Backward Glance – Timber getters and sawmills
  • Wednesday 09 January 2019

Timber getters and their bullock teams are long gone, however they played a major role in the development of early Near North Coast settlements.

Timber getters arrived long before the pioneering families, who later turned cleared timber areas into farmland and townships sprung up close by.

By the 1860s, trees were being felled in the North Coast region in great numbers.

In 1859, Queensland was declared a separate state and the government encouraged new settlement.

In 1881, Campbellville had the first mill on the Near North Coast, the early site of Campbellville and its mill is now gone.

The mill and township was deep within the forestry region of Beerwah, the site was chosen due to the fresh water available from the upper reaches of Coochin Creek.

Prior to the North Coast railway opening in the early 1890s, timber was sent by boat from Campbellville, near the junction of Mellum and Coochin creeks, down through Pumicestone Passage or by sea from Mooloolah Heads. 

It was the second of eleven sawmills owned by James Campbell and Sons between 1876 and 1936.

Alfred Delisser, a contract surveyor who had named the Nullarbor Plain, surveyed the North Coast Railway Line in 1882.

Construction required timber, mainly ironbark for sleepers and softer woods for building railway stations and gate houses.

By 1900 the need for railway sleepers had grown enormously, providing work for many timber getters and sawmills.

With the establishment of the railway line, bullock teams hauled the timber out of the forests and from the saw mills to the railway stations to be loaded onto trains for the journey to Brisbane. 

It was not uncommon to see many bullock teams in and around railway yards at one time. 

Many early timber mills were placed near fresh water which provided water for steam driven engines.

The extensive stands of timber across the region, lining the river banks as well as the hill country of the Blackall Ranges, is referred to in many early accounts of the North Coast’s history.

The dominant timber species were soft woods, such as Hoop and Bunya pine, as well as other cabinet timbers.

A rainforest tree of major significance was the mighty Cedar tree, which at times had a circumference in excess of three metres.

By 1906 Cedar faced commercial extinction and one third of Queensland’s Hoop and Bunya pine had been removed.

The bush men wielded many tools of trade including the axe, cross-cut saw, barking bar, maul, wedges and the brush hook.

The brush hook was an important tool used to clear the undergrowth and provide bullocks a clear pathway, otherwise they could be injured by sharply cut saplings. 

A good bullock was a valuable resource. Two good leading bullocks were essential, as well as two bullocks at the rear known as the polers.

Mustering and yoking 24 bullocks could take up to two hours. Each bullock had a name and recognised it when spoken to. 

Bullock teams hauled logs to a waterway, or in the steep country to chutes, where the logs could be launched.

There is evidence of chutes on the hills of the Blackall Range.

Many of the lookouts in the high country were original chutes, used frequently over long periods, these steep sliding tracks became known by the names of those who were first associated with them (e.g. Landers Chute and McCarthy’s Chute).

To shoot a log it was sent end over first, although it sometimes changed course on the way down, smashing into other trees and boulders on its passage down the steep slope.

The sale of timber helped many struggling families as they tried to make a living or establish their farms.

Pioneers constructed their homes from the trees cut on their selections using the pit saw method.

The industry provided jobs as most local people were employed or supported by the timber industry, including store keepers, timber getters, bullockies, sawmill operators and office employees.

There were a number of mills throughout the region.

Thomas Bartholomew established Woombye’s first sawmill in 1896.  

Bartholomew’s went on to become one of the biggest sawmills on the North Coast, bringing prosperity and employment.

Dyers established a saw mill on the eastern side of the Landsborough Railway Line on a spur line directly to the mill.

A young Pius Imberger lost his first mill to fire on Mount Mellum in 1919. 

He then relocated and operated a steam powered mill from 1923 to 1940 in the vicinity of the Landsborough Memorial Hall. 

Mill Park on Simpson Street, Beerwah was the site of Simpson’s Sawmill which began operations in 1901.

A mill was located on Harpers Creek Road, Conondale with the Tilney brothers Eddie and Ossie the first owners.

In the early 1900s, Kenneth Grigor operated a mill in the top paddock at Bankfoot House, Glass House Mountains.

Fires destroyed lots of the mills over the years due to combustion in the sawdust and sparks flying.

Each town has its stories and most towns experienced mill fires and unfortunate accidents.

Nambour’s Frank Cunning cut railway sleepers on his father's property.

He was the son of William Cunning Junior, a pioneer of the Tanawha district.

He later purchased sawmills at Kiel Mountain (1960), Forest Glen (1968) and Nambour (1973) and also tended cattle on a 100ha property along Sippy Creek.

He lived in Tanawha for 40 years before retiring to Maroochydore.

The worldwide depression in the 1930s brought a major economical downturn. This economic situation effected the timber and sawmilling industry. Many workers were laid off and some family mills closed.

Where possible, the mills kept their assets and reopened once the Great Depression lifted. People did anything they could to try and make a living.

The increase of banana and fruit growing created a demand for cheap pre-cut timber to make fruit cases.

Throughout the district, numerous case mills sprang up specifically to supply this trade.

The case mills supplied banana, citrus and pineapple cases as well as ginger and pineapple bins.

Usually the timbers were cut at the small family mills and the cases assembled in the fruit growing districts.

Case mills represented much smaller investments for the owners.

Each case was stencilled with the growers name and the name of the selling agent in the larger cities.

Some of the case mill owners in the district included Aub Joseph who established a case mill at Bridge Creek in 1944 and another at Diamond Valley, Mooloolah in the 1930s.

Ernest Niesler operated a case mill at Meridan Plains during World War II and was set up to supply the army and local fruit growers.

In 1948, Ron Parkinson and Chris Christensen built a case mill at Golden Beach opposite Military Jetty to manufacture pineapple cases.

The case mill industry had almost disappeared by the mid-1960s when cardboard and plastic packaging replaced the wooden fruit case.

Today, it’s hard to imagine what it was like in the forests of that time - the singing sound as the saws cut to and fro into the trees, the crashing of timber, the thundering of logs hurtling down the chutes and the crack of the bullockies whip.

The buzz of sawmills could be heard in most towns across the region.

Thanks to Sunshine Coast Council’s Heritage Library Officers for the words and Picture Sunshine Coast for the images.


Image details 

Hero: Sawmill and home named 'Sandy Mount' owned by Alfred Skerman located in Factory Road, Maleny, 1921

Image 1: Owner and staff of Etheridge & Son sawmillEumundi, ca 1910. The mill was moved to Eumundi from Main Camp Road in 1900, and closed in 1938 after death of George Etheridge.

Image 2: Bella Dean making banana cases on the family property in the Eumundi District. Most fruit and some vegetables were packed in wooden cases made from timber from local sawmills.

Image 3: Pius (pop) Imberger sitting on a recently felled log in the Landsborough district, ca 1920

Image 4: Ferris and Draper children near the logs at Thurecht's Mill, ca 1930

Image 5: Foster's Sawmill at Cooloolabin, ca 1937. Albert J. Foster and his sons Victor and Frank began assembling the sawmill plant in May 1934 on land Albert leased from the Queensland Government. The mill operated at Cooloolabin until 1945, cutting all types of hardwood timber from State Forest 318. By 1938 the mill employed some seventeen men.

Image 6: Albert Foster and son transporting a boiler to their sawmill site at Cooloolabin, 1934

Image 7: Henry Dyer's sawmill, Landsborough, ca 1900

Image 8: Nipperess's bullock team hauling a wagon load of log timber along Currie Street, Nambour, 1955. Picture taken in the year that team owner Russell Nipperess (right) retired after twenty-five years of bullock driving in Nambour. He then took up work in Jefferies Sawmill at Kulangor and sold his remaining bullocks at the end of 1955 when he found it impossible to get feeding paddocks for them.

Image 9: Aubrey Low with his bullock team, Eumundi, ca 1945. Aubrey Low (1900-1967) was the son of William Clark Low (the first European child to be born in Yandina). He began timber getting in 1920 with 6 bullocks and by the 1940s he had built up to three bullock teams. He supplied timber to the Forestry Department as well as to mills in various localities including Brisbane.