord set off from Yass with 1000 head of cattle, in search of fresh grazing land. Consequently, Foord and three business partners took up the 30 000-acre run known as 'Wahgunyah' (said to mean 'big camp') on the southern side of the river.

Their economic endeavours proved a success and were further enhanced by the opening up of the Victorian markets when river steamers appeared on the Murray in the early 1850s. At the same time gold was discovered at Beechworth and prospective diggers began flooding southwards over the river. Foord clearly saw an opportunity in the timing of these two developments. He purchased a punt, bought a steamship, built a flour mill, subdivided his holdings and established the private township of Wahgunyah to serve as the supply base between the river trade and the goldfields. He was also involved in the building of bond stores and hotels in the fledgling township. Settlers were encouraged to grow wheat for Foord's mill, as there was a ready market for local crops, and the township prospered as a river port, a trade depot and an important site for stock and passenger crossings. Many of the streets were named after members of the Foord family.

Gold was discovered on Foord's property, to the south of Wahgunyah, in 1858, leading to a major but short-lived goldrush. Initially known as Wahgunyah Rush, this became the town of Rutherglen.

The growing traffic of goods and people soon led to the accretion of a settlement on the northern bank. Foord purchased this land from the NSW government, had it surveyed and laid out in 1859 as North Wahgunyah, later renamed Corowa, although it was the southern settlement that initially prospered.

A privately-licensed toll bridge, made of local red gum, was erected across the Murray in 1862 by a company, in which Foord was the major shareholder, in order to facilitate the passage of the diggers south and of Riverina grain and timber to Foord's own mills. Not surprisingly, the presence of the timber in the context of a river town led to a substantial boat-building industry. The first winery in the district was established in 1851. St Leonard's Winery and All Saints Estate were both started in the 1860s and both are still in operation.

At its peak Wahgunyah had seven hotels and was the busiest Murray port upstream of Echuca. A considerable number of Chinese took up residence in the town and district during the gold days.

The furore of the gold days dissipated after the initial rushes and the river trade began to decline in the 1880s due to the development of the railway system, its extension to other Murray River towns, the unreliability of water levels, the lack of a national strategy for the interstate river trade and improvements in road transport.

Resentment over customs duties among the townships which faced each other across the Murray (and thus the state border) was intense. Local irritation played a crucial role in the lead-up to Federation (see entry on Corowa).

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Things to see:

Tourist Information
Rutherglen Visitor Information Centre can be called on (02) 6032 9166 or free-call (1800) 622 871.

The Murray
Rowing, canoeing, fishing, waterskiing and boating are popular along the Murray. Some of the local motels and caravan parks even have their own boat ramps. There are walking tracks at various points along the southern riverbank. From All Saints Estate you can walk north via Granthams Bend to St Leonards where there are fireplaces and tables. Up River Road extends east from All Saints Estate, past the Carlyle Comunity Hall (once Carlyle School) to a turnoff on the left (5.5 km from All Saints Estate) which leads to Shaws Flats where there is a walking trail, together with fireplaces, tables and camping opportunities. 2 km further east along Up River Rd is another turnoff on the left to Police Paddocks where, once again, there is a walking trail, together with fireplaces, tables and camping opportunities. Stantons Bend is to the west of town.

The Wahgunyah Collection
The Wahgunyah Collection is located at the entrance to John Foord Bridge over the Murray River. It is essentially an outdoor display of photographs relating to the history of the town. They are behind glass and under an awning.

Historic Buildings of Foord St
Opposite the Wahgunyah Collection, at the corner of Mill and Foord Sts, is Customs House (1886), a single-storey building with polychrome brickwork, round-arched windows and iron finials atop the slate roof. Restored to original condition, it is a material reminder of the days when the town was a busy and important river port.

The old two-storey Wahgunyah post office and residence (1863) is now a private domicile. The wooden shop adjacent was once a Coffee Palace, one of a chain of temperance hotels throughout Victoria. The present post office began its life as the Bank of Victoria.

The Empire Hotel (1861) once dispatched coaches to the goldfields twice daily and Feathers and Fin, opposite Mrs Mouse's Tea House, was originally the Wahgunyah Hotel which was built by town founder John Foord in 1861. It was also the booking office for Cobb & Co coaches which ran daily to Melbourne.

The Mass Tree
It was under the Mass Tree, a red gum in Short St, that Wahgunyah's first Catholic service was held in a tent in 1869.

All Saints Estate
All Saints Estate was established in 1864, making it one of the state's oldest wineries. It is located 4 km north-east of town on All Saints Rd (turn left off the Rutherglen Rd 1 km out of Wahgunyah). A wide range of grape types, red and white, are grown with fortified wines a speciality. The cellar door is open from 9.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. every day but Sunday when it opens at 10.00 a.m., tel: (02) 6035 2222 There are picnic, barbecue and children's play facilities and the Terrace Restaurant serves morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea every day, tel: (02) 6033 1922.

George Smith, the estate's first proprietor, became the first Australian to win an international gold medal for wine, at Vienna in 1873. The main building, classified by the National Trust, dates from 1878 and is modeled on the Castle of Mey in Scotland. It consists of a series of extensive above-ground cellars, containing large timber vats (thought to be the largest oak wine storage in the country), surrounded by castellated brick walls with a square corner tower.

The Winemakers Hall of Fame is based in the old bottling hall and has a display on the history of winemaking in the region. There is a display relating to each winery of north-east Victoria with related vintages and photographs.

The heavy presence of Chinese settlers from the gold days is commemorated in the form of a substantial Chinese dormitory (1869) which was used as living and eating quarters for the Chinese vineyard workers.

The Rutherglen Keg Factory is located in the grounds of the estate. There you can watch a cooper plying his trade in the traditional manner from Wednesday to Sunday. He constructs and sells hand-crafted kegs which are made from old wine barrels, tel: (02) 6033 4343.

From All Saints Estate you can walk north via Granthams Bend to St Leonards where there are fireplaces and tables.

St Leonard's Winery
St Leonards Winery, established in 1862, is located along St Leonards Rd (which heads off All Saints Rd just north of All Saints Estate), 6 km north east of Wahgunyah. It is named after the Scottish birthplace of the original owner and now belongs to the Brown Brothers of Milawa, as does All Saints. The cellars are well over a century old.

Fortified wines and quality table wines are the focus of present production and the winery is currently open from Thursday to Sunday from 11.00 a.m. to 3.00 p.m. There is a picnic-barbecue area with children's play facilities and Le Bistro is open weekends from 11.00 a.m. to 3.00 p.m. (bookings are essential). Ring (02) 6033 1004.

Cofield Wines
Cofield Wines, a small family operation established in 1990, produces red and white table wines as well as traditionally manufactured red and white sparkling wines. It is located 1 km south of town on Distillery Rd and displays a collection of carefully restored oil engines. They are open daily from 9.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. except on Sundays when they open at 10.00 a.m. There are undercover picnic facilities and a cafe, which is open every day but Tuesday, tel: (02) 6033 3798.

Pioneer Cemetery
A few metres past Cofield's is a turnoff to the Pioneer Cemetery (1859-86) where town founder John Foord and his family are interred. There is an information board at the site.

Pfeiffer Wines
Further along Distillery Rd are Pfeiffer Wines, a small family enterprise established in 1984. The tasting rooms are situated within the old brick distillery after which the road is named. There are picnic and barbecue facilities and gourmet picnic hampers can be arranged with prior notice. There are walking trails which lead along Sunday Creek and to the Murray River, tel: (02) 6033 2805.

Carlyle Cemetery
Just past Pfeiffer's there is a 90-degree bend where the road heads off to the right. Just along here is the Carlyle cemetery (commenced in 1865) where there are Chinese burning towers from the goldrush era. There is an information board at the site.

Just to the south-west is Lake Moodemere (see entry on Rutherglen).

Motel Riverside Wahgunyah
Short St
Wahgunyah VIC 3687
Telephone: (02) 6033 1608
Rating: ***

Wahgunyah Motel
59 Victoria St
Wahgunyah VIC 3687
Telephone: (02) 6033 1322

Empire Hotel
Foord St
Wahgunyah VIC 3687
Telephone: (02) 6033 1094

Le Bistro At St Leonards
St Leonards Rd
Wahgunyah VIC 3687
Telephone: (02) 6033 1004

Mrs Mouse's Teahouse
Foord St
Wahgunyah VIC 3687
Telephone: (02) 6033 1102

The Terrace Restaurant
All Saints Rd
Wahgunyah VIC 3687
Telephone: (02) 6033 1922