The ‘Old Tallangatta’ was situated where the Mitta Mitta River and the Tallangatta Creek meet. The land was the home of the Pallanganmiddang people, with the word Tallangatta derived from an Aboriginal word describing currawong trees.
The town was settled by Europeans in 1838 when pastoralists took up the Tallangatta pastoral run. As farming grew in popularity the town was provided with amenities, including The Victoria Hotel in 1856. The town was officially opened in the 1870s, with a post office and school opening in 1871, followed by churches, a library, state school, government receipt and pay offices, banks, a court house, private hospital, coffee palace, two breweries, and butter and cordial factories. The impressive 52 bedroom Tallangatta Hotel (pictured below) was built in 1888.
Gold and tin mining was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; whilst this venture was initially profitable it came to an end because the deeper reefs contained other metals as well as gold and the technology didn’t allow gold to be extracted in a profitable way.
‘Old Tallangatta’, which was colloquially known as ‘Toorak’, was split into two sections; the township and a housing area situated higher up across the Tallangatta Creek.
With no centralised rural water supply department, Towong Shire Council was responsible for the town’s water supply. Water was sourced from springs and tanks and there was no sewerage system in place. Former resident Ray Crispin remembers the ‘old dunny can’ that was used at his home.
Construction of the Wodonga to Cudgewa railway began in 1887, reaching Old Tallangatta in 1891. The railway transported livestock to Wodonga and also served the Mitta Mitta valley. Due to a labour shortage, Cudgewa was not reached until 1921, and with the arrival of the motor car Cudgewa became the terminus. During the 1960s the railway was used to transport goods for the construction of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, as well as to transport cattle and regular goods. The last regular goods train ran in 1978 with the line officially closing in 1978. Today the line is enjoyed as a cycling and walking trail.
Tallangatta and the construction of Lake Hume
Following successive years of severe drought in the 1890s and then a record dry year in 1902, it became clear that a water storage was needed to enable the winter flows to be stored and released as required during the drier summer months. A secure water supply was needed to provide for settlement along the Murray River and to support the extension of irrigation.
A conference was held in Corowa in 1902 to discuss an irrigation scheme for northern Victoria and southern Riverina. A Royal Commission on the River Murray was set up with input from Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia and this resulted in the report ‘Concerning the Conservation and Distribution of the Waters of the Murray and its Tributaries for the Purposes of Irrigation, Navigation and Water Supply’.
The Government envisioned that the construction of the dam would secure a reliable water supply, thereby encouraging settlement and bringing prosperity to the region. It would also create a land ‘fit for heroes’, specifically for veterans returning from the First World War.
It took 10 years for New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia to reach an agreement for the regulation and sharing of the waters of the Murray River. In November 1915 the River Murray Water Agreement was ratified by Acts of Parliament and passed by the Commonwealth, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.
In 1916, the spot where the Murray and Mitta Mitta Rivers met was chosen as the site for the major water storage that is Lake Hume. The storage was to serve the needs of river navigation and to provide reliable water for annual irrigation downstream.
The dam was designed by engineers E M De Burgh (of the Department of Public Works NSW) and J S Dethridge (of the State Water Supply Commission of Victoria). The joint contracting authorities under the River Murray Commission were the New South Wales Department of Public Works and the Water Supply Commission of Victoria. There was a very clear divide between the two States with each setting up a construction camp on either side of the river. The discrepancies in the wages paid and the working conditions on either side of the river resulted in disgruntled workers and strikes.
Construction of Lake Hume commenced in 1919 and at the peak of construction 1,100 men were employed. The temporary township of Ebden was erected to house 500 workers and their families. Soldiers returning from war were given preference for the work, with hundreds of war veterans arriving in 1920 and helping build the dam.
Without the technology and machinery that exists today, the dam was built using very manual labour. This included the hand to hand passing of rock and picks, shovels and bare hands to fill the drays. Workers spent 48 hours each week undertaking this very physical manual labour (these hours were later reduced to 44 hours a week).
Steam power was widely used, with two steam grab cranes used in the early excavation of the quarry. Crushed rock was used rather than the smooth river gravel, and rocks were individually added to produce cyclopean concrete. The bricks were huge, some weighing up to 10 tonnes, and had to be cleaned with a high pressure hose and individually craned into wet concrete.
While the initial stage of the dam completed in 1936 left the town of old Tallangatta untouched, residents lived with a great sense of uncertainty for the future, which ultimately impeded the future growth of the town. It was well known by residents that any expansion of Lake Hume would see their town, their homes and businesses submerged.
Discussions to move the town of Tallangatta began in the late 1940s. Toorak was the area preferred by locals as it would leave the town more or less in the same spot but this was rejected by government in case the Hume Dam needed to be expanded, therefore flooding the town. Bolga was chosen as the new area for the town, with it being well above the water level of the enlarged dam.
Between 1950 and 1961 the size of the dam was increased to accommodate increased water flowing into the Murray River and to accommodate water from the Snowy Mountains Scheme. To make way for the expansion of the dam, more than 100 houses and 950 people were moved and relocated 8km west of the old site. Hotels, churches and other brick buildings were demolished. The moving of Tallangatta began in 1954 and was completed on 29 June 1956, at a cost of two and a half million pounds.
Former resident and local historian Ray Crispin was 13 years old at the time of the move. Ray recalls that the relocation of the town was a great adventure for many of the town’s children. He and a friend earned two pounds a week crawling under the houses and digging stump holes.
At the time, many of the homes were traditional Australian homes consisting of two rooms with an additional ‘lean-to’ added to the back of the home when children arrived. When the town of Tallangatta, was moved these houses were literally picked up, put on the back of trucks and moved to their new location. The extension to the house often fell off during transportation, but it was known that some residents didn’t mind this at all as it meant they would receive a new kitchen or bathroom as part of the compensation deal. Most houses were also given a new coat of paint and gardens.
However the move was a huge undertaking and a very stressful process for residents and business owners. Ray Crispin recalls the arguments regarding compensation and residents were concerned with what they would have in the new town. Ray recalls 50 business owners arguing over where their moved businesses would be located. Several people died during the process of the move, believed to be due to stress and worry. Ray’s father died of a heart attack a week after the move.
The moved town of Tallangatta was designed by Laurie Cullen, who was the Resident Engineer for the State Rivers Water Supply Commission. The town officially opened on 29 June 1956 by Sir William Slim, the Governor General. A rising Mitta Mitta River threatened to disrupt the opening. Almost 2,000 people witnessed the opening of the £1 million town and watched on as Sir William Slim laid the foundation stone of the new Shire offices. Mr Rylah, Deputy Premier, relaid the foundation stone of the old Shire Hall and Cr Sutherland re-laid the foundation stone of the original Roads Board Hall, one of the first civic buildings in the former town. President of Towong Shire, Councillor Fraser, unveiled a plaque to commemorate the opening.
As it was a planned township there was the opportunity to introduce water reticulation. Tallangatta was also one of the first towns to get sewerage, as detailed in an extract from The Argus on Saturday 30 June 1956:
“While many other towns in the State have poor water supply and no sewerage, residents of Tallangatta will have a 1 million gallon storage and an up-to-date sewerage system.”
For the first time houses would have indoor bathrooms with an indoor-sewered toilet. The new town also boasted electric light, a civic square, modern homes, ‘one of Australia’s most modern camping grounds’, kerb to kerb sealing of streets and a new sports centre.
There were only a small number of cars in the town and bicycles were a popular mode of transport. At the town’s two hotels, men and women were segregated with a ladies lounge and main bar. Hardware stores, butchers, hairdressers and barbers, garages and plumbers served the town.
New brick houses were built and the majority of businesses and civic buildings were rebuilt in the 1950s style. The architecture of that era remains today and is celebrated with the annual Fifties Festival.
North East Water
As North East Water adopted the reins for Tallangatta, it also inherited a storied history of inconsistent drinking water quality. After being asked to move to allow Lake Hume greater storage, the town struggled with attaining quality drinking water, and issue North East Water set about to rectify. A new water treatment plant was constructed and opened in June 1999.
Over the following two years, significant investment was made into Tallangatta’s wastewater services, with plant upgrades ($340K), an 84ML winter storage ($806K) and a pipeline for irrigation use ($268K). The winter storage – a clay lined lagoon for storing treated wastewater for reuse – both assisted the area’s agricultural needs and reduced the need for discharge into Lake Hume.