Barrington Tops has long been an area of great developmental potential and also important for its wilderness value and as a result a long battle has been waged between developmental and conservationist interests over how the area should be treated.
The Tops, occupied for millenia by the Gringai people, were first explored by Europeans during the 1820s. Settlers, surveyors and scientists followed.
Cattle were taken to the high country to graze by the 1840s, gold strikes attracted fortune-seekers, and bushrangers like Captain Thunderbolt and the Governor brothers (Jimmy and Joe) used its isolation to hide from authorities.
The extensive timber resources of the southern slopes were being exploited. By the 1870s sawmilling dominated the valleys of the Paterson, Allyn and Williams rivers for decades and council and commercial interests in Gloucester, Dungog, Newcastle, Maitland, Singleton and Scone were soon dreaming of great development possibilities.
What emerged, especially from the 1920s, was a partly co-operative, partly competitive effort between these interests to open the Tops for exploitation. Transport was critical. There was much lobbying of the state for funding to improve access.
What was envisaged was a health resort and tourist resort area with facilities including large hotels, racecourse, trout-stocked streams and lakes - even skiing. People saw Barrington Tops as the 'Katoomba of Newcastle'. Even an airfield was proposed. Skiing, in fact, did take root for a time. By 1933 the Northern Ski Club was formed in Newcastle. Its members made trips to the ski runs they fashioned from the bush.
West Maitland Municipal Council and Maitland Chamber of Commerce, with support from the Maitland Mercury, lobbied for grand-scale development. In 1924 a future Mayor, Alexander (Sandy) McDonald, was instrumental in organising a trip to the Tops for a large group of parliamentarians, local government leaders, businessmen and media figures. The purpose - to garner support for the road development which, it was hoped, would open investment possibilities.
The councils were competing for limited resources because there could not be a road to the Tops from every direction. Maitland was at a disadvantage here, because routes up the valleys of the Paterson and Allyn rivers would have been extremely difficult to construct through the most rugged country of the whole area. Eventually, in 1978, an east-west road was built across the Tops linking Gloucester and Scone. No road all the way to the peaks and the plateau was ever built from the Maitland side.
By 1978 the energy directed to major recreation-based development had abated. Conservation interests had gathered strength and preservation was being emphasised: hence there was lobbying for a 'primitive reserve' or a National Park.
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