Powelltown is in the Mountain Ash timber country. Yarra Junction is where the Little Yarra and Yarra Rivers join, and access to Powelltown is by the Little Yarra River valley. The valley had been reached as far as the Gilderoy settlement (4 km west of Powelltown) by 1893 where berry fruits were grown.
In 1901 a saw mill was operating in the Powelltown area, but transporting the timber to Yarra Junction (where the railway passed) was difficult. A horse drawn tramway from Gilderoy to Yarra Junction operated from 1907, which was of some help to paling splitters.
In 1911 the Victorian Powell Wood Process Company was formed. The Powell processing of wood applied molasses and other chemicals for preservation, also making the wood harder and stronger. Arrangements were made with the State Government for construction of a Powell processing plant, lease of forest in the Upper Yarra Ranges for timber getting, and construction of a narrow gauge railway between Yarra Junction and the settlement to be named Powelltown. The railway carried both passengers and freight.
Powell processing was found to be an unsuccessful method of preservation, however, and a new company reverted to untreated timber.
Powelltown was a company town with housing, a boarding house and mess room. By 1914 there were a general store, a hall and billiards room, and the children were schooled at Gilderoy. An Independent Order of Oddfellows Lodge and a public hall were opened in 1917, and the prosperous 1920s saw churches, sporting facilities and membership of a local football league. In 1919 the company had built a State primary school. By the mid 1920s, Powelltown had become the second largest township in the Upper Yarra Valley, behind Warburton.
The late 1920s and the 1930s were marked by the timber workers dispute, a decline in timber cutting and a recovery in timber as the Depression lifted. The devastating Black Friday bushfire in January 1939 destroyed many bridges and forest tramways but Powelltown survived relatively well. An increased demand for timber during wartime kept Powelltown going, and the road from Yarra Junction was improved. The railway was dismantled in 1945. During the 1950s the ownership of land was transferred from the company to the residents. By the mid-1950s, however, saw logs were becoming scarce and the main mill was destroyed by fire in 1976. It was replaced by a smaller mill, employing fewer workers.
Today, you can enjoy a leisurely 15 kilometre drive through postcard scenery to Powelltown via Gladysdale, Three Bridges and Gilderoy. Upon arrival, stretch your legs and appreciate the tranquility of this tiny historical timber town, then perhaps enjoy a refreshing drink before heading eastward for a look at the famous Ada Tree.
The old tram tracks, which were built to convey timber from the forests to the sawmills, have now been converted into forest walks which traverse the surrounding forests of mountain ash (the second-largest tree species in the world) and cool temperate rainforest. These include Reid's Tramline Walk, Seven Acre Rock Walk, Walk into History as well as Spion Kopje. There are enough walks around Powelltown to keep the most enthusiastic bushwalker busy for a week.
This link takes you to Little Yarra Valley Neighbourhood facebook group for residents of Powelltown, Gilderoy and Three Bridges.
‘Powelltown’, Victorian Places, 2014, accessed on 24/10/2021
Photos: Victorian Collections, accessed 19/11/2021
Brian Carroll, The Upper Yarra: an illustrated history, Shire of Upper Yarra, 1988
F. Stamford, Powelltown: a history of its timber mills and tramways, Light Railway Research Society of Australia, 1984
Val Smith, Powelltown school, no. 3957, Victoria, Australia, 1917-1993: a pictorial history, Wesburn, 1993
Area profile for Rural South & East