Otway sawmill history


Sawmilling in the Otways formed a significant part of the history of this land. So how did it come about? What impact did this have on the subsequent formation of the Great Otway National Park?


Tree seesaw Minchinton brothers
In the West Otway region the forests from Kawarren to the Beech Forest – Lavers Hill areas were divided up into farming blocks, giving land holders the option to remove the trees on their land if they so chose. Farm failure due to harsh conditions such as rain and bushfires, was widespread, so much so that hundreds of farm blocks were not cleared of any timber. This opened the way for sawmillers to move in and harvest the trees rather than have the farmer ringbark and burn the trees to create pasture lands. Astute farmers offered timber rights to sawmillers as a way of clearing their land.


Timber harvesting was on a small scale until the railway from Colac to Beech Forest was opened in 1902. The railway enabled heavy loads of timber product to be conveyed out of the bush and into Colac and forwarded to markets.

The terrain and soil conditions made sawmilling and logging difficult particularly in winter, so wooden railways called timber tramways were laid down to cart logs to the mill and sawn timber to the nearest railway station. Log hauling in the bush was done with bullock, horse teams or steam winches where a wire rope was used to drag the log from the stump to a landing or the mill. The mills themselves were powered by steam engines.


Because of the land tenure arrangements a sawmiller in the West Otways mostly had a logging area limited to a farm size so these mills tended to move around. This resulted in a huge number of sawmill sites and plants being employed. In the West Otways from the early days to the 1970s there were something like 250 operating sawmill sites.

Over time the Forests Commission bought failing and abandoned farms and bush blocks and considerably increased the forest estate, rationalising the mosaic of tenure and creating wide swathes of State Forest. Much of this now forms the Great Otway National Park.

After the Second World War the mills came out of the bush and centralised in settled areas such as Gellibrand, Carlisle River and Colac. These operators used modern methods such as electric powered mill plants, bulldozers, motor winches and heavy duty motor trucks to move logs and sawn timber. 


Logging of native forest was closed off in 2008 ending the hardwood sawmilling era in the Otways.

Visit The Sawmill Room at the Otway Districts Historical Society rooms in Beech Forest where you can view a sawmill operation model and further information on the history of sawmills in the Otway Ranges.