Wangaratta, Victoria: Travel guide and things to do

Wangaratta is a regional capital of some 17 500 people located 233 km north-east of Melbourne via the Hume Freeway and 150 m above sea-level. It is also the northern starting point of the Great Alpine Road. The plentiful water supply must have been a major attraction to early settlers. The Ovens and King Rivers, which wind tortuously through the eastern section of town, meet at Wangaratta, leaving a number of lagoons and billabongs in their wake. Furthermore, Three Mile Creek runs along the western edge of town and One Mile Creek through the centre. Plenty of parkland has been preserved.

The area around Wangaratta is one of the country's major producers of wine although local agricultural production is diverse. Within the city itself are several textiles plants, light engineering works and an extensive retail sector.

Prior to European settlement the area was occupied by the Pangerang Aborigines. The first white men in the area were probably the explorers Hume and Hovell who crossed the river 22 km downstream of the present townsite in 1824. They named the river Ovens after Irish-born soldier and chief engineer of NSW Major John Ovens (an aide-de-camp to Governor Brisbane).

Surveyor Thomas Mitchell crossed the river on or near the townsite during his 'Australia Felix' expedition of 1836 which effectively delineated the first Sydney-Melbourne Road. As Melbourne emerged others followed in his wake, fording the river on the future townsite which became known as the Ovens Crossing Place.

Meanwhile, George Faithfull established the 'Wangaratta' cattle station on the Ovens River in 1837 or 1838. He had plans to push further south but, when overlanders in his employ headed south from this point, they were killed by Aborigines (see entry on Benalla) and he decided to remain at 'Wangaratta'. The name derived from an Aboriginal term possibly meaning 'nesting place of cormorants'.

The first settler at the actual crossing site was Thomas Rattray who established a sly grog shop and a punt service adjacent the southern riverbank in 1838 to capitalise on the growing through-traffic. The following year the enterprise was sold to William Clark, regarded as the 'Father of Wangaratta'. He built a slab-timber store with a bark roof and 4-cm slits in the slabs instead of windows, to prevent ingress for attacking Aborigines and to enable the egress of gunfire. He later built a larger and better structure which served as the Hope Inn. A postal outlet opened in 1843.

John Bond then built a slab-and-bark store and inn on the other side of the river where noted Presbyterian clergyman John Dunmore Lang stayed in 1846.

A settlement of slab-and-bark structures began to appear by the crossing with the first brick building erected in 1848. The township was laid out the following year.

In the early 1850s the settlement was almost deserted as people flocked to the new gold diggings but it soon began to prosper from the traffic to the Ovens diggings and the subsequent demand for produce and fresh meat. More town allotments were sold in 1855 - the year a bridge over the Ovens River replaced the old punt service which had recently been manned by a gentleman who had been providing information about stock traffic to horse and cattle thieves. After the bridge appeared he became a bushranger.


The location of the bridge caused some surprise. Legend has it that the surveyor was thrown out of Clark's inn and he therefore recommended the Murphy St site to steer custom away from Clark who was situated in Ovens St.

In all, ten inns emerged and a brewery but it was the town's role as a service centre which held the key to its development. A courthouse was erected in 1859 and the settlement became a borough in 1863. Work began on St Patrick's Catholic Church in 1865.

Notorious bushranger Dan 'Mad Dog' Morgan committed some robberies in the area in 1860 after breaching his ticket-of-leave conditions. On about April 2, 1865 he stole a racehorse at Tarrawingee, 11 km south-east of Wangaratta, headed south-east to Tawonga, then north-west. On April 8 he bailed up a property 13 km west of Wangaratta and forced the women to make him breakfast. When some neighbours passed by he took their finest horse and gave false indications of his intentions.

Morgan then got lost in dense bush until he encountered Robert Telford, the overseer of Peechelba Station, 35 km north of Wangaratta. Telford was forced, at gunpoint, to take Morgan to the homestead where he gathered the household together and assured them he only wanted a horse and a meal. Morgan had not slept for five days and was evidently starved of company for he relaxed and chatted and stayed overnight instead of capitalising on his lead.

In the course of the night servant girls escaped and informed a nearby neighbour who gathered arms and sent word to the police at Wangaratta. Overnight, troopers and civilians surrounded the homestead and waited until Morgan emerged at about 8.00 a.m. Although Superintendant Cobham told the posse that he favoured a shot to the legs so Morgan could be caught alive, a stationhand, John Wendlan (who was perhaps anxious to be the man to bring Morgan down) fired the only shot. The bullet hit the bushranger's shoulder and then pierced his throat. He was dragged to a woolshed where he died nearly six hours later.

Popular demand led to the brief public display of his body at Wangaratta where it was lain against some wool bales, revolver in hand and eyes propped open with matchsticks for a safe photo opportunity. Superintendant Cobham had Morgan's beard skinned from his face as a souvenir (he took it to Benalla and had it pegged out to dry) and other sources suggest that tobacco pouches were made from his scrotum and other portions of his skin.

Furthemore, Morgan's reputation as a gorilla-like sub-human and a criminal prone to psychopathic rages aroused the interest of the medical fraternity. Consequently, Morgan was decapitated and his head was sent to Melbourne for phrenological studies aimed at seeking physiological correspondences to his criminality.

The humiliation of his corpse caused an outcry in some quarters and both Superintendant Cobham and Dr Dobbyn (the coroner) were suspended until local support caused their reinstatement. After arguments about the 1000 pounds reward, Wendlan's pre-emptive strike paid off. He received half the money, with the servant girls, volunteers and police divying up the remainder.

Another famous bushranger who spent most of his life in the Wangaratta district (see entries on Euroa,Glenrowan and Beechworth) was Ned Kelly. Prior to being outlawed he also worked as a builder in the area and some of his handiwork is thought to have been carried out on the Catholic Church at Boorhaman (19 km north of Wangaratta) and at Tarrawingee.

The railway arrived at Wangaratta in 1873 and, by 1884, the town had around 1400 residents, four churches, three flour mills, a tobacco factory, two breweries, several foundries, a tannery, a hospital and a town hall. A theatre in Murphy St served as a venue for Dame Nellie Melba at the turn of the century.

A wool-processing mill was opened by local citizens in 1923 for the advancement of the community and textiles have remained important to the city to this day. In the years since World War II Wangaratta has become a prosperous business centre. It was declared a city in 1959.

The Wangaratta Rural Expo is held in February at the Wangaratta Livestock Selling Complex and the Agricultural Show in October. The major local event on the calendar is the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues which attracts artists of genuinely international stature. It incorporates the National Jazz Awards and is held on the Melbourne Cup weekend in November. Two regional events are the Winery Walkabout on the Queen's Birthday weekend in June and March's Wine and Food Weekend.

Things to see

Tourist Information
The Wangaratta and Region Visitor Information Centre is located at the corner of Tone Rd and Handley St, tel: (03) 5721 5711. It is home to an unusual one-sixth scale model of a 1950s home which features some surprising miniatures and there are changing displays.

Historic Buildings in Town
The Information Centre has a 'Walk Through History' pamphlet delineating some of the town's historic buildings, although many have not survived the town's expansion.

St Patrick's Roman Catholic Church, faced with granite from the Warby Ranges, was designed by William Wardell in the Gothic Revival style. The initial construction was carried out between 1865 and 1871 although the nave was completed and a fine Gothic tower added in 1905. A wing was added to the sanctuary in the 1960s. Located at the corner of Ryley St (a section of the main road) and Ford St, it features some fine stained-glass windows.

The Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity (1908-09), at the corner of Ovens and Docker St, features a timber belfry with a peal of eight bells which were transferred from a disused church in Lancashire, England where they were cast in 1806. The interestingly patterned brick walls include a cement-coated brick from the first church on the site. Above it is a history of the church set in tiles.

Nearby is a two-storey Edwardian house known as Bishop's Lodge. It was built in 1904 as the residence of Wangaratta's first bishop after the church was declared a cathedral.

One of the city's oldest surviving buildings is the former ES & A Bank building (1875) at 49 Reid St. This two-storey rendered-brick structure is a Classical design with a three-bay facade erected around a central entrance with Doric columns.

The post office in Murphy St (a portion of the main road) dates from 1873 although it has been extensively altered.

'Warra' (1908) at 3 Murdoch Rd is a rambling private brick residence of an unusual design defined as 'Federation Art Nouveau' by the National Trust.

Wangaratta Cemetery
The cemetery, at the south-western end of town (corner of Tone Rd and Mason St), contains the headless body of notorious bushranger Dan 'Mad Dog' Morgan who was shot and killed at Peechalba station, 35 km north of town. After a gruesome public display and defilement of his corpse (see introduction to town) the remainder of his body was buried outside the cemetery's bourn. The fence was later relocated and the grave can now be found inside the small gate at the northern front end of the cemetery, near the toilet block.

Exhibitions Gallery
The Exhibitions Gallery is situated in the former Presbyterian Church (1898) in Ovens St. It has changing displays of photography, social history, architecture, fine arts, applied arts, jewellery and design with a focus on contemporary issues. It is open from 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday and from midday to 5 p.m. Sunday to Tuesday. Entry is free, tel: (03) 5722 0888.

Wangaratta Museum
The Wangaratta Museum is situated in the former fire station (1895) in Ford St. It displays local memorabilia and is open Sundays and most public holidays from 2.00 p.m. to 5.00 p.m.or by appointment, tel: (03) 5721 3095.

Merriwa Park
Merriwa Park (adjacent Murphy St) has a fine sunken garden. Wildlife can be seen adjacent the King River.

Air World
Air World is an aviation museum which boasts over 30 authentic vintage Australian aircraft, many of which are in operative condition. Other exhibits include aviation engines (including some of the first ever built) and antique bicycles. There is an aviation theme playground, a souvenir shop, a cafeteria and a restaurant. Guided tours are available by prior arrangement, as are joy flights in either vintage or modern craft. It is located 7 km south of town along the Greta Rd at the Wangaratta airport and is open daily, tel: (03) 5721 8788.

Tarrawingee, from an Aboriginal word said to mean 'plenty of water', is located 11 km south-east of Wangaratta on the Ovens Highway. An early squatter was Sir Francis Murphy, the speaker of Victoria's first Legislative Assembly.

At Tarrawingee the Beechworth road splits off from the Ovens Highway. Just a few houses along the Beechworth Road, set well back, is the Plough Inn, a two-storey hotel built in 1864 for Hopton Nolan from bricks manufactured on-site. An important coaching stop, it was allegedly patronised by Ned Kelly who worked at Tarrawingee for a period. A brick stable block is attached.

Adjacent are the 'Carinya' store and homestead, built in 1860 for Thomas Ladson but bought out by Nolan in 1880. Both are still in the hands of the Nolan family. The 12-room homestead features a ballroom, extensive cellars and original and antique furnishings. It is now a guesthouse although there is a tea room for the general public.

Also of ineterst are St Peter's Anglican Church (1866) and the Star Hotel (1860s) which is now a private residence.

Warby Range State Park
The Warby Range State Park (6880 hectares) is located 10km west of Wangaratta. Access is directly off the Hume Freeway with entry points from either Warby Range Road, Yarrawonga Road or Glenrowan-Boweya Road.

The area was first settled by Ben Warby (after whom the park is named) in 1844. It achieved a brief moment of notoriety when, for a time during the 1870s, it was thought that Ned Kelly was hiding in the ranges and observing the goings-on at Glenrowan from the top of Mount Glenrowan.

The park was established in 1978 and increased in size in 1989. It is characterised by waterfalls (particularly Briens Gorge Falls), a long, steep eastern escarpment, forest and woodlands of stringbark and red gum, extensive areas of spring-time wildflowers and blackboys, excellent views across to the Victorian Alps and an extensive range of wildlife including black wallabies, echidnas, wedge-tailed eagles, lorikeets, barking owls and sugar gliders.

The park has a number of walks. The most popular are the track to the summit of Mount Glenrowan (9.4 km return from the Taminick-Wangaratta Road), and the short walks to Briens Gorge Falls, Salisbury Falls and Jubilee Falls.

Ryans Lookout offers excellent views across to the Alps. It is accessed via Wangandry Road (which runs off the Yarrawonga Road). Winter and spring are the best times to view the park. For more information contact either the Ranger-in-Charge in Wangaratta on (03) 5721 5022 or the Glenrowan Tourist Centre on (03) 5766 2367.

Killawarra State Forest
The Killawarra State Forest lies at the northern end of Warby Range State Park yet it is characterised by rather different landscape and vegetation types - red ironbark, grey box, Blakely's wattle, heath and wallaby grass, populated by swamp wallabies, echinnas and bats. The Forest Camp Picnic Area was created on the site of an old internment camp used in World War II. Head north along the road towards Yarrawonga and turn off, heading west at the locality of Killawarra which is 15 km north of Wangaratta.