Barmah is a rural village and district on the Murray River in northern Victoria, 23 km. north-east of Echuca and 23 km. west of Nathalia. The journey from Nathalia is more direct than the one from Echuca. It is renowned for the Barmah State Forest, which has one section adjoining the village and a more extended section to the east.
It is thought that the name derives from an Aboriginal word paama, meaning meeting place. Whether or not that is accurate, there is evidence that the Barmah forest was inhabited by a large Aboriginal population and was a plentiful source of food.
In 1863-4 the railway line from Bendigo to Echuca was built, and consumed large volumes of sleepers cut from the red gums in the Barmah forest. A punt began operation, joining the tracks from Echuca to Yarrawonga where they crossed the Murray River. In 1886 a town was surveyed on rising ground near the punt, and the resulting Barmah village became a river outlet for wool from surrounding pastoral stations. It also became the shipping point for railway sleepers cut for domestic use and for export to India and New Zealand.
Despite expressions of concern about unsustainable timber harvesting as early as 1869 and the reservation of State forest in 1870, large saw millers mostly cut as much as they wanted until about 1880, when an export duty was put on timber to preserve supplies. Closer to the township the Barmah Common was reserved in about 1879 as a place for stock to be grazed, particularly in drought years.
A school was opened at Barmah in 1871, but the township was small with a hotel, a sale yard and a few houses. In 1894 a Barmah Village Settlement brought more people to the area. Timber-cutting rose and fell with demand, and was milled locally or at Echuca.
By the 1950s there was evidence that the weirs built on the Murray River for irrigation were decreasing the flood frequency in the Barmah forest. The change of rhythm decreased the germination of red gum seedlings and interfered with the breeding of water birds. Effluent from human and farm activity also adversely affected water quality. Flood regulators were installed by 1959.
During the 1920s Barmah became a destination for campers and fishermen. Its popularity has grown, particularly for canoeing during flood times. A bridge replaced the punt in 1966. The importance of the forest as a recreation area was reinforced by the opening of the Dharuya Centre (1985), jointly run by the State Government and the local Aboriginal community. It functions as a museum and an interpretation centre. In 1993 one of the three tribal groups in the area, the Yorta Yorta, made a land claimed under the Mabo legislation in respect of the forest.
Timber cutting and summer grazing continue. The State Forest comprises 28,500 ha., of which about 85% is red gum.
Barmah township has a hotel/motel, caravan park, Anglican and Catholic churches, a school, a boat ramp and picnic spots along the river.
Fahey, Charles, "Barmah Forest", Dept. of Conservation, Forests and Lands, 1987.
Hibbins, Gillian, "A History of the Nathalia Shire: The Good Helsman", Hawthorn Press, 1978.
Mackay, Norman and Eastburn, David (eds.), "The Murray", Murray Darling Basin Commission, 1990.
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