The first European explorers to pass through the Wangaratta area were Hume and Hovell (1824) who named the Oxley Plains immediately south of Wangaratta. The New South Wales Surveyor-General, Major Thomas Mitchell, crossed the Ovens River in 1836 during his Australia Felix expedition. There is a "Mitchell tree" near where Murphy Street, Wangaratta, meets the Ovens River, stated to be a place where Mitchell stopped. In the following year George and William Faithfull settled at the Bontharambo pastoral station, north of Wangaratta. In 1838 their place was taken by Joseph Docker. Docker's Bontharambo homestead (1858) is on the Register of the National Estate.
A punt for crossing the Ovens River was begun by a man named Rattray in 1838. The Hope Inn, now the Sydney Hotel at Ovens and Templeton Streets, was opened in 1840. Ovens Crossing, as it was called, formed a settlement which became Wangaratta. In 1848 the Port Phillip surveyor, Robert Hoddle, arranged for a town survey at Ovens Crossing, consisting of eleven streets and about 200 blocks. It was named Wangaratta, reputedly derived from an Aboriginal word meaning cormorant's resting place. Land sales took place in 1849-50. A primary school was opened in 1850, and the site continues as that of the Wangaratta State primary school.
The discovery of gold in the Ovens Valley in 1852 stimulated the growth of Wangaratta, as miners used the punt crossing and the bridge which replaced it in 1855. On 19 June, 1863, Wangaratta was created a borough. By about that time Wangaratta had a petty sessions court, a racecourse, branches of banks and insurance companies, an agricultural society, flour mills, breweries, and Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist churches. (In 1902 Wangaratta became an Anglican Diocese, and a Cathedral Church was built.)
In 1873 the railway line from Melbourne to the State border, via Wangaratta, was opened. By about the turn of the century Wangaratta's preeminence in north-eastern Victoria was emerging - the creation of the Anglican Diocese being an example. The Australian Handbook, 1903, described Wangaratta -
Wangaratta became a provincial retailing area for north-eastern Victoria, Callenders emporium and Osmotherly's drapery being examples. The North-Eastern Co-operative Society advertised itself as running the Greatest Store in the North East. Wangaratta also became a provincial educational centre with the opening of a State high school (1909), a Catholic technical school and a State technical school (1923). Manufacturing in the form of butter and cordial factories, a foundry and coach works was significantly diversified in 1923 when the proprietor of Callender's emporium was made the first chairman of the Wangaratta Woollen Mills.
In 1942 an aluminum factory was established at Wangaratta as a war-time industry. Although the factory ceased operation as the Japanese forces retreated, the building was taken by Bruck Mills (Canada) in 1947 for rayon production. The Bruck Mills workforce exceeded 1,000 at its peak. It has been a civic-minded firm which has sponsored public utilities and financially assisted the building of houses. The Wangaratta borough was described in The Australian Blue Book, 1949 -
During the first fifteen postwar years Wangaratta's population doubled to over 13,000 persons. Partly this was attributed to some emigration from rural centres, but a steady growth of manufacturing and tertiary employment was more significant. Housing was built by local co-operatives and the Housing Commission. The Commission's estate is south of the city, close to the textile mills. Wangaratta borough became a city on 15 April, 1959.
In 1970 Yakka Overalls opened a factory employing about 250 workers. By 1988 it was estimated that the three large textile and clothing factories employed about 1,300 or 70% of workers engaged in manufacturing in Wangaratta. This was a cause of concern as textile tariffs were lowered. Partly the concern was offset as employment in the tertiary sector grew -
Cutbacks in community-service employment during the next ten years, however, dented this trend.
The industrial area is on the Melbourne side of Wangaratta, both sides of the Hume Highway and the railway line. An airport is further south. An encouraging addition to the manufacturing sector was a computer plant opened by IBM in 1986.
Wangaratta's commercial and retail area is in the north-east of the built-up area, and adjoins the Ovens River where the town area began. Although there are large Kmart and Coles drive-in shops, the traditional retailing strips have not had to contend with a free-standing shopping centre (1997).
Wangaratta has a TAFE, two State secondary and three State primary schools. Along the Ovens River there are several parklands and a camping area. There are also showgrounds, a racecourse, a trotting track and a range of sports facilities.
Tourism has had a significant presence in Wangaratta with hotels in the commercial area and more recent motels. In 1997 there were six hotels/motels offering 896 bed spaces. Wangaratta is 55 km. from Mount Buffalo, 100 km. from the Falls Creek and Mount Hotham snow fields and 40 km. from the north-eastern vineyards. Local attractions include the Airworld aircraft museum and an annual festival of jazz and blues. The shopping centre has over 200 shops and in 1986 equalled the size of the shopping centre in Wodonga. Wangaratta's shopping centre had nearly one third of the retail floor space in north-eastern Victoria.
In 1996 the median weekly income of residents of 15 years or more was $269, compared with a Victorian median of $290.
On 18 November, Wangaratta city was united with Wangaratta shire and parts of Oxley, Beechworth, Benalla and Yarrawonga shires to form Milawa shire.
Median house prices in Wangaratta in 1987 and 1996 were $66,000 and $91,000 respectively.
O'Callaghan, Bill and Findlay, Bill, "Wangaratta, 1959-1984: A Silver City", City of Wangaratta, 1984.
"Wangaratta: Capital of North Eastern Victoria", Committee of the Back to Wangaratta Celebrations, 1927.
Whittaker, D.M., "Wangaratta: Being the History of the Township that sprang up at Ovens Crossing and grew into a modern City", Wangaratta City Council, 1963.
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