The Whistler

Blue Mountains   -  Australia


The National Pass Whistleblower

Written by Editor John
November 17, 2015

The archives of the Sydney Stock and Station Journal are an unlikely place to learn about a 1908 whistleblower who revealed an embarrassing argument over the naming of the National Pass track at Wentworth Falls.

The whistleblower was the journal’s editor, Robert McMillan, who wrote a regular column under the byline GOSSIP.

Robert McMillan   (1848–1929)

As far as we know, The Whistler is the first to sight McMillan's article — which solves the mystery behind the naming of the National Pass that's puzzled local historians for decades.

The National Pass is one of Australia’s finest bushwalks with a giant zig-zag stairway carved out of a cliff face. Then it runs along a claystone ledge separating massive sandstone cliffs above and below to link Wentworth Falls with other waterfalls in the magnificent Valley of the Waters.

So what was the irritating issue that caused intense embarrassment at Government House and the Premier’s Office?

Let’s hear the full story from McMillan as it was written in 1908.

The Sydney Stock and Station Journal
Friday, April 17, 1908

At Wentworth Falls, in the Blue Mountains, they have a lovely place, and the local people are doing all they can to develop it, but, bless you, they have awful troubles. The few men with souls have got to carry all the rest of the crowd on their backs. They have to beg and to borrow and to rake and to scrape to get the shekels wherewith to carry on, and to develop the place so as to make it accessible to the visitors.

And they have their own local troubles, which are not past telling, but I hate to talk idle chatter, and yet, there is such a good story about Wentworth Falls that I feel as if I must tell it. But I don’t do it out of an evil spirit. I want to tell it because it is a story with a moral, and I like stories of that sort.

The Trustees of the reserve up there have spent a wonderful lot of money in making reserves and opening the scenery and the beauty spots to the visitors. They deserve all credit for it, too.

Lately they have made a path down the front of the precipice right to the bottom of the Wentworth Falls. It is a perfectly marvellous piece of work, and has cost about £400.

When it was completed they agreed to call it after our popular Governor — Rawson’s Pass. One of the trustees wanted it called after himself, because he had done the chief end of the work connected with it, but the others, like wise men, objected.

The trustees wrote to the Governor and asked his permission to name it after him, to which he graciously assented, and the Premier was to come with a Parliamentary party to open the place in state. And the little town was all in a flutter over the great honour that was going to be done in connection with this affair.

The day before the function, I arrived there, and found that I would have to go, which I very much objected to, because I hate functions. I prefer golf.

The evening before the great day came a bombshell. The dissenting trustee had written to the Governor and pointed out that it would be wrong to name it Rawson pass, because he, the trustee, and not the Governor had done the work and deserved the honour. Whereat the Governor graciously assented to the change, and sent the letter on to the Premier, and the whole thing collapsed, like a house of cards.

The poor trustees made the best of the matter and called it National Pass and went on with the festivities, but there was no parliamentary party, and no Premier, and there was no great report in the Monday papers, compared with what would have appeared, but the reporters were as nice about it as they could be. They said that the Premier had been unable to be present, owing to “circumstances over which he had no control.”

And they never breathed a word about the silly little incident. They knew about it, for I met them on the Pass, and talked it out. But they said no word to hurt any man’s feelings. But the people at the Falls said things that would have made the sinner sizzle. Poor chap!

I felt sorry for the trustees, and I felt more sorry for the townspeople, but I went round that pass and saw what that meant.

They had cut some steps down the precipice, and railed them in with wire rope and strong netting and when you looked down the sheer depth, it made you feel that there was netting to keep you from the vasty abyss.

It’s queer the desire that comes over you at a place like that, to throw yourself off. You could’t there, not very well.

We went down and down till it seemed that we had gone thousands of feet till we stood underneath the falls which had melted away into mist before they reached the bottom. And then we looked down, and lo! we appeared to be no nearer the bottom of the valley than we did when we were on top. It is so deep, deep, and awful.

We passed under the falls — which failed to fall; we were so far down — and then we went along the narrow path to the Valley of the Waters, and when we looked back, at the steps we’d come down, we were amazed! You couldn’t tell that there were any steps on the face of the cliff at all.

As we walked by the vast semi-circles hewn from the mighty cliffs by a power which is far more than human, and saw the soft ferns and tender flowers decking all the mighty rocks, the old query arose, how came this wondrous picture? How came this deep valley, perhaps 2000 feet deep, with the precipitous sides?

Mr Darwin failed to find the answer, when he stood on the edge of the valley at the “Weatherboard.” But if he had come down here he would have found the answer so easily! As we sat on one of the benches wisely provided for weary pilgrims, we saw how the rocks were laid in layers as distinct as the jam and the cake in a Swiss Roll.

There was pure yellow sand, baked into solid rock and a purple shale, and a yellow ochre; all sorts of rocks appeared to make up those mighty cliffs. But, just behind us, there was a layer of something which had almost disappeared, and left the rock overhanging. What was that? Aha! That was the Secret. That was the chap who has hollowed out the valleys, and made this wondrous scenery.

That shy, retiring, plastic, yielding stratum which has crept out of sight, is the very thing that is carrying out the work today. It is a stratum of clay. Think of the wondrous power of God which uses the simplest thing in the world to confound the mighty. There is nothing simpler than clay, is there?

And yet, when a band of clay underlies a solid rock, and a stream of water eats the clay out, the rock is bound to fall. And the little streams in the mountains have eaten out the seams of clay, and the rocks have fallen and smashed, and have been carried away to the sea by the floods, and new rocks have fallen and been eaten away, until the great valleys which amaze us with their depth and vastness and beauty have been formed, all through that simple clay.

I meant to have told you about the Valley of the Waters, in a crevice, as it were, a mere fissure in these vast rocks. The stream comes tumbling down the moss-clad, fern-dressed rocks, singing as it falls, with the music of sounding silver and tinkling glass.

This harmless, innocent crystal stream is one of the army of destroyers, that cuts away the clay and brings the solid to destruction, in the process of making the beautiful valley.

You can sit in the crevice and look out to the westward, through a narrow slit in the vast cliffs, looking like a gateway to the gods, to where the far blue hills show themselves as in unearthly glory and you — wonder!

And oppressed with the sense of the infinite and the glory of the hour, you turn your eyes away from the unspeakable and then you see, carved on the seat, within an encircling heart, “M.E. and J.B.” Poor little human mites, yearning for the brief immortality that comes from the writing on a bench! The same old yearning:—

“When I’m dead and in my grave,
And all my bones are rotten:
This little book will tell my name
When I an quite forgotten.”

It’s a wonderful place, is Wentworth Falls, and I meant to have told you more about it, but it’s indescribable. There’s a moral to the story though. Have you seen it?

So what was the moral of Robert McMillan’s story? And who was the “sinner” who asked the Governor to name the track after himself?

The moral of the story is fairly obvious: be careful seeking to leave your name for posterity – it can backfire.

And the poor sinner? It could well have been the trustee Frederick Weeks, the first schoolteacher in Wentworth Falls and a crusader for building tracks to access the Valley of the Waters and for the National Pass.

The embarrassed but conciliatory Governor Rawson returned to England unaware that in the 1950s he would finally have a mountain pass named after him – Rawson Pass near the top of Australia’s highest peak Mount Kosciuszko. Rawson Pass has the honour of having the highest toilet in Australia.


McMillan’s entire Gossip column article
Sydney Stock and Station Journal – April 17, 1908
PDF file on new page

Biography – Robert McMillan (1848-1929) Australian Dictionary of Biography

The Passing of Gossip The Land – February 22, 1929
PDF file on new page

Death of Mr. R McMillan
The Sydney Morning Herald – February 19, 1929 – page 12
PDF file on new page


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