The Mt Hotham Alpine Resort is set in a unique and extreme natural landscape, an environment that has largely shaped its European history, a history that unique to the region and the State.
It must be acknowledged that human habitation of the area did not begin with the arrival of the first Europeans, and that an aboriginal presence in the high country had existed in the Mt Hotham region for many thousands of years previously. This pre and post contact history of the traditional people and their cultural connection to the land is poorly recorded. The principal language groups in the Mt Hotham region included the Gunai Kurnai, Dhudoroa and the Jaitmathang. Aboriginal activity and occupation of the area would have largely been influenced by seasonal conditions. In the spring and summer months aboriginal people would have gathered in large numbers to exploit the fruit berries and Bogong moth, whilst in the winter the region would have largely been inhabitable.
The regions European post-contact history has also largely been influenced by its climate, topography and geology. These natural influences have provided the opportunities, as well as setting the limits on its historical development. The topography has determined it’s the regions form of rugged ranges and broad open plains, whilst its geology has also played a pivotal role in its natural distribution of gold deposits – which led largely led to a mining led exploration of this part of the Great Divide. The fertile basalt plains and cooler summer climate have offered favorable conditions for seasonal summer grazing. The elevation and climate allowed for the development of the ski field tourism. The history of the region has also been strongly influenced by strong-willed individuals, as well as political, economic and social influences.
The history of Hotham has been affected by influences from both sides of the range. Mt Hotham (1868m) is the fourth highest, point in Victoria, atop the solid barrier that that forms the spine of the Great Dividing Range. Both the Ovens Valley on the north and Gippsland to the south have played important influential roles in the history of the Mt Hotham region.
Squatters, Selectors & Grazing Stock
The first European activity associated with the region was from the mid 1830s, and largely occurred in the open plains of the foothills adjoining the Alpine altitudes. North of the Divide, squatters, looking for grazing lands began to move into the district in the wake of explorers Hume and Hovell, (1824) and Major Mitchell (1835). The first runs taken up in Ovens River district in 1837, whilst to the south in the Omeo district stations were being established from 1835. Initial stocking rates were generally small with grazing taking place at lower elevations. With an improved market in Victoria during the gold rushes of the 1850s, stocking rates increased and summer grazing at higher elevations became more prevalent, with high country grazing leases granted from the 1860s onwards. The tradition of high country grazing continued for many decades, and gradually became restricted with the formation of the National Parks.
In 1851 the most influential event in the history of the region (and the nation) occurred with the official discovery of gold. In that first year gold was discovered at Omeo, where a few small diggings were opened. Then in 1852 rich gold discoveries at Beechworth attracted a large population into Victoria’s north east for the first time in history. The 1853 a rush of some 6000 - 8000 miners to the Buckland Valley further entrenched a population in the region. The gold discoveries on each side of the Divide saw a significant movement of traffic over the ranges between the new fields. Diggers travelling over the ranges in the vicinity of Mt Hotham were said to have discovered small quantities of gold, however these deposits in where left in preference for the richer pickings and better climate offered by the lower valleys. By the early 1860s, the richer deposits became scarcer and more difficult to work, experienced miners returned to the high country in search of payable gold deposits. The early 1860s saw significant gold discoveries being made on the Upper Dargo and Cobungra rivers. These new fields saw the establishment of more permanent populations in the shadow of Hotham. Principal mining camps and commercial centers on the Upper Dargo included, Brocket (1866), Louisville (1866), whilst near Brandy Creek and the Cobungra Diggings the establishment of the of the Cobungra Township in 1883, saw a population of some 400 to 500 in the immediate hills on the edge of today’s resort. Significant investments by lease holding companies on the Cobungra Diggings had far reaching influences. Keen to attract business from the new gold mining boom, both Bright and Omeo shires upgraded the Alpine road between Harrietville and Omeo from a 4ft wide pack track to an 8ft wide coach road in 1883. The long-term repercussions of this road upgrading would influence the region and resort development to present times.
The first accommodation places were established along the route from Harrietville with the discovery of the Crooked River Diggings in 1860 and the Upper Dargo in 1863. These were largely crudely constructed shanties that provided basic meals, sly grog and rough accommodation. Most were short lived, such as Polly Corbett’s Shanty on the Harrietville road, and Mother Freezeouts on the Dargo High Plains Road. One of the more permanent establishments to survive for 76 years was the Mt St Bernard Hospice, originally established by Mother Morrell in 1863 the business continued to operate in various forms up until it was destroyed in the 1939 bushfires. There was only a brief period when hospice was unoccupied. As well as providing an important service to the miners travelling through the alps, the Mt St Bernard Hospice also played an important role in early tourism in the region.
Skiing as a means of getting about first began in the Hotham area 1863 with miners living down on the Upper Dargo River. Louis Hanckar of Louisville, was said to have had a pair of skis planted on the high plains and using them to cross the divide to Harrietville. Mailmen crossing the plains also used skis during winter months. With increased publicity in the Melbourne newspapers in the area brought about by the Cobungra Diggings and the upgrading of the Alpine road in the 1880s, skiing as a tourism activity began in a small way. It was during the 1920s with Bill Spargo engaged by the Country Roads Board, and the establishment of the Hotham Heights Chalet, that Mt Hotham as a skiing destination began.
In 1933 the Railways Department took over the management of the Hotham Height Chalet and the first significant steps at clearing ski runs were made. The 1940s saw the establishment of the first ski clubs and lodges such as the Alpine Ski Club of Victoria (1944), the Wangaratta Ski Club (1946), Edelweiss Ski Club (1947) and the University Ski Club (1948). Emergency radio communications were installed in 1951 as was the first ski tow.
The Department of Crown Lands and Survey assumed responsibility for Mt Hotham in 1962, appointing a committee a Committee of Management to co-ordinate crown allotments, subdivisions and provide basic services such as drinking water. During its 21-year tenure, the Committee encouraged resort development, such as lodge construction, the Zoo Cart transport system, the addition of tow ropes and the first chairlift, the Playground Chair was installed.
In 1983 the Alpine Resorts Act saw the formation of the Alpine Resorts Commission (ARC) to manage all Victorian Alpine Resorts permanently reserved as Crown Land. The ARC contributed to the development thought the provision of adequate sewerage reticulation and treatment, reticulated electricity and gas and later the connection of the resort to the State grid. Other development in subsequent years saw increased parking areas, construction of the Hull Bridge, and completion of the sealing of the Alpine Road between Omeo and Harrietville in 1998.
The ARC developed a much stronger commitment to the environment during the mid 1990s, adopting the resort’s first Environmental Management Plan in 1997. In the same year the Alpine Resorts Planning Scheme was also introduced. In 1998 separate management boards were created for the individual resorts and the Mount Hotham Resort Management Board assumed management of Mt Hotham.
In 1995 BCR Management purchased Ski Tows Ltd and further developed the resort including new ski terrain and the Orchard, Keogh’s and Gotcha chairs in 1997 and the 53chalet development of Hotham Heights. The Mt Hotham airport was opened in 1999.
In 2002 amendments were made to the Alpine Planning Scheme, including revising provisions for car parking and introducing a ESO for the Burramys parvus, and a Heritage Overlay. In 2004 the 2020 Strategy was released to guide long term planning and management of Victoria’s alpine resorts.
In 2004 the lift company was acquired by MFS limited. In 2009 the $8.4m project for recycled waste water for snow making was completed.
Since the first travellers over the ranges strapped timber planks onto their boots at the Mt St Bernard Hospice during the 1880s the Mt Hotham area has been a skiing destination for tourists for over 125 years. The area today still has a strong association this early heritage in providing a unique recreational destination for visitors all year round.