In Omeo’s early years , the only method of transport in the region was by horse or bullock.
Supplies had to be brought into the town by pack-horse and it was only in summer months that bullock drays could make the journey.
There were no roads, there were no bridges.
Loads had to be taken off and reloaded time and time again to enable the team to get through the mud and get up steep inclines. And wheels had to be continually chocked to stop the wagon rolling backwards.
The entire trip was hazardous.
On the tops of ridges, there was always the danger of going over the edge. Some hills were so steep that the only way of going down safely was to tie a tree behind to steady the wagon.
Creeks and rivers had to be continually crossed and horses and bullocks had to be rested along the journey, sometimes for days.
Bullocks were used to haul heavily laden wagons over some of the roughest roads and tracks in the country.
A good all-weather road system within the Omeo Shire, and beyond, was vital to its residents.
The town was always hindered and hampered by its isolation. It was not only always a task to get equipment to the area, but also to get funding from a state government so far away.
If the council was not battling against the elements – rain, snow, flooding, and bushfires, it was fighting state bureaucracy for necessary funds to carry out vital infrastructure works.
At the time Omeo was declared a township on April 7, 1885, a road, albeit the worst in the state, was in place connecting it with Bairnsdale.
The road, however, was barely fit for horses and bullock wagons, the latter frequently becoming bogged in wet weather. Flooding in the Tambo Valley regularly made the road impassable, and bridges were frequently washed away.
Over the coming years, construction of the Omeo Highway was to prove to be one of the toughest road construction projects in Australia, and one of the most costly per mile.
In August of 1890, Omeo streets and roads were named. They took their names from local eminent citizens and local councillors. Bazley Street, Bilton Street, Coughlan Street, Crisp Street, Gill Street, Hamilton Street, McCoy Street, and Margetts Street were all named by sitting councillors.
By the turn of the century, although constantly battling a lack of funds, the Omeo Shire had put hundreds of miles of roadway in place, and most streams had been bridged. The roads, however, were still bad, with construction being limited to the use of local material, as gravel could not be hauled long distances by horses and drays.
Horse teams were now being used to transport goods on the Omeo road, rather than bullocks. These proved faster, and were often provided by local farmers along the route. Bullock teams were reserved for carting heavier loads.
In 1905, a government regulation, the Width of Tyre Act was brought in requiring all vehicles to have tyres of a certain width, according to the load carried.
The Act was implemented with the aim of trying to avoid heavily laden vehicles travelling with thin tyres, and hence cutting up the road surfaces. It required heavy enforcing, and over time, did little good, with the mostly dirt roads eventually having to be strengthened with the inclusion of road metal.
By the time the first cars began to appear on roads in the region, the condition of roads was far from ideal. They were unsealed, and still prone to damage from rain, and flooding.
In time, however, motorcars began to appear on roads in the area.
At first, people were sceptical, and they were regarded as something of a menace.
Horses were scared of these noisy, strange-shaped, creatures, and often frequently bolted causing many accidents.
The motorcar was here to stay, however, and when it did arrive and its popularity grew, it began to change Omeo people’s lives.
In 1912, one of the first cars to visit was a vehicle owned by Syme of the Melbourne Age and driven by Mr Clive Watson of Bruthen.
The car was a Sheffield Simplex with a fixed gear that allowed it to race along the flat country, but unfortunately, stop on the hills, resulting in a six hour climb over the Tongio Gap.
In 1916, the first permanent motor mail service was established , replacing the old horse-drawn coach.
Mr J. (“Jimmy”) Marriott was awarded the contract to carry mail between Omeo and Bruthen.
This new mode of service was a wonderful improvement for the residents, but because of the condition of the roads, and the mechanical reliability of his cars, Mr Marriott had a great deal of trouble connecting with the train at Bruthen.
Sometimes the cars failed to reach Omeo at all, because of bad weather.
Attempts were made to improve the service, by having the train delayed and the time of departure from Omeo made earlier (6 am), thus allowing the mail cars eight hours to reach Bruthen.
The Postal Department approved the altered train timetable in 1918, but reliability was still an issue.
The often overloaded mail car frequently broke down, requiring the driver to make mechanical repairs along the way, and in bad weather, the roads were so bad, vehicles often became bogged.
In 1919, Mr Fred Condon, Mr Peter McCoy and Mr James Holston were the proud owners of the first three private motor cars in the district.
In 1921, the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria held their first reliability rally in the Omeo Shire.
Notices and warnings to drivers were posted along the road from Bruthen to Sunnyside, and local residents journeyed for some distance to watch the cars pass through.
All cars were laden with an array of spare parts, drivers being wary of the reputation of the region’s roads. Many had to call on the road foreman with his horses after succumbing to the Glen Wills – Sunnyside section of the route.
In 1923, the Alpine Transport Coy., started operations between Bruthen and Omeo, using Sentinel steam wagons.
Drivers of horse-drawn vehicles protested at the introduction of these steam trucks.
Horses were scared to pass or go near the hissing steam machines.
The first stream powered truck arrived in Omeo in 1932, carrying 14 containers of kerosene tins.
The steam trucks made a difference, but only enjoyed limited success.
Improvements in motor-powered trucks meant better reliability and faster transport, and consequently, they began to be the mode of choice, although horse wagons and an occasional bullock wagon still handled most of the heavy cartage for a time.
There were very few cars privately owned in the district.
Kracke’s store has purchased a motor truck and was the first to venture out as a motorist.
Mr J.O.Holston soon followed, but always rode a horse if he was in a hurry.
T model Fords were the most popular of the private cars, giving excellent service considering the rough state of the roads.
The first motor truck was purchased for use on the roads by the Omeo Shire, but it was some years before motor vehicles superseded the horses and drays for road works
Motor spirit (petrol), was sold in four-gallon tins, and in 1923, the Shire received applications from A.W.Newlands, Taylor Bros., Ensay, and Sandy’s Stores, Swifts Creek, for permission to install petrol pumps.
In 1927, motor vehicles were now more numerous on the highway, and Messrs T. Doolan, L. Pendergast, W. Kracke, S.N. Clark and Taylor Bros were operating commercial vehicles.
In the early 1930’s, Lorrel (Lorrie) Kracke rode the first motorbike to Omeo.
Children were running up and down the street sniffing petrol, such was the excitement generated.
The modern era had arrived, and Omeo and its surrounding districts were no longer as isolated as in the past.
Gradually roads and motoring facilities were improved, for residents, travellors, traders, and tourists benefited all.
Circa 1932, the first aeroplane arrived Omeo, 7:15 pm, after a 25 minute flight from Bairnsdale (Written on Benambra House note paper). The type of plane and exact date is uncertain.
References and photographic acknowledgement:
“Echoes from the Mountains” by A.M.Pearson
“Omeo Standard”newspaper, 1935, 1940.
“The Gap” Magazine, 1924, 1926.
W.A.Kracke, original photographs
Thank you Neil for your work, an enjoyable read.