A rich Indigenous and European heritage exists for the Wetlands and efforts are currently underway to prepare a Short History of the Jerrabomberra Wetlands. The 2013 Resources and Values of Jerrabomberra Wetlands describes the cultural heritage and values of the Reserve as follows:
Aboriginal Use and Connection
In this Report ‘cultural resources’ includes not only the archaeological and historic record, but also the continuing cultural and spiritual connection of Aboriginal people with Country. This includes inter-related values, places, stories, pathways, cultural practices and obligations for spiritual renewal, connection with ancestors, and managing natural resources.
The ACT Government acknowledges Ngunnawal people as Traditional Custodians of the Canberra region. The region is documented as an important meeting place with neighbouring clans, including Ngarigo from tablelands to the south, Wolgalu from the high country to the south-west, Wiradjuri from the north-west inland, Gundungurra from the north, and Yuin from the coast.
Past archaeological work conducted in the areas adjacent to the Reserve includes surveys of Fairbairn Avenue, Morshead Drive and Pialligo Avenue, Duntroon, Dairy Flat, Fyshwick and Pialligo.
A cultural heritage assessment was undertaken in 2009 of areas within the Reserve potentially affected by the proposed East Lake Electrical Infrastructure Implementation. The assessment included literature review and database searches, field inspections and Aboriginal consultation. This updated knowledge of historical Aboriginal use of the area.
Although ancient sand dunes to the north of Kellys Swamp have been identified as areas of archaeological sensitivity, test pits yielded no archaeological material. This suggests that the dunes were remote from a permanent water source.
An area with higher archaeological potential is located in slightly elevated ground near Jerrabomberra Creek and immediately northwest of the Reserve office, where Aboriginal people may have used material from the Tertiary gravels for stone tool manufacture. This area would also have been associated with the shoreline of a hypothetical Pleistocene lake.
In recent years significant change has occurred in the extent and nature of recognition and acceptance of continuing Aboriginal cultural and spiritual connection to Country. Acceptance of this living culture offers much richer stories of the first people in the landscape than can be conveyed in the archaeological record.
By the end of the 19th century, the local historic record is stocked with accounts of the ‘extinction’ of the Aboriginal inhabitants, from the combined effects of European diseases, removal from customary places and resources, restricted movement due to fencing, competition for food sources, acts of violence, inter-marriage with European settlers, and dispersal due to government policy.
Far from being ‘extinct’, Ngunnawal people are recognised as the Traditional Custodians of the area. Theirs is a living culture of interconnected relationship between nature, people, and the spirit of the land through their ancestors.
As I walk this beautiful Country of mine I stop, look and listen and remember the spirits from my ancestors surrounding me. That makes me stand tall and proud of who I am – a Ngunnawal warrior of today (Carl Brown Ngunnawal Elder, Wollabaloola Marriage)
When Aboriginal people care for the land they also care for their culture. Working on land management projects not only gives Aboriginal…people a sense of personal pride, it also affirms their identity through a cultural belonging and connection to the land, and has direct benefits on the health and financial wellbeing of their community. (ACT Government 2013)
Aboriginal Use of Landscape
Aboriginal people have lived in and used the landscapes of what is now the Canberra region for upwards of 25,000 years. Oral traditions, stories, pathways and connections go beyond what has been documented by Europeans in the historical record.
Early accounts of Aboriginal lifestyles in the vicinity of the Reserve describe aspects of a successful hunting and gathering economy and eventful social life and inter-group contacts.
People occupied the floodplain landscape through a long period of significant environmental change, adapting also to seasonal availability of food, water and other resources and weather effects such as wind, storms and cold air drainage. Aboriginal people engaged in a complex system of active land management using fire and ecological knowledge to sustain a supply of plant and animal resources throughout the year.
Their material culture included stone and wooden artefacts, fishing lines and snares made from animal tendons, rugs and cloaks made from skins, bark canoes and dwelling shelters made from bark and boughs. In the archaeological record, extensive and varied stone assemblages collected from the Pialligo area indicate that it was a large lowland campsite, with the Molonglo River and its floodplain acting as a focus for human use.
The European historic record attempts to interpret oral gathering of names for places and landscapes, and is prone to discrepancies. The name Molonglo appears to be derived from Moolinggoolah, a name applied to the headwaters of the river near Captains Flat. Charles Throsby recorded the name for this river as Yeal-am-bidgee, which may have been applied to its length up to the junction with the Jullergung or Queanbeyan River at Oaks Estate. From that junction until it terminates at the Murrumbidgee it appears to have been called the Ngambri, rendered by John Lhotsky as Kembery.
Pialligo is likely to be a rendition of the name Byalegee, recorded by Stewart Mowle of Yarralumla.
This probably applied to the area of the Reserve, and much of the landscape upstream from modern Mount Ainslie through Fyshwick to the outskirts of Queanbeyan.
The river valley provided diverse habitats to yield a variety of resources. The open grassy plains and surrounding timbered hills supported animals such as kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, echidnas, birds, snakes and lizards, and many smaller creatures such as grubs and insects.
In periods of high flow, the river carried plenty of fish. An early account describes a large group of Aboriginal people fishing in a ‘long waterhole’ in the Molonglo near the Duntroon Dairy (now Molonglo Reach). In 1834 Lhotsky caught two cod in the Molonglo, each of which weighed about 13lbs (6kg).
In periods of low flow, it is likely that the supply of larger fish ran out, but the remaining ponds would have supported smaller fish, tortoises and yabbies.
Aboriginal people also made use of a wide variety of plant materials for food, fibre and medicine, drawn from forest, woodland, grassland and aquatic or wetland environments. Sources of materials for tools and weapons were well known, and material such as stone was traded between groups.
Periods of relatively abundant resources, such as the summer migration of Bogong moths to the high country, enabled large gatherings and corroborees for the purposes of ceremony and trade. These involved both inland groups and coastal groups. Campsites associated with corroborees included an area in the shelter of Mount Pleasant, later known as Duntroon.
Ngunnawal people recognise Jerrabomberra Creek (or Girimbombery or Giridombera) as a ceremonial pathway which guided visitors from the south to the central corroboree ground on the floodplain (now partly under Lake Burley Griffin). Stories relate that visitors would sit below Mount Jerrabomberra until they were formally welcomed to Country. They would then be accompanied to the junction of the creek and the river near what is now Kingston Foreshores, where they would wait until invited to join the corroboree. The last recorded corroboree on the Molonglo floodplain was in 1862.
An area on the north bank of the Molonglo adjacent to the Reserve appears to be the first camp site used by Europeans within the present ACT border. In 1820 a party led by Joseph Wild and including Charles Throsby Smith and James Vaughan wrote the first account of the district which became known as Limestone Plains, named for the outcrops of that stone which they found. Smith’s journal described the open landscape and recorded the sighting of Aboriginal campfire smoke.
Wild referred to the Molonglo as the Fish River during the ‘excursion’ of Capt Mark Currie to the Monaro in 1823, while visiting Polish naturalist John Lhotsky recorded it in 1834 as the Limestone.
The area near the confluence of the Molonglo River and Jerrabomberra Creek was first settled in 1825 when James Ainslie occupied the area with 700 sheep, on behalf of his employer Robert Campbell. Ainslie is said to have been guided by Aboriginal people to the well watered grasslands of this location (Pialligo/Byalegee). In 1830 Campbell arranged construction of a homestead Limestone Cottage on his property, using local stone, which was completed in 1833. The area of the Reserve was within a 5,000 acre block purchased by Campbell as part of his estate of Pialligo (later known as Duntroon). This block extended southwards from the Molonglo to the higher ground of Mugga Mugga.
Written descriptions from the 1820s suggest that the valley floor area was primarily natural temperate grassland below woodlands and forests on hills and ridges. It is likely that the combined action of cold air drainage, flood events, and soils would have favoured grassland over trees on the valley floor.
European settlers in the 1820s and 1830s recorded significant corroborees on the Molonglo, which place the floodplain in the context of regional-scale seasonal migrations and pathways from the coast, high country and inland areas.
From its initial settlement, the Duntroon estate used parts of the alluvial flats on the Molonglo River to grow vegetables, and in 1834 Lhotsky commented favourably on the quality and variety of garden produce grown there. Lhotsky stayed for six days at Limestone Cottage, by which time there were 20,000 sheep on the Campbell property. He described the view over the plains from the top of Cottage Hill (now Mount Pleasant), and cooled off in the dairy.
Many willows were planted along the Molonglo River from the mid 19th century, with one early account noting that in 1856 there were less than a dozen willows on the river, and a few years later they lined the bank from Duntroon to Yarralumla.
The Molonglo was highly variable and unpredictable, ranging from a chain of ponds to a flowing stream, well stocked with fish (hence the name Fish River).
It was traversed by fords which became impassable (and deadly to some) in periods of severe flooding, such as those in 1852, 1853 and the early 1860s, 1870, 1891 and into the next century. By contrast, in 1865 the river froze in winter with ice 4 inches thick, and the local population was able to skate.
During intervening dry periods, the Molonglo dried up to a disconnected, rather muddy chain of ponds. The same was true of Jerrabomberra Creek, which was in average times a chain of ponds and swampy flats, prone to low flow or intense flooding. In 1838 even the Murrumbidgee River was completely dry for more than half a mile above its junction with the Molonglo.
A series of severe droughts is recorded: from 1838-1842, when Campbell’s wheat crop was lost and the price of wool fell by 50%; in 1865 when the Duntroon estate lost half its sheep flock; another prolonged drought from 1875 to 1879; and again in 1885.
Landholders began ringbarking trees in around 1880. This is credited with causing springs to arise and dry creeks to flow, and the drought years of 1881 and 1885 were considered to be less severe.
From 1861 NSW legislation (the Robertson Acts) allowed people to purchase smaller holdings within leased Crown land. This enabled some closer settlement in the region, but did not affect the large portions on major watercourses which were allocated to the early settlers such as the Campbells.
Regional patterns of pastoral land use and localised cropping on river flats and floodplains would have remained fairly consistent for some decades, expanding in scale as local population grew. Production stepped up from the 1890s also as a result of mechanised agricultural technology, with steam-operated farm machines taking over from horsepower. Access to and from markets also improved when the railway came to Queanbeyan in 1887.
However, there were setbacks, with serious bush fires in 1888 and the prolonged ‘Federation Drought’ from 1895 to 1903, with grasshopper plagues in 1893, 1898 and 1902, bringing economic depression.
The year 1897 saw the passing of Nellie Hamilton, commonly described as the last full-blood Aboriginal person in the Limestone Plains district. She was a Ngarigo woman who had been married to Bobby Hamilton, a Ngunnawal (Ngambri) man.
There were no major changes to the ownership or use of the Reserve area until the land was acquired by the Commonwealth Government in 1912 for the establishment of the National Capital.
The Molonglo River was a crucial part of the decision about where to site the capital. One potential site (termed Mugga Mugga) was based on Campbell’s 5,000 acre block, with the low-lying floodplain inundated to form a lake. This site was passed over for the site at Canberra, immediately to the west.
The choice of site responded to requirements for a picturesque site as well as water supply to enable creation of artificial lakes and public gardens. Surveyor Charles Scrivener suggested that artificial ‘ornamental waters’ be created by damming the Molonglo River west of the proposed city site. This led to the establishment of gauging weirs on the Molonglo and Queanbeyan Rivers, to assess flows.
Walter Burley Griffin’s design for the city included numerous park-lined water features, including three formal central basins with circular and curved edges, and two informal lakes (West Lake and East Lake), which would cover the entire Molonglo flood plain. East Lake would have been some metres higher than the present Lake Burley Griffin, and would have inundated all of the area of the present Reserve as well as areas north of Fyshwick to Pialligo, up to the edge of the current airport runway.
The Territory Feature Map (c.1915) shows a track crossing the Molonglo River via a ford near Duntroon (Duntroon Crossing). The map also shows smaller fenced enclosures labelled Thistle Paddock, Crow and Magpie Paddock, Plantation Paddock, two Lucerne Paddocks, Pontoon Bend Paddock, and Mill House Paddock. To the south was the much larger Mugga Mugga Yard Paddock.
The name Mill House Paddock refers to George Campbell’s mill on the Duntroon estate, operated by John Gregory from the 1850s to 1876. This comprised a timber post windmill with a small stone mill house. This site is on high ground adjacent to the Fyshwick Sewerage Treatment Plant. The mill fell into disuse and was destroyed by a strong wind in 1874, although the cottage persisted for some decades after that. The area between the mill and the Molonglo was long referred to as Mill Flat.
This name was also applied to Mill Creek, now Jerrabomberra Creek, traversed by the Queanbeyan-Uriarra Road. The name endures in the Mill Creek Oval, which adjoins the creek at Narrabundah.
In 1914 a low level concrete causeway weir was constructed across the Molonglo just downstream of its junction with Jerrabomberra Creek, forming a pond for the steam cooling system of the power house at Kingston. A timber bridge with rope handrail was built on the weir to provide a pedestrian route across the Molonglo between Eastlake (Kingston) and Duntroon, later replaced with a concrete roadway. The cooling pond was a swimming hole well used by residents until the opening of Manuka Pool in 1931.
During the First World War, Mill Flat was used by the Royal Military College (RMC) Duntroon for encampment of personnel, for practising manoeuvres and for field engineering instruction such as erecting suspension and pontoon bridges.
In 1920 the Pontoon Bend Paddock was retained by RMC Duntroon when the rest of the floodplain was divided into ‘lucerne leases’ as Mill Flats Soldier Settlement Area. The area now within the Reserve was surveyed into nearly 20 parcels of land (around 20 to 40 acres), available for 25 to 35 years.
Soldier Settlement schemes aimed to repatriate soldiers returning after World War I and to boost population and infrastructure in regional areas. The scheme operated in Canberra from 1920 to 1927, available to returned soldiers with a good record who were residents of the Territory and had volunteered for active service abroad. They required evidence of previous farming experience and were issued leases for terms of one, five, twelve or twenty-five years.
The scheme worked well for some, while others relinquished their blocks due to falling farm commodity prices between 1920 and 1924, poor seasons in the late 1920s, and the Great Depression from 1929, coupled with small non-viable blocks, and over-capitalisation in expensive stock and equipment.
When the first train arrived at Canberra in 1914, it seemed to represent the beginning of Griffin’s ideal that the capital would have rail connection not only with the Goulburn-Cooma line through Queanbeyan or Bungendore, but also through to the ‘Great Southern Railway’ (the Sydney-Melbourne line) at Yass.
The Griffin plan for the City of Canberra included the Civic Railway line, from the Canberra Railway Yard to the north across the Molonglo River, to terminate (initially) in Civic. A timber trestle bridge across the Molonglo River was completed in 1918, and the railway was completed and opened in 1921, initially as a light construction railway, with plans to upgrade the line later.
To carry the line to the bridge across the Molonglo River, an elevated embankment or ‘causeway’ was constructed. Just north of the river crossing a long siding was built, most likely for transport of workers from the camp at Russell Hill (Mount Pleasant)-Duntroon.
The Civic Railway embankment was aligned on a spatial axis in the Griffin plan for the National Capital. The Causeway Axis formed the eastern limit of the central city area, linking Hume Circle with Russell, and intersecting with the Water Axis. This lent its name to the workers settlement at The Causeway.
Ultimately, Griffin’s plan was for a permanent weir to separate the central ornamental lake from the extensive East Lake. To enable construction of the temporary embankment, Jerrabomberra Creek was diverted into a newly cut channel, and the old creekline was filled in. The Civic railway bridge was severely damaged by floodwaters in 1922, lowering the rails into the river. The same flood forced Jerrabomberra Creek back to its original course, washing away much of the embankment and infill.
Another of the bridges destroyed in the 1922 flood was a 45m long suspension footbridge erected by RMC cadets across the Molonglo in 1916. Their engineering skills were put to good use in the record 1925 flood, when the cadets were able to restore access quickly to South Canberra with a pontoon bridge, in a flood often credited with providing a preview of the future Lake Burley Griffin.
The 1925 flood removed the last of the Civic railway bridge, and subsequent fire left ‘a twisted and somewhat disjointed line of sleepers across the Causeway flat and on the flats of the northern side of the river’. In 1927 a new railway alignment across the Molonglo floodplain was proposed, about 50 feet to the east. However, the line was never rebuilt.
The Mill Flats Soldier Settlement blocks would have been flooded in both 1922 and 1925. Perhaps prompted by the latter flood, they were replaced by larger commercial dairy leases (between 200 and 300 acres), offered by the Federal Government to commence early in 1926 for a period of ten years. Each of the dairy blocks bordered the Molonglo, and was provided with a residence, outbuildings and milking yard, built above the floodline. This change of land use lent an alternative name to the area as Dairy Flat, and the Duntroon Crossing became Dairy Flat Ford.
The better known dairy lessees included: No.1 David Cargill (Big Gun Dairy); No.2 E G Kelly (later Kelly Bros.) (Jersey Farm, Kanbra Jersey Stud); No. 3 Donald Murray (Murray’s Model Dairy) (later Sofus Frederiksen); and No. 4 Niels Nielson (Goldenholm Dairy) (later Alexander Stuart).
A 1949 cadastral map shows the area of the modern Reserve held by David Cargill (210 ac) and
T J Kelly (278 ac), plus a riverside area east of the ford held by Frederiksen. Significant areas of Dairy Flat were cultivated over time, and much of the area was irrigated.
One of the old lucerne leases, an area of 17 acres on the Molonglo, was initially excluded from the dairy area. This was leased by Reuben Hill for growing vegetables, possibly to supply RMC Duntroon. The Hill family later became notable market gardeners at Pialligo.
The dairies had fluctuating fortunes, through large floods in 1934 and 1945, shortages of fodder, wartime labour shortages, an outbreak of brucellosis, and withdrawal of land for sand and gravel extraction, residential development, and construction of road, bridge, railway, garbage disposal and other urban infrastructure.
At least some of the dairy farmers also grew commercial vegetable crops, particularly potatoes, in the years immediately following World War II. The alluvial flats along the Molonglo were rich and deep, and production of potatoes at times exceeded 15 tons per acre (compared with an average yield throughout NSW of 3.5 tons per acre). The Kelly Bros. succeeded in growing a crop of carrots that produced 30 tons per acre.
By the time of the 1933-1949 edition of the Feature Map, modern Pialligo had been divided into 5 to 10 acre blocks for ‘home-garden sites’, with two large market garden leases on the alluvial flats of the Molonglo, held by Reuben Hill and William Lloyd.
A formalised road on Dairy Flat led to the first Dairy Flat Bridge (or Duntroon Crossing Bridge), completed in 1937. This allowed cattle to be delivered to the Queanbeyan abattoirs without having to use Scotts Crossing (near Blundells Cottage), from which point cattle would frequently stray into Civic.
Near the bridge, Canberra Sand and Gravel began extraction operations ‘from Dairy Flat Road right opposite Duntroon’ in 1960. It is likely that these extraction operations disturbed areas on the left (southern) bank, leaving a series of depressions.
This was not the first sand and gravel extraction in the general vicinity. The power house was built from unreinforced concrete made with gravel from the Molonglo. Mill Creek (Jerrabomberra Creek) was also a major source of ‘good and clean’ sand for construction of early Canberra. This was processed through the Government Sandwash which began about 1925 on the rise above modern Bowen Drive.
A sequence of major heavy metal pollution events affected the Molonglo in 1939, 1942 and 1945, when mine tailings and dams collapsed at Captains Flat, about 70 km upstream from Canberra. These events had serious impacts on aquatic fauna.
In 1950 decision-makers deleted East Lake (and the Civic Railway) from the Canberra plan, on the grounds that the Molonglo would yield insufficient water to keep the lake filled, and to avoid flooding around 1,700 acres of farmland which was considered suitable for ‘market-gardening or intensive fodder-crop growing to support hand–feeding of dairy
Construction of what became Lake Burley Griffin commenced in 1960, finally filled in 1964. This led to a back-up of water into the Molonglo River, Jerrabomberra Creek, and former flood channels on Dairy Flat. The Dairy Flat Bridge was raised just above lake level, and was periodically inundated.
The filling of the lake led to rationalisation of minor sewerage systems in its catchment, and the Fyshwick Sewage Treatment Works was completed in 1967, with the capability to re-use treated effluent, unusual at that time.
Dairy Flat Road was officially gazetted as Dairy Road in 1968, despite opposition to changing the name. A new Dairy Flat Bridge was completed in 1984, as part of the planned Eastern Parkway, now the Monaro Highway extension. This reached Canberra Ave in 1989 and Newcastle St in 1991, and a new carriageway was completed in 2003 to replace access along Dairy Road. This removed the residence from dairy lease No.3.
From the 1980s until 2002 the ACT Department of Education & Training operated the Dairy Flat Farm (formerly Kellys Farm) as an experimental education centre. This was first used for off-campus curriculum options and later as the site of an Adolescent Development Program for students with significant behavioural, emotional, educational or social difficulties. During this period, the residence from dairy lease No.2 was removed.
After severe bushfires in January 2003 burned most of the buildings used by the Birrigai Outdoor School at Tidbinbilla, the ACT Government enabled it to move to the education centre at Jerrabomberra Wetlands as an alternative campus. This remained in use until the Tidbinbilla buildings were replaced, and the facilities passed to ACT Territory & Municipal Services.
Goldenholm was the last of the four Mill Flat dairy leases to cease operation. Having diversified into cool climate turf cultivation in the 1980’s, the farm was sold to Canturf in 2002. By this time, it also incorporated the remaining area of dairy lease No.3 on the eastern side of Dairy Road.
From around 2003, extensive redevelopment took place in the Wetlands Foreshore Business Park and the Kingston Foreshores area, intensifying residential and commercial densities in close proximity to the Reserve. This was associated with construction of foreshore wetlands in Norgrove Park in 2004 and reshaping of the Kingston Boat Harbour in 2008.
The abandoned ‘East Lake’ is commemorated in the proposed urban development north-east and east of Kingston, which was identified in the Canberra Spatial Plan 2004 and detailed in the East Lake Urban Renewal Draft Planning Report 2007. In planning for this area the National Capital Authority document The Griffin Legacy, released in 2004, foreshadowed the retention and reinforcement of the spatial axes (including the Causeway Axis) as a key part of the geometry and symbolism of the Griffin plan, emphasising the city’s landscape setting and approaches.