The history of Narooma

Wagonga Inlet was used as a port from 1860 to supply the Dromedary and Nerrigundah goldfields, with initial settlement in from the entrance. Sawmilling became the major industry with ships carrying timber to Sydney from several sawmills until the mid-1950s. Narooma was gazetted as a town in 1886.

Tourists were attracted to Narooma from its early days by the area’s beauty, ocean and inlet fishing, and oysters. From the 1920s, Narooma’s stylish guest houses attracted Sydney professionals and farmers and graziers from ‘out west’. Camping along the foreshore was popular from the 1920s. Tourism is now Narooma’s main industry.

Australia’s first commercial fish cannery was established in Narooma in 1937. Narooma is the closest port for whale watching tours to Montague Island (Baranguba) and its historic lightstation (1881).

What to do

  • Visit the Visitors Centre and the Narooma Lighthouse Museum to see the original lens from Montague Lighthouse and learn about the history of Montague Island and the lightstation, Aboriginal custodians, early settlement, maritime endeavours and fishing
  • Visit the historic Montague Island Lightstation
  • Stroll along the shore to Narooma’s Bar Rock Lookout, or head north across the bridge to Mill Bay Boardwalk. Interpretive signs include some of Narooma’s history
  • See the cluster of heritage-listed boatsheds, the largest group of boatsheds on the south coast
  • Cruise on the Wagonga Princess and hear about life on the 'river'
  • Explore Narooma with the Ringlands Rotary Walk map
  • See a movie at the School of Arts Hall (1926 – the Kinema), one of the longest-running movie theatres in NSW
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Narooma Lighthouse Museum

Narooma Lighthouse Museum

Come and discover the exciting maritime history of Narooma at the Narooma Lighthouse Museum, located at the Narooma Visitor Centre. The key piece of the Narooma Lighthouse Museum is the original light and optical apparatus from the Montague Island Lightstation.

History of the Light

The light and optical apparatus were constructed by Chance Brothers of Birmingham, suppliers of most lighthouse equipment for colonial governments at the time. The light was first lit on 6 October 1881 and was used for almost 105 years, with its final manual lighting occurring 14 September 1986. The light and optical apparatus were removed from Montague Island when the light was automated and is now housed at Narooma Visitor Information Centre. A detailed interpretive display 'Mainland to Island' and a collection of items have been developed around the theme of this central piece. Some of these items include the original signal flags from the Narooma Pilot Station, lighthouse artefacts from the era and items salvaged from the wreck of the SS Bodalla.

The original light and optical apparatus from the Montague Island Lightstation is deemed to be the best example of an early multi bullseye lens, in Australia, on display with the entire revolving section of the mechanism floating in a reservoir of mercury. When constructed, the light had an intensity of 45,000 candelas (candle power) which subsequently increased to 357,000 by 1933. The light source was originally oil, then kerosene followed by pressurised kerosene mantle, before conversion to electric power in 1969, with a light intensity of 1,000,000 candelas.  This mechanism was completely removed in 1986, and a battery of solar powered quartz halogen lamps installed in its place, radiating two beams of 120,000 candelas whilst consuming 75 watts of power.

Obtaining the Light for Narooma

In order to retain the dismantled original light mechanism for permanent display, the community of Narooma and members of Narooma Apex Club successfully sought permission from the Department of Transport & Communications (DOT) to house the mechanism in a purpose-built extension of the Narooma Visitor Centre. With the support of the community, Eurobodalla Shire Council, National Parks & Wildlife Service, State Member John Hatton, Federal Member Jim Snow, Narooma Area Tourism Association, Narooma Apex Club and local citizens, grants were secured for the construction of the extension. 
The light mechanism, housed in the completed Lighthouse Museum was handed over in an official ceremony on 10 August 1990 by the Governor-General of Australia - His Excellency the Honourable Bill Hayden AC.

Acknowledgements:

Australian Maritime Safety Authority (2007) Heritage Artefacts Loan Agreement.
Author Unknown (1991) Montague Island and the Narooma Lighthouse Project.
Author Unknown (1990) Programme - Presentation of the Lamp from the Montague Lighthouse.
Author Unknown [online] http://www.lighthouse.net.au/lights/Museum/Narooma%20museum.htm accessed 6 August 2010.
Pacey, L. (2001), The Lure of Montague

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Wagonga Inlet was once a port for sailing ships and later steamers, delivering goods initially to Dromedary and Nerrigundah goldfields and then the town.  Logging and sawmilling soon became the main economic driver with ships taking sawn timber to Sydney until the mid-1950s.  Tourists have been attracted to Narooma since the early twentieth century because of the area’s natural beauty, fishing and oysters.  Narooma’s guest houses were top class attracting many from farming properties out west and Sydney professionals, while many others camped along the foreshore from the 1920s.

After marlin were first caught in Australia off Montague Island in 1933, followed by the visit of American writer Zane Grey in 1936, Narooma became a major centre for game fishing on the south coast.  The plentiful tuna and salmon off the coast, together with Narooma having its own water and power supply ahead of other centres, also resulted in Australia’s first commercial fish cannery being established in Narooma in 1937.

The first landholder in the Narooma area was Francis Hunt in late 1835.  Thomas and Mary Forster bought the property in 1848 and renamed it Noorooma.  The settlement became known as Noorooma and was proclaimed a town on 7 October 1886. Full post office status and a bi-weekly postal service were recommended by the Bodalla postmaster.  The postmaster misspelt the name, calling it “Narooma” in his report.  Over a period of time the new spelling stuck.

At the Visitors Centre you will find the original lens from the lighthouse on Montague Island, and an overview of Narooma’s history.

Narooma heritage trail 

Narooma’s Visitors Centre

This contains the original lens from Montague Lighthouse, and an overview of Narooma’s history as well as other displays about the evolution of marine aids.  After the lighthouse switched to automatic operation in 1986 the original lens and mechanism were dismantled and taken to Sydney for storage.  Local man, Lindsay Quonoey led the push by Narooma Apex Club to bring the light ‘back home’.  With the support of Apex members and local tradesmen, a purpose-built extension was added to the Visitors Centre to house the light, which was lowered into its new tower in December 1989.  Governor General Bill Hayden officially handed the light to the community on permanent loan on 10 August 1990.

Follow the path from the Visitors Centre, past the town wharf to Rotary Park.

Sport and Leisure Centre

The Sport and Leisure Centre is on the site where at least one ship was built in the first few years of the twentieth century.  It was the site of the town’s tennis courts, then an open-air skating rink from early 1967.  Narooma Rotary Club enclosed the rink in 1985 and it is now a venue for various sport and leisure activities.

Swimming pool

Narooma’s first swimming pool was in the Inlet, between the training wall and the shore.  It had a diving tower and starting blocks for swimming competitions.  Today’s swimming pool opened in 1966.  The pool was covered in 1993 following a mammoth fundraising effort mainly by the Narooma Hydrotherapy Club.

Pylon from Illawarra and South Coast Steam Navigation Company’s wharf

Upstream from the town wharf is the only remaining pylon from the wharf used by coastal steamers of the Illawarra and South Coast Steam Navigation Company (ISCSNC).  ISCSNC was the major company that provided the vital shipping link between Narooma and Sydney.  It also ran regular services to Batemans Bay, Moruya, Narooma, Bermagui, Tathra, Merimbula and Eden.  The ISCSNC was affectionately known as the Pig and Whistle Line, a reference to the pigs penned on the open deck and the frequent use of the steam whistle.  The last ship called at Narooma in the mid 1950s.

Ted Street Park and Lookout

Edwin (Ted) and Daisy Street, founders of Streets Ice Cream, retired to Narooma after selling their Corrimal-based company to Unilever in 1960.  Ted helped Narooma acquire much-needed infrastructure, sometimes advancing long-term, low-interest loans, sometimes donating funds outright.  He enabled Narooma to build a substantial Ambulance Station in 1965 after it had struggled for years to raise sufficient funds.  With his financial assistance, the tennis courts were moved and a roller skating rink and carnival ground constructed in their place.  The new facilities were ready in time for the 1966-67 holiday season.  The Streets also donated £10,000 towards the construction of an in-ground swimming pool.

Each Christmas they gave every student at Narooma Public School a paddle pop (which is why you will find paddle-pop shaped benches to sit on at the lookout!).  They also donated land in Narooma in 1972 to the then Illawarra Retirement Trust (now IRT Group) for the first aged care facility in Eurobodalla Shire.  Daisy Street Lodge operated 1975-2003.

Rotary Park

Stroll along the shores of Rotary Park and you will discover interpretive signs about Narooma’s history.

  1. Sawmill and wharf:  In 1882, Henry Withers erected a saw mill in this location.  George Fuller took over Withers’ lease in 1885 and erected another sawmill, wharf and store. Vessels from Sydney offloaded goods for the local community and left with timber from Fuller’s mill.  When Fuller’s lease expired in 1891, he dismantled the mill and let the wharf and store fall into disrepair.  In 1906, the old wharf and store were repaired and renamed the Urban Jetty.  In 1930 a new town wharf was built slightly upstream.  The old Urban Jetty gradually fell into disrepair and was eventually blown up in 1964.
  2. Aboriginal Campsite: This was a favoured camping site by local Aboriginal people with fresh water, an abundance of natural resources, protection from winds and a good crossing point.  Much of Wagonga Inlet is lined with middens, including a large one here.  Middens consist mainly of discarded shells, indicating a popular eating and camping site.
  3. Training Walls: The bar at the entrance to Wagonga Inlet often caused problem for shipping. Sometimes loaded ships would be bar-bound for days on end, waiting for sufficient depth of water to make a safe crossing. In 1919 the government took action and began building a training wall to define the channel and direct the tidal energy to flush it out. The crossing was still difficult and further work was carried out in the 1920s and 1930s. The breakwaters were constructed in 1976-77 to deepen the entrance to the inlet with the hope of increasing opportunities for commercial fishers and to encourage tourism.
  4. The Long, Long Walk.  A small plaque near the Marine Park display sign commemorates the 200th anniversary of the epic trek by survivors of the Sydney Cove, wrecked in Bass Strait in 1797.  They passed here during their long walk from Lakes Entrance to Sydney.  Scouts and others retraced their steps in 1997, pausing here on 13 April 1997.

From Rotary Park continue up Bar Rock Road.

Pilot Station  

The track leading south from Bar Rock Road takes you to the Marine Rescue Station, once Narooma’s pilot station.  A pilot was appointed in the 1890s to assist ships across the bar, and a pilot station built in the early 1900s.  The pilot would guide boats into the inlet and warn of bar conditions, closing the port when conditions were too dangerous, indicated by raising a black ball on the station’s flagstaff.

Return to the town wharf and continue north over the bridge, along Mill Bay Boardwalk to Apex Park.

Crossing the Inlet

Wagonga Inlet has played an important role in Narooma’s history.  The name ‘Narooma’ is said to be an Aboriginal word meaning ‘clear blue waters’, however, Yuin Elder Gaboo Ted Thomas maintained that it referred to the bubbleweed that grew in the inlet.

The inlet was first used as a port to supply the Dromedary and then Nerrigundah goldfields in the 1860s.  Sailing vessels and later steamers travelled several miles up the inlet to deliver goods.  After some years, their main purpose was to collect timber.  During the peak of the sawmilling industry, several small steamers could be in the inlet at any one time.  A hand-operated punt was installed in 1894 (on the upstream side of the bridge) followed by a petrol-driven punt in 1929.

Narooma Bridge

When it opened in 1931, Narooma Bridge was the first major bridge constructed on the Princes Highway by the recently established Main Roads Board.  It was the first of only two bridges in New South Wales built with a rare variation of the bascule opening span where it was cantilevered in such a way it could be lifted by a single person.  It was officially opened on 20 June 1931, almost a year before the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  It was a significant event for Narooma and the region, with more than 1,800 people attending.

Narani

A post marked with the number 8 indicates where Mitchells’ house Narani stood overlooking their mill.  The house also had a post office and store.

Mitchell Brothers Mill

Little evidence remains of the saw mill which stood on the western shore of Mill Bay.  It was built for Fred Cox in the late 1890s, then by William S. Preddey.  In 1905 the sawmill lease was taken up by Mitchell & Sons who employed up to 40 men in the early years.

This was the most substantial mill on the inlet.  Mitchell’s timber was exported mainly to India, South Africa and the USA.  One World War Two order was for ironbark for a landing strip in Alaska.

The Mitchells had bullock teams and a horse team that transported logs to skids located around the inlet.  A steam-driven punt ferried the logs to the mill.  It was a paddle steamer and became a much-loved feature of the inlet.  On New Year’s Day the punt would be transformed with flags into a ‘showboat’, complete with a band from Sydney to entertain the locals.

In 1916, the next generation of Mitchells took over the mill and Harry and Carl Mitchell renamed the company the Mitchell Brothers.  This mill closed in 1960 when Mitchells moved the mill to Lawlers Creek.

Steamer Kianga

The Mitchell Brothers, sawmillers, designed and built the timber hull of the steamer, Kianga, alongside their saw mill.  It had a broader beam and shallower draught than comparable vessels, enabling it to cross the Narooma Bar more easily.

Remains of Bodalla Company Wharf and McMillan’s Wharf

Along the boardwalk, near the intersection with a stairway coming down from Centenary Drive, you will see timbers from two wharves (the Bodalla Company Wharf and McMillan Sawmill Wharf) still visible under the waterline.  The produce from the cheese factory was transported from Bodalla along a wooden tramway built in 1884.  The horse-drawn tram came down Williamson Drive.  It was designed to use only one horse (per load of cheese and bacon) over a shorter route than the road north to Batemans Bay.  Unfortunately the tramway wasn’t properly engineered and ceased operating when the road from Bodalla south to Wagonga North Head was completed in 1889.

Also visible are the remains of McMillan Sawmill Wharf.  Timber from the mill was loaded onto ships from here, and taken to Sydney.

Shipyard, Quarry and Windmill Beach.

In the early 1900s, there were four good-sized (ship) yards around the present boat ramp and the port was becoming well known for its shipbuilding.  Ships built here included the coastal steamers Cora Lynne for Narooma sawmiller Fred Cox, and Narooma for Sydney timber merchant Allen Taylor & Co.  Their superstructures were fitted in Sydney.

If you look across Centenary Drive, you will see where rock was quarried for the inlet’s training walls, built in stages between 1919 and 1936.  The walls ‘trained’ or concentrated tidal energy to reduce shoaling in the channel and improve navigation for the many ships then calling at Narooma.

This was also a popular picnic spot in the early 1900s, known as Windmill Beach.

The northern training wall was also briefly used as a salmon holding pen for the Narooma Cannery, Australia’s first commercial fish cannery, which was located further up Wagonga Inlet.

Return to the bridge and join the Foreshore Walk along Riverside Drive to Quota Park.

Australia’s First Commercial Fish Cannery

Australia’s first commercial fish cannery was built at Forster’s Bay in 1937 for tuna and salmon.  The initial impetus was American author Zane Grey’s catch of a 90-pound yellow fin tuna.  Stories abounded of pods of dolphins rounding up salmon and driving them into the estuaries of Wagonga Inlet.  Local John Annis once said, “The waters were a seething mass, black with salmon so thick you could walk on them”.

As Narooma already had reticulated water and its own electricity supply, it was chosen as the site for a modern fish cannery.  After pressure from locals, the New South Wales parliament passed a bill allowing the netting of salmon in the inlet after the inlet had been closed to netting for some years.  In the early days many salmon were caught in the inlet using nets up to 700 metres long: the salmon trapped in these nets were dragged into holding pens located around the inlet.  By 1940 the new cannery was producing 60,000 cans of fish in one day and employed 130 people.  Forty-two fishermen, including many from Bermagui and Ulladulla, once supplied the cannery.  With depletion of fish stocks, the operation at Narooma became less profitable and canning relocated to Eden in the 1960s.

Continue along the footpath past the restaurants and Fishing Club to Narooma Marina

Heritage-listed Boatsheds

Dating from the late 1930s, these colourful structures, some 30 in all, have been listed in the Eurobodalla Local Environment Plan 2012.  Guidelines have been drawn up to ensure the unique facades endure for generations.  They are the largest group of boatsheds on the south coast.

Other points of interest are located on the Princes Highway

Narooma Soldiers Memorial School of Arts Hall

This was Narooma’s second School of Arts Hall.  The first, built in 1895, was the first community venue built in Narooma and in 1919 also served as the community’s emergency hospital for the Spanish Influenza epidemic.

The Narooma Soldiers Memorial School of Arts Hall (now home to the Kinema), opened in 1926 and was the hub of Narooma’s life.  It was the venue for balls, dances, public meetings, wedding receptions and Anzac Day ceremonies, as well as film screenings.  It is one of the longest-running movie theatres in NSW.

The Narooma School of Arts land and its buildings (including the SoART Gallery and MACS cottage) are owned by the Narooma community and held in trust by the School of Arts organisation.  The School of Arts is looking to enhance the area as a vibrant arts precinct.

Lynch’s Hotel

The Coronation Hotel, later called Lynch’s, was established by William and Jane Lynch.  They moved to the area in 1895 after opening a sawmill in Forsters Bay the previous year.  They converted their home to a hotel in 1903.  Their daughter Imelda, one of 11 children, managed the hotel when her father became ill.  By 1916 it was called Lynch’s Coronation Hotel, and at some stage in the late 1920s the second storey was added.  William died in 1916 and the property was transferred to Imelda in the form of ‘an estate in remainder’, which gave her mother, Jane, the right of occupation as long as she lived.  On her mother’s death Imelda became the owner outright, but as no unmarried woman could hold a licence she enlisted the help of her brother Ned and cousin Sylvester to hold the licence for her until the rule was changed in 1946.  She was an astute businesswoman, proud of the many famous guests who enjoyed her hospitality.  She managed the hotel until she retired in 1963.

Narooma’s Uniting Church and Parsonage

At the top of the town sits Narooma’s Uniting Church and Tower.  Its adjacent parsonage, with its numerous stained glass windows and leadlight, highlights the creative qualities of the local tradesmen.