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As dusk falls over the village of Walhalla, located in a lush valley in the Australian Alps, I’m waiting for the lights to come on to illuminate the landmark band rotunda across the street from my hotel. It’s a nightly miracle of sorts, considering that this Victorian goldrush town was connected to mains power a mere 25 years ago.  

Once one of the world’s richest goldmining towns, Walhalla’s fortunes have been boom-and-bust since a prospector named Ned Stringer discovered gold in this valley on 26 December 1862. The new settlement that arose, as miners flocked to share in the riches, was first called Stringers Creek. It was renamed Walhalla after an earlier mine, which itself took the name – meaning ‘valley of the gods’ – from Norse mythology.

Now, more than a quarter of a century after electricity finally reached the town, Walhalla is part of a bid by a group of Victorian goldrush-era towns to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status, in recognition of their important place in Australia’s history.

Every night Walhalla’s landmark brass band rotunda is illuminated.

By the late 1800s, Walhalla had a population of about 3500 people, along with 10 hotels, three breweries and seven churches. Over a 52-year period, more than 70t of gold was extracted from the valley, with most of the wealth destined for Melbourne where the mine shareholders lived.

“If you want to see where the money went, stand on the corner of Spring Street and Collins Street in Melbourne,” says Michael Leaney, who rebuilt Walhalla’s Star Hotel in 1999, providing the catalyst for the town’s connection to mains power and its resurgence of fortunes – albeit on a lesser scale than in its early days.

The original Star Hotel was the terminus for the Cobb & Co coach that serviced Walhalla until 1910, when the railway finally came to town. However, the railway arrived somewhat too late for Walhalla because, by 1915, the gold had become difficult to extract and the mines closed. Ironically, the rail line provided an easy way to remove most of the mining machinery and many of the town’s buildings. Walhalla was virtually abandoned, leaving only remnants of its glory days. Today it is home to fewer than 20 people.

When Michael bought a ‘weekender’ house in Walhalla in 1991, the land on which his hotel now stands was a parking lot, the original Star having burned down in 1951. “My friends in Melbourne thought I was crazy,” he says. “There was no electricity, nowhere to eat, no heating – in winter, icicles formed on everything and it wasn’t pleasant. It was like glorified camping. Day visitors would arrive and wander around for a few hours, but there was nowhere to stay.”

With a background in tourism and hospitality management, he saw the opportunity to “get in on the ground floor” and build a hotel. “I also had a strong interest in history; my mother was the president of the Doncaster & Templestowe Historical Society for many years and as a child, at the weekends we wouldn’t go to the football, we’d go to visit historic houses,” he says with a laugh.

Walhalla was once one of the world’s richest goldmining towns.

Electricity was essential, of course, and Walhalla became the last town in Australia to be switched on to a reticulated electricity supply, on 21 December 1998. The rebuilt Star Hotel was the first building in Walhalla to be connected, opening its doors for business on 11 March 1999. Other buildings in the town were connected over the next two years, as the supply was gradually extended.

The facade of the hotel is a replica of the original, recreated with the help of a trove of historic photographs – including a collection of about 1000 glass plate negatives from the studio of the Lee brothers, who documented life in the once bustling town.

“There were lots of photos of the hotel which we were able to use to count the weatherboards and the bricks to recreate it,” says Michael. “It was simple and plain; Walhalla never progressed beyond a frontier town because the shareholders didn’t live here and they didn’t invest in grand Victorian mansions here. The only grand element of the hotel was the iron lacework on the verandas – we took the old photographs to the Anderson & Ritchie foundry in Melbourne, they looked in the catalogue, went out the back and pulled out the mould. It was amazing.”

The Star Hotel – then and now.

Walhalla hasn’t looked back. Located in the Great Dividing Range, about 4km upstream from Stringers Creek’s junction with the Thomson River, it is a popular stopover on the Sydney–Melbourne coastal drive. The Australian Alps Walking Track, which runs 650km between Walhalla and Canberra, is popular with walkers. In summer, says Michael, about 2000 visitors a day, mostly day-trippers and weekenders from Melbourne, 180km away, arrive to explore its attractions.

One of the best places to start in understanding the Walhalla story is on a tour of the Long Tunnel Extended Gold Mine, one of the valley’s richest, yielding 13.7t of gold. I walk from the hotel to the mine, just 200m from the centre of the village, taking time to admire the leafy single street lined with timber cottages.

As we walk between the rail tracks inside the mine, ducking our heads to avoid beams, our guide Hayley explains that the miners were, on average, less than 165cm tall. Two hundred men worked this mine, in shifts of 50, labouring for eight hours a day, six days a week, using pickaxes, hammers and gunpowder to extract the gold. “They were digging 1.5m of rock per week, with horses carting out the rock, working by candlelight,” Hayley tells our small group. “The candles were made of animal fat, so you can imagine the smell.”

The Long Tunnel Extended Gold Mine was one of the valley’s richest.

From the mine, I take the old Tramline Walkway along the ridge above the village, which joins the start of the Australian Alpine Walking Track. On the other side of the valley, steep steps lead to the top of ‘Recreation Hill’. There wasn’t much flat ground in Walhalla, so the enterprising miners flattened the top of the mountain to create a sports field that famously hosted the 1907 cricket match between the Melbourne Cricket Club, captained by Warwick Armstrong, and a local team. Armstrong went on to captain the Australian cricket team that beat England 5:0 in the Ashes in 1921, and his visit to Walhalla has never been forgotten.

For walkers with limited time, it’s possible to undertake short sections of the alpine track either from Walhalla or from the Mt Erica Carpark entrance to Baw Baw National Park. One of the most popular walks is to the aptly named Mushroom Rocks, 3km walk to a maze of giant granite tors that takes about two hours, or further on to Mt Erica, through stands of mountain ash, silver wattle and snowgums.

Back on the main street, a heritage trail marks 30 places of interest, including the historic cemetery clinging to the hillside, the Walhalla Chronicle newspaper office and the Fire Station Museum, which straddles Stringers Creek. Walhalla’s recent history has included major threats from bushfires, although the village itself has escaped significant damage. A new Country Fire Authority fire station opened in Walhalla a decade ago, in recognition of the danger. One impact of the 2006/07 fires was the destruction of a rail bridge that served the Walhalla Goldfields Railway, but this was quickly rebuilt. The narrow-gauge train is a popular attraction that has been running down Stringers Creek Gorge since 1993.

Today, Walhalla retains some of its gold-rush era buildings. Many are now shops and cafes.

The UNESCO World Heritage listing bid for Australia’s Victorian Goldfields is a collaboration between 15 shire and city councils throughout the state, Michael says. He was elected to Baw Baw Shire Council in 2016 and in 2021–22, he served as the shire’s first mayor from Walhalla since 1918.

He says achieving World Heritage status would recognise the social and economic impact that the 19th-century Victorian goldfields had, not only on Victoria, but on Australia and the world.

“Around the world, the goldrushes of the 1840s and ’50s led to massive migration, industrialisation and economic development and Victoria’s goldrush was the biggest in the world,” he says. “And if it wasn’t for Walhalla, the colony of Victoria would have gone bankrupt in the early 1890s. There was a land boom, then a collapse and Victoria was on the verge of bankruptcy but the yields from the Long Tunnel and Long Tunnel Extension Gold Mine were at their height at the time and saved the colony. During the late 19th century, this was a hugely important place.”

Although the bid process is in its infancy, still to be endorsed by the Victorian and federal governments before being presented to UNESCO – a process that may take five or more years – Michael is hopeful it will ensure the future of towns like Walhalla.

At the end of the day, I witness the golden floodlights illuminate the Mountaineer Brass Band rotunda – built in 1896 – before retiring to my room. All the Star Hotel rooms are named for the mines that still pock the surrounding hillsides: Kitty Darling, Fear Not, Black Diamond, Grey Horse, Happy Go Lucky, Worlds Fair, Rising Sun, Lady Brassey, Wild Cat, Homeward Bound, Tubal Cain and Wealth of Nations. Each name evokes the spirit of the times that gave birth to this small piece of Victoria’s history.

All photographs supplied by Walhalla & Mountain Rivers Tourism.