History of the Great Southern Road -
Hume Highway

Prior to 1928 the Hume Highway was known as the Great Southern Road, Argyle Road and also as Port Phillip Road and Sydney Road in the southern areas of NSW. In 1928 the NSW Main Roads Board adopted the principle of giving each important State Highway the same name throughout its length. After consultation with the Country Roads Board of Victoria (which had previously used the name North Eastern Highway for the route), it renamed the inland road from Sydney to Melbourne as the Hume Highway.

Lansdowne Bridge, opened 26 January 1836

The name was a tribute to Hamilton Hume who, together with William Hilton Hovell, in 1824 led the first exploration party overland for Port Phillip in Victoria, and much of the present highway route is along the path followed by Hume. Hamilton Hume was born near Parramatta on 19 June 1797, his parents having been amongst the earliest settlers in the Colony. In his early days he was hardy and athletic, and grew up with Aboriginal friends from whom he learned his indispensable bushcraft skills. In addition to his exploration between Sydney and Port Phillip, he is also associated with other noteworthy explorations, particularly in the western portion of NSW with Charles Sturt in 1828. He died on 19 April 1873 at his home, Cooma Cottage, near Yass. He is buried alongside his wife Elizabeth in the Anglican section of Yass Cemetery. His exploration partner William Hilton Hovell died on 9 November 1875 aged 90 and is buried in St Saviour's cemetery in Goulburn.

Early explorations

In the first twenty years after European settlement at Sydney Cove in 1788, exploration to the southwest was slow. This area was heavily wooded at the time, especially the ‘Bargo brush' which was regarded as almost impenetrable. In 1798 explorers Wilson, Price, Hacking, and Collins reached the Moss Vale and Marulan districts, but this was not followed up. Settlement of this area would have to await the construction of an adequate access track, which was beyond the Colony's resources at the time.

Surveyor General Inn, Berrima

Soon after Sydney Cove was settled, the Colony's small but precious cattle stock consisting of two bulls and four cows strayed and were lost. In 1795 the cattle, now numbering 60 head, were found to the south of Sydney near Camden, then known as ‘The Cowpastures'. They were protected by order of the Government and no settlement was allowed beyond this point. By 1802 some 600 cattle were sighted near what is now Picton. Increasing herds of better bred cattle were placing pressure on the carrying capacity of the Cumberland Plain. A number of settlers, in search of more pasture for their stock, brought their cattle beyond The Cowpastures, leading Governor Macquarie in 1820 to officially sanction settlement in the area now known as the Southern Highlands.

During the early 1800s, the southern route from Sydney Cove passed though Parramatta and Prospect, then turned south via Carnes Hill and Narellan, as those localities came to be called, to the Camden area. Later a route was developed from Sydney via Liverpool and Cross Roads to Carnes Hill, and this became the principal avenue for traffic southwards.

In the early 1920s the road between Cross Roads, Campbelltown and Narellan was also improved, and for some years carried the main traffic to the south.

Hume was one of the earliest explorers of the area between Liverpool and Goulburn. In 1814 he discovered a tract of country north of Goulburn which was named ‘Argyle'. On 3 March 1818 he accompanied Surveyor James Meehan and Charles Throsby (who in 1804 had penetrated through the Bargo brush to the tablelands country near Moss Vale and Sutton Forest) on a journey to determine if an overland route between Sydney and Jervis Bay could be found. They proceeded as far as the site of Moss Vale, then on a line to the north of the present route of the Hume Highway, which they reached at Marulan. From there they travelled south, to the east of Bungonia and to the west of Lake Bathurst, making the return journey to the south of where Goulburn now stands. After that journey, development of the Southern Tablelands for grazing was rapid.

With the extension of settlement from Sydney to the west and south, the Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane supported the 1824 Hume and Hovell expedition to gather information on the unexplored territory between Sydney and the southern coast of what is now Victoria. Hovell resided at ‘Naralling' (from which Narellan later took its name), where he had obtained a grant of land in 1821. The party set out from Appin on 3 October 1824 and over ten days travelled via Picton, Bong Bong and Breadalbane to Hume's property near Lake George, then the furthermost outpost of white settlement. They then proceeded to Yass Plains, crossing the Goodradigbee River after being delayed by a flood, and entered unexplored and mountainous country. They passed close to the site of the present town of Tumut, and on 16 November 1824 reached the bank of a large river which they named Hume River (after Hume's father; it was later renamed Murray River) near the site of the current Hume Weir. The journey ended on the western side of Port Phillip near the site of the present city of Geelong. The route of Hume and Hovell's party thus followed to a considerable degree the general route of the present Hume Highway.

Abandoned section of the Old Hume Highway north of Marulan

Early surveys

The earliest survey of the route of the future Hume Highway appears to have been carried out by William Harper in 1821. His field books contain details of a traverse from the Nepean River near Camden, over the Razorback Range and on to the Wollondilly River near Paddys River. In 1826 a survey was carried out by Surveyor Ralfe further south over the Cookbundoon Range, continuing until it intersected the Wollondilly River near Breadalbane.

A letter dated 21 July 1829 from the Colonial Secretary to the Surveyor-General Major Thomas Mitchell refers to the line of the road in use through the Argyle district being from Campbelltown to Menangle Ford, then from Stonequarry Creek (later Picton) to Myrtle Creek (near Tahmoor), and on to Bargo and Lupton's Inn (just south of Bargo) – this route thus did not pass over the Razorback Range. The route then crossed the Mittagong Range to the township of Bong Bong, and from there to the bridge at Paddys River before reaching Barbers Creek (later Tallong), a distance of 108 kms from Menangle Ford. Much of this was Throsby and Meehan's line, which forked at Sutton Forest to follow the top of the Shoalhaven gorge. The route previously envisaged over the Razorback Range was however not abandoned; in 1829 Surveyor H. F. White was instructed to make a detailed survey of the Razorback Hills, and to identify a line of road through the area.

"The cut" on the completed Tumblong to Tarcutta Deviation, 1941

On 26 March 1830 Mitchell reported that, in accordance with the Governor's instructions, a line of road had been marked. Mitchell envisaged this line to become the third of the three great roads of the Colony, along with the Northern and Western roads. This line followed the existing route via Campbelltown as far as Lupton's Inn. Between there and Little Forest (just east of the current village of Alpine) the previous line was straightened with a slight saving in distance. But south of Little Forest a considerable alteration in the existing route was made. The new line left the old track at Little Forest Hill and ‘although it was somewhat tortuous, the ascent to favourable ground was easy, and this ground could not be reached by any other manner.' The new line continued to the north of the old track, avoiding the Mittagong range, and passed through Bowral to Berrima, where Mitchell reported favourable conditions for the construction of a bridge. The line then went southwards along almost flat country to Black Bobs Creek, immediately north of the existing track to Goulburn. It crossed the Old Argyle Road at Hoddles Corner, then crossed Paddys River at Murrimba and proceeded via Marulan to Towrang, where it rejoined the old line. The saving in road length by adopting Mitchell's new line was 36 kms, and it dispensed with the need for two crossings over the Wollondilly River. This relocation of the route also brought to an end the brief life of the small settlement of Bong Bong. Bong Bong had been the site of a police lockup, Bowman's Inn and veteran's grants. These were lots granted to British soldiers who were envisaged by Governor Darling to become land-based yeomanry to bring civilization to the bush, and form a militia to support the police.

Old Hume Highway east of Yass, 1949

Mitchell's new line did not cross the Razorback Range. However, a line for a road across the range was determined after Surveyor White's survey and an inspection by the Commissioners for partitioning the Territory. Many objections to this route were raised in the press and it was also opposed by Mitchell himself, to no avail. He argued that the suggested route was not in the proper location to serve the Argyle district. Ironically the current Hume Highway follows Mitchell's line closely to avoid the Razorback.

Those interested in further information on early routes of the Great Southern Road are referred to two self-guided tour brochures – Southern Highlands Heritage Drives and The Great South Road - available in the Environment – Heritage section of the Roads and Maritime Services website.

Early construction work

The first definitive record of a road being constructed from Sydney to the south is the construction of a section between Sydney and Liverpool by William Roberts, which was opened on 22 March 1814.

Construction of overpass north of Bargo in 1967, which replaced the last remaining single lane bridge on the Hume Highway

In 1818 Hume and Meehan disclosed the existence of promising lands to the south, and Governor Macquarie encouraged settlement in the new country. A new road was necessary, and this was constructed by convict labour. The earliest reference to this road is in a letter from the Governor to Commissary-General Drennan dated 9 September 1819, where instructions were given for ‘the construction of a cart road through the country as far as the settlement about to be established there'. The work was commenced the following month and completed in February 1821. The length of the road was 121 kms, and its average width 10 metres, although only a single cart width may have been properly cleared of stumps and rocks. The road crossed the Bargo River, passed over the Mittagong Range then crossed the Wingecarribee River near Bong Bong, passing through what are now Moss Vale and Sutton Forest. It then went west across Paddys River on a low level bridge, and a short distance further on crossed the Wollondilly River. It then ran through Arthursleigh, an early land grant, then to Greenwich Park and on a rugged climb (Wild's Pass) across the Cookbundoon Range. The main route then travelled north towards Bathurst, while the southern arm appears to have reached the Wollondilly River again at what is now Throsbys Ford (near Towrang). This route had several lengths of steep grade, many river and creek crossings and poor construction quality, and by 1822 a new route along the south bank of the Wollondilly River (Riley's Road) had been adopted.

In 1832 Mitchell's attention turned to planning the construction of new roads and better stream crossings. One day while walking along Macquarie Street in Sydney, he saw a worker cutting stone for the low wall in front of the Legislative Assembly building. That man was David Lennox, who later became Superintendent of Bridges. Lennox was born in Ayr, Scotland in 1788 and worked in various roles on major bridges there before arriving in Sydney in 1832. After earlier bridges at Prospect Creek, Lansdowne had been destroyed by flood, Lennox designed a single-span 33.5-metre stone arch bridge which was erected by convict labour. The stone was quarried 11 kms downstream on the banks of Georges River and conveyed to the site by punt. The foundation stone was laid by the Governor on 1 January 1834 and the bridge was opened on 26 January 1836. This fine structure, the most intact example of all Lennox's bridges, remains in use today carrying traffic northward to Sydney.

Old Hume Highway scene, Alpine

Approval was given in 1832 for the construction of the road on the new line surveyed by Mitchell in 1830. There are no definitive records as to the order in which the roadworks were carried out, but there are records of the bridges built by Lennox along the way. In 1833 he was instructed to construct a bridge over the Wingecarribee River at Berrima, and after a delayed commencement it was completed in June 1836. It was designed on the lines of the Lansdowne Bridge with an arch span of 15.3m, but was destroyed by a flood in 1860.

On 23 January 1834 Lennox reported having laid out the site of a bridge on the main southern road at the crossing of Midway Rivulet, 5 kms south of Berrima. A timber bridge supported by three masonry piers was completed in 1835. Also in 1834 Lennox laid out the site of a bridge at Black Bobs Creek, 12 kms south of Berrima. This bridge was replaced in 1860 and again in 1896. The 1896 structure was the first unreinforced concrete arch bridge built in NSW, and is still standing today. It is accessible on foot at the rear of the Mackey VC Rest Area, located north of the Illawarra Highway junction.

A grand masonry arch bridge was also constructed over Towrang Creek in 1839. This structure and a short length of the original main southern road, including six culverts, is visible in the area adjacent to Derrick VC Rest Area north of Goulburn.

The land that Mitchell's line of road passed through was largely taken up with land grants, and it managed to miss the few small administrative centres at Bong Bong and Inverary. Mitchell instructed his surveyors to lay out towns along the route, and the new settlements were Berrima, Murrimba, Marulan and Bungonia, while Goulburn was drastically re-planned. Some towns developed into thriving communities, while others such as Murrimba struggled. For travellers they were somewhere to have a drink, a sleep, get the horse shod and to catch up on all-important gossip about road conditions and bushranging.

From the 1860s, the arrival of the railway again favoured some towns with a new lifeline and relegated others such as Berrima to obscurity. These struggling towns were seen in a different light in the 1950s, when private car ownership rediscovered them, not as abandoned settlements, but intact remnants of a lost Australian heritage.

Mitchell's Great Southern Road forked at Marulan, and one branch followed the top of the escarpment to Bungonia, while the other arm veered west to Goulburn. At the time he laid it out, Mitchell was uncertain about which direction would take off. He hoped for an easy passage down the escarpment, which was never to be found, while in the 1830s the great pastoral occupation of south-eastern Australia was gaining momentum. Mitchell later followed and surveyed the Hume & Hovell route, and this became the main traffic line; the early overlanders talking about following the ruts of Mitchell's wagons across the riverine plains.

Climbing Jugiong Hill, 1947

By 1847 the main southern road passed through Goulburn and Yass. The Yass River was bridged by a structure completed by Lennox in 1854. A track then continued through Bookham, Jugiong and Coolac to Gundagai, where the Murrumbidgee River was crossed by a ford. Prior to a great flood in 1852, the township of Gundagai was located on the wide flat on the northern bank. The flood destroyed the original town with the loss of 89 lives and as a consequence the settlement was transferred to higher ground. Prince Alfred Bridge over the Murrumbidgee River was opened in 1867, and was the first iron truss road bridge to be built in NSW. Together with the timber viaduct on its northern approach it was, at 922m, the longest bridge in NSW until the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932. When Sheahan Bridge on the Gundagai Bypass opened in 1977, Prince Alfred Bridge reverted to a local access role and this State Significant structure remains in service today, connecting South Gundagai to Gundagai via a road across the floodplain. The historic timber viaduct is now closed to both vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

The track then followed the southern bank of the river to Jones' Inn, some 32 kms from Gundagai, passing through Mundarlo (well to the west of the current highway), turning southwards to Tarcutta and then running generally in a south-westerly direction through Kyeamba Station and over Kyeamba Range to Garryowen and Germanton (now Holbrook), then via Bowna to Albury. At this time the route was merely a track serving local holdings, although much of the route south of Tarcutta is along the same general alignment as that of today's highway.

Old Hume Highway south of Gundagai, 1951

The control of the main southern road was assumed by the Department of Public Works in 1861. At that time a fair amount of gravel surfacing had been carried out between Sydney and Goulburn, although the surface was not good. From Goulburn to Albury very little construction work had been undertaken. The southward expansion of the rail system during the 1860s and 1870s lessened the need for the road to be improved, and its development slowed.

The motor car era

The Shires Act of 1905 transferred the care and control of public roads to local councils. With the passing of the Main Roads Act in 1924, the Great Southern Road became eligible for assistance from Main Roads funds from the State Government. In Government Gazette No 110 dated 17 August 1928 it was proclaimed a State Highway and named in honour of Hamilton Hume.

The motor car era began half a century before personal car ownership became common. Apart from trucks, most travel was by coach, taking over from the stage coach runs of the 19th Century. Horses remained common, as did travelling stock.

Early in the motor car era the Hume Highway became the setting for unauthorized speed trials. These events ran from 1905 until ended by police pressure in the mid-1930s. At that time, the record for the ‘Sydney to Melbourne Run' had progressively dropped to 8 hours and 56 minutes.

In 1933 the Table Top deviation of the Hume Highway between Ettamogah and Mullengandra opened. This major deviation was necessitated by the construction of the Hume Dam on the Murray River, which created Lake Hume and inundated the former highway route.

During the Depression years from the late 1920s several projects on the Hume Highway were funded by the Unemployment Relief Works Program, which funded a wide range of capital works aimed at providing work for the unemployed. Examples on the Hume Highway include the Governors Hill Deviation at north Goulburn, the Tumblong-Tarcutta deviation and the Razorback deviation. As a result of these projects, the Hume Highway had by 1940 been sealed over its full length in NSW, and similarly through Victoria to Melbourne.

Constructing Sheahan Bridge at Gundagai, 1976

In the early 1950s, the northern section of the highway started to change its appearance. In 1952 Margaret Davis, President of the Garden Clubs of Australia, and a group of interested citizens formed a committee under retired Army Lt-General Sir Frank Berryman to create a living memorial to those who had served in World War Two. They were inspired by the US ‘Blue Star Highways' which had been promoted by Garden Clubs of America. That name referred to the blue star that was hung in the front windows of houses where a family member was serving in World War One; if that person was killed in conflict the blue star was changed to a gold star.

Remembrance Driveway sign, south of Mittagong

NSW Premier J.J. Cahill officially launched the Remembrance Driveway scheme in late 1953. On 5 February 1954 the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh planted trees at either end of the Driveway at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, and in Macquarie Place, Sydney. By June 1959, 10,000 trees had been planted in avenues or groves along the route. When the M5 Motorway was declared as the Hume Highway route south of Liverpool, it became the focus for tree planting. Since the mid 1990s the rest areas along the Driveway have been dedicated to recipients of the Victoria Cross from World War Two and Vietnam, and this tradition continues.

Another major event in the history of the Hume Highway occurred on 17 March 1967, when the last single-lane bridge on the route was eliminated with the opening of the 191 metre bridge over the Bargo River and Main Southern Railway Line between Tahmoor and Bargo.

1974 saw probably the most significant milestone in the evolution of the Hume Highway, with the passing of the National Roads Act. While the Federal government had been providing roadworks grants to the states since the early 1920s, the funds were generally provided over many classes of roads, both urban and rural, reflecting the generally poor standard of all roads at that time. However, during the 1960s there was a growing recognition that development of the nation's primary roads like the Hume Highway was not keeping up with community expectations. The National Roads Act created the National Highway system, and marked the beginning of 100% Federal funding for the construction and maintenance of the nation's major intercapital highway routes. An ambitious program of highway duplications, town bypasses and deviations commenced along the Hume's length, and much construction activity followed in the 1980s and 1990s within NSW and Victoria.

Notable projects in NSW were bypasses of Gundagai (1977), Marulan (1986), Berrima (1989), Mittagong (1992), Goulburn (1992), Yass (1994) and Jugiong (1995), and major deviations between Campbelltown and Yanderra (1980), at Tumblong (1984) and Cullarin Range (1993). In later years major bypasses were built at Albury (2007) and Coolac (2009), and 67 kms of duplicated highway between the Sturt Highway interchange and Table Top was opened in 2009.

The histories of individual towns in this guide have been written by enthusiastic local historians, and vividly describe the vast changes that this program of roadworks has had on their communities.

With the opening of bypasses of Tarcutta and Woomargama in 2011, and Holbrook in 2013, the Hume Highway completed its evolution into the modern high-standard road that we see today, a major freight route and a critical part of the nation's transportation infrastructure. It forms a permanent and fitting memorial to the intrepid Australian-born explorer Hamilton Hume.