Some towns that seem quite unremarkable have a fascinating history when you look a little more deeply. Such is the case of Walla Walla, NSW.
On our way home from Port Macquarie, we called into this little town because it is the name sake of the city in which my lovely friend Keiko lives in Washington State in the USA. I met Keiko on my last trip to Antarctica and she is a gorgeous lady of Japanese-American heritage. We have also caught uo again when she visited Sydney and when Jill and I were last in Seattle. Keiko seems to follow us around the world having just returned from Norway which we visited last year. I hope that one day soon our paths will cross again. In the meantime, we rely on Facebook to keep in touch.
Walla Walla in the USA is a city of 45,000 people. It gets its name from the Sahaptin indigenous people of the Northwest American Plateau and can be translated several ways but most often as “many waters”.
Our Walla Walla in NSW is about 39 kms north of Albury in southern New Sales Wales. Similar to its American name sake, this Walla Walla was first home to an indigenous people, the Wiradjuri Aboriginals who inhabited this area for many thousands of years prior to European settlement. Its name probably means “many rocks”.
The explorers Hume and Hovell passed through the area in late 1824 noting its potential for grazing livestock. Squatters first arrived in 1834 and four sheep stations, including “Round Hill” and “Walla Walla” were established by 1845. Nowadays, it is a poor sister to its thriving namesake in America with a population of just 700 people. Many of the shops in the main street have seen much better days and it looks just like it is well past its prime.
However, it has a very interesting history.
The town was established in 1869 when 56 settlers of German extraction moved by wagon from their home in the Barossa Valley of South Australia in the search for farming land. At that time South Australian farmland was in short supply and the New South Wales government was releasing tracts of fertile land at relatively cheap prices. Although these settlers first named the township Ebenezer, after their hometown in South Australia, its name was later changed to Walla Walla because another township with the same name already existed in New South Wales. It must have been tough for these families as they set of in faith for a long overland journey by bullock wagon. There was no email or text messages to keep in contact with others. Not even a telegraph in those days!
Somehow, they arrived, settled and prospered. Even with such a small population, the town boasts a very large Lutheran Church. The original church was built from white granite in 1872. The present Zion Lutheran Church was built in 1924 and it is the largest Lutheran Church in New South Wales, with seating for almost 600 people. That’s almost the entire town!
St Paul’s College, a Christian co-educational secondary school is located in Walla Walla and caters for both day students and boarders from the local area and communities across Australia and overseas. Students can choose from a wide range of academic and practical subjects including Agriculture on the school farm and horsemanship at the school’s Equine Centre.
This area was the haunt of one of our famous bushrangers, Dan “Mad Dog” Morgan. Bushrangers like him (Ned Kelly, Captain Thunderbolt and Captain Starlight) have romantic names and modern folklore memorialises them somewhat as heroes. However, they were really nothing short of murderous thieves. “Mad Dog Morgan , was especially known for his erratic behaviour and often violent mood swings, and was regarded in his time (1860s) as “the most bloodthirsty ruffian that ever took to the bush in Australia”. After he had killed a trooper (police officer) in July 1864, the Government of New South Wales put a £1,000 bounty on his head. He was shot and killed after holding up Peechelba Station in Victoria.
Near the town is Morgan’s Lookout – a granite outcrop located next to Billabong Creek. Due to its elevation, this local geological feature was used by Morgan as a lookout for police parties. Local folklore tells of Morgan hiding his horses in deep crevices within the rocks when the police came nearby.
Billabong Creek is the longest creek in Australia (rivers are obviously longer). It is partly perennial and flows for more than 300 kilometres as a contributor to the Murray River Catchment. It was an important location in the 1890’s shearers strike. That was the time that Australia ‘rode on the sheep’s back’ with wool being the most significant contributor to our economy. Working conditions for sheep shearers in 19th century Australia were not good and it was one of the first industries to become unionised. By 1890, the Australian Shearers’ Union boasted tens of thousands of members They began a strike that started in Queensland and eventually spread across the country. Morgan’s Lookout was a key local point during this strike. Hundreds of shearers congregated on the banks of the Billabong Creek on Walla Walla station, striking against their low wages and poor working conditions. After many months their cause seemed lost. Stations used their workers and family members to shear the sheep. The shearers vowed to burn the countryside out. Stations banded together and built Oregon timber ladders at this lookout. Several fires were lit but this early warning centre resulted in quick action to contain them.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Walla Walla was charactered by its close-knit community which contributed to its preservation of the German language and the old cultural ways. Although the First World War created a strong sense of nationalism (albeit strongly linked to the British Empire) this was a difficult time for the Walla Walla community due to its ethnicity and the political issues of conscription and disenfranchisement from the electoral roll. Four local residents, including two Justices of the Peace and members of the local Council were interned in the Holsworthy Internment Camp. Then, with the outbreak of the Second World War, tensions again resurfaced. This time the attention of the authorities was directed toward the Lutheran pastors in the region, rather than its civic leaders. This was the case because conscription was no longer the issue that it had been in the First World War and some Lutheran pastors had shown pro-German sympathies with the resurgence of German power. These pastors were questioned and their activities were monitored until the end of there war.
We eventually drove on towards Albury not only thinking of Keiko, but with a surprising sense of interest in this little town that seemed so unremarkable.