By MICK ROBERTS ©
ON the Thirroul side of Bulli Pass there once stood a tourist attraction of giant proportions.
The Bulli Big Tree, Eucalyptus pilularis, commonly known as a blackbutt, towered 166 feet, or over 50 metres in height.
The tree’s height though wasn’t its claim to fame, but its huge girth, said to be the largest in NSW.
The tree came to prominence after the new Bulli Pass was surveyed in 1864. By the 1870s, the tree, on the McKinnon’s Farm, was described as a “curiosity that was often visited”. As it was on private property, the McKinnons charged sixpence for people to walk down the track off Bulli Pass to see the wonder.
The Australian Town and Country Journal reported on August 2 1879:
“In height it looks as if it had a mind to enter into rivalry with the mountain itself, while its circumference at the base measures 18 paces, which, on a rough calculation would give 54ft… It is a noble tree, and well worthy of a passing visit.”
The surveyor, C.F. Bolton, who mapped-out the 1864 route of Bulli Pass, wrote to the Illawarra Mercury explaining how he measured the tree 33 years previous.
“When I surveyed and laid out the Bulli Pass in October, 1864, where the present road was subsequently cleared and formed by the Works Department I, in company with my brother, my then assistant, Mr Alexander MacPherson and Mr John MacKinnon, measured a tall, symmetrical and shapely tree on Mr Norman MacKinnon’s land half way up the spur leading from the flat land and a little down on the Sydney side of the spur. The circumference of the tree at three feet from the ground was exactly 4ft 6in (41 feet six inches), measured with a steel standard tape. It is not likely that there are many authentic measurements of trees made at such a remote date, hence my reason for communicating this information through your valuable columns. It might be of interest if some one were now to put a tape on the ‘sapling’ and see how much it has increased in girth in nearly 35 years.”
Mr W. B. Green, of Bulli Pass, supplied the Mercury with the following information in 1897:
“The measurement of Mr MacKinnon’s tree known as the ‘big tree’, on the road to the Bulli Pass is at a distance of 3ft from the ground, 46ft 2 inches in circumference, and is 166ft in height. During the 33 years, therefore, the girth of the tree has been increased by 4ft 8in.”
The Sydney Royal Botanical Gardens botanist Mr. J. H. Maiden described the tree in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in March 1891:
“The girth of the Bulli blackbutt at the ground, measuring from buttress to buttress, is 57ft, 6in. The girth at 3ft, above the ground is 45ft., and at 6ft, above the ground , 40ft. The taper is thence very gradual for about 90ft. (estimated), where the head is broken off, but it has a vigorously growing leafy top, and some of its branches are of the size of small trees. I estimated that the first branch springs from the trunk at the height of 50ft. There are ten principal buttresses, of an average diameter of over 2ft., but they practically cease to flute the trunk at the helght of 10ft, to 15ft. The tree is on the land of a resident, who charges a small fee for seeing it, and I would that all the trees in New South Wales, remarkable either for their size or historic associations, were as well cared for as this one.”
By the 1890s, besides the lush rainforest of palms and ferns, the Bulli Big Tree had become a famous tourist attraction. The Sunday Times reported on Christmas Day 1898 that to see Bulli Pass at its best, you should picnic on the crown of it for the evening and await sunset, “when the mighty ocean and everything upon it seem masses of fire”.
“The journey up the mountain, especially if ladies are in your party—and no party is complete without them — is best made in a vehicle, otherwise the ascent is fatiguing. Buggies can be hired for 5 shillings from 1 pm to 6pm; or, if your party is large, you may hire a waggonette in the town, which will carry a dozen for about 12 shillings. As no trip to the Pass is complete without seeing the historic big tree, you should pay your six pence and see this botanical giant.”
During the 1890s and early 1900s many of the giant blackbutts on the Illawarra escarpment were felled for timber, and there was growing concern over the future of the Bulli Big Tree.
When the NSW Government announced it proposed to resume a large tract of land on Bulli Pass for a nature reserve, there were immediate calls from the Bulli community for the tree to be included within the park.
A meeting held in the Bulli Family Hotel’s hall in May 1894, to consider the resumption by the Crown of parts of Bulli Pass, heard several men speak in favour of including the part of the McKinnon property where the Big Tree grew.
“It was highly important that the ground surrounding the big tree should be resumed, and the land from Paddy’s Flat to the top of the Pass would scarcely ever have any value for cultivation. It would be of far more value to the public than to the owners,” a Mr Williams told the meeting.”
The push to have parts of Bulli Pass resumed for a nature reserve, including the land where the Big Tree grew, continued for another 14 years. Not all were happy about the land being tied-up as a nature reserve. W.H. Spinks wrote in a letter to the editor of the South Coast Times on June 8 1907 that including the tree in the reserve could not be considered seriously.
“This tree is nearer to Thirroul than the Bulli Pass, and not 10 persons in 100 even see its branches, as its situation is elsewhere, and is quite safe from fires, etc., being clear all round its butt.”
Whether or not the decision not to include McKinnon’s land in the nature reserve lead to the Blackbutt’s demise will never be known, but less than five after Spinks’ letter to the South Coast Times, the Bulli Big Tree was dead.
Just four years after the death of John McKinnon – who measured the girth of the tree with the Bulli Pass surveyor in 1864, and farmed the land where it grew – vandals had killed the famous landmark.
The Newcastle Morning Herald reported on June 26 1911 that the “famous big tree at the foot or the Bulli Pass, which is claimed to be the largest in girth in New South Wales, is burning. It is thought that the fire was started by children”.
Interestingly, little fuss was made about the tree’s demise in the local media. The only real report appeared on the pages of the South Coast Times on June 23 1911:
“A celebrated giant of the forest has been destroyed by fire, it is believed wilfully, by some evil-doing hand: The big blackbutt on the McKinnon property (on Bulli Pass). The tree fell on Sunday. Mr. W. B. Green, who examined the place, found evidence of two fires having been lit under the tree, there had been no bush fire.”
The large dead trunk of the ‘Bulli Big Tree’ remained on the property for another 40 odd years. The Illawarra Historical Society has in its collection a photograph, with the added information: “The Bulli Pass Big Tree, also called Government House. Large tree stump”. There was additional information provided with negative: “62 ft circumference at ground level, 85 feet to first branch. Was still standing in 1942 when military camp was near its location.”
Bronwyn Chamberlain, from the Black Diamond Heritage Centre at Bulli, was photographed in 1950 on what she believes could be the tree after it fell during heavy winds.
“Peter (Bronwyn’s late husband) photographed me in early 1950 on the trunk of a very large tree on Bulli Pass which had recently been blown down by westerly winds. It stood in land which later became Barclay’s chicken farm. We walked up there to see the large landslide that had occurred on the northern side of Bulli Pass after heavy rain. Before falling, people estimated Dr Palmers Austin car could have fitted in the base of this tree.”
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2015
Would you like to make a small donation towards the running of the Looking Back and Bulli & Clifton Times websites? If you would like to support my work, visit my donation page where you can leave a small tip of $2, or several small tips, just increase the amount as you like. Your generous patronage of my work and research, however small it appears to you, will greatly help me with my continuing costs.