Bairnsdale is a large provincial town situated on the Mitchell River in Gippsland, 285 kilometres east of Melbourne. The Bairnsdale run, on the west bank of the river, was occupied by Archibald McLeod from 1844. It was named after his birthplace, Bernisdale in Scotland. On the eastern bank was the Lucknow run, taken up in 1842. The Aboriginal word for the area, Wy Yung meaning duck, now names a locality north of Bairnsdale.
Gold discoveries in the surrounding area spurred the growth of a township at Lucknow. However the government township was surveyed on the west bank of the river, the first land being sold in 1860. McLeod also sold blocks in a township called Mitchelltown, laid out on his land south of the present Main Street and adjoining the government township. The township of Bairnsdale progressed rapidly. Soon there were hotels, stores, banks, postal service, court house, school, tradesmen and stock sales. The punt over the Mitchell River was replaced by a bridge. By 1865 there were about 300 people living in the town. Bairnsdale became a Road District in 1867 and a Shire in 1868.
From the 1860s, Bairnsdale developed as a port. The Mitchell River was navigable for several kilometres upstream of Bairnsdale. Steamers and boats plied the Gippsland Lakes and could reach the sea through the natural entrance at Lakes Entrance for communication with Melbourne. Livestock, timber, wattle bark, wool, skins and hides were transported to market.
By 1870 there was extensive settlement around Bairnsdale. Grazing of cattle and breeding of horses were carried on. Wheat was the main crop, but maize and hops soon became very important. The New Tourists' Guide for 1888-89 described the progress of the area.
The town steadily prospered, becoming the commercial and administrative centre for a large pastoral and agricultural area. The port was thriving, with new wharves constructed in the early 1870s. Excursion trips on the rivers and lakes became popular, as described by the journalist "Tanjil" in his Guide to the Gippsland and Rivers. But the extension of the railway to Bairnsdale in 1888 caused a decline in the shipping trade. A School of Mines was opened in 1893 but development was slowed during the 1890s depression.
By 1920 the town was again expanding. Beans and peas, vegetables and fruit were being grown. Dairying became an important activity and timber mills were operating in the northern part of the Shire. The Victorian Municipal Directory described the town in 1933.
Floods have been frequent, with particularly high levels in the 1870s and 1890s, and more recently in the 1930s, in 1949 and 1952. During World War II, the airfield south-west of Bairnsdale was used for military purposes. Passenger flights have operated since 1950 and helicopters involved in offshore oil searches use the aerodrome.
Despite the rural recession of the 1970s, the town still progressed. Population has steadily increased from 9,130 in 1976 to 10,770 in 1991. In 1967 the Town of Bairnsdale was formed by severing Bairnsdale and the surrounding urban districts from the Shire. In 1990 it was proclained a City but in 1994 was amalgamated into the municipality of East Gippsland.
It has a TAFE, secondary college and primary schools, livelstock industries, timber and engineering works, a vegetable processing plant, a hospital and an active retail shopping area. There are numerous sports and recreation facilities and a wide range of community organisations.
The rail line to Bairnsdale is now closed, the service being provided by buses. Well known author, Hal Porter, spent part of his life in Bairnsdale and has described the town in an autobiography and a town history.
Due to Bairnsdale's moderate climate and proximity to the Gippsland Lakes, tourism has become a major industry. One of the features of the town is St Mary's Catholic Church which contains murals painted during the Depression by Frank Floreani, an Italian artist. There are many fine buildings in the town, the most notable being the Court House, an impressive building of arches, gables and towers. Krowathunkoolong Keeping Place is a cultural centre for the local Aboriginal people.
The silt jetties at the mouth of the Mitchell River are a natural phenomenom of great interest. Formed by silt deposits as the river slows down on entering the lake, they extend nearly ten kilometres into Lake King. They have been eroding since the early years of this century but works are being undertaken to preserve them. McLeod's Morass, south of Bairnsdale, is a wildlife reserve with a boardwalk through the wetland. The Riviera Festival is held in March, as is the Marlay Point Overnight Yacht Race.
Adams, J. "Path among the years: history of Shire of Bairnsdale". Bairnsdale, Bairnsdale Shire Council, 1987.
"Bairnsdale: city of the Lakes." 1958.
"Bairnsdale Shire Council 1868-1968". 1968.
East Gippsland Historical Society. "Bairnsdale looking back." 1981.
East Gippsland Historical Society. "The growing of hops in the Mitchell and Tambo Valleys". 1983.
"Gippsland Illustrated 1904". Facsimile ed. Bairnsdale, Kapana Press, 1987.
Porter, H. "Bairnsdale: portrait of an Australian country town". Sydney, Ferguson, 1977.
Tanjil, pseud. "Our guide to the Gippsland Lakes and rivers".
3rd ed. 1886.
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