“For years Rusten House has lain forlorn and largely forgotten, its empty corridors and darkened rooms echoing with a history filled with equal parts heartache and happiness,” writes NICHOLE OVERALL
BY staring at the water surface long enough, it’s possible to just make out the once-white stucco walls and, even after all these years, the tinge of the formerly red, corrugated-iron roof.
The stone and hand-hewn timber homestead once stood proudly overlooking the river valley that almost a century and a half later would be its death knell – the dammed waters swirling through and over it, submerging it forever.
“Googong”, the original property of 1845 (first known as “The Googongs” and later rechristened “Beltana”), drowned to build a mighty dam, is not the only lost heritage of what is much more than Queanbeyan’s newest suburb.
A schoolhouse from the 1880s that vanished more than 100 years ago may yet be one of those to re-emerge in what is actually one of the old city’s earliest European-inhabited areas.
As such, the place that was for those arrivals the very “edge of civilisation”, is more obscure and enigmatic than might be expected, encompassing tales of everything from disappearing skeletons to a local “hairy man of the woods”.
First officially mentioned in the registers of Queanbeyan’s Christ Church in 1848, the “forest country with some scrub, intersected by rugged gullies” was sighted by white explorers 25 years before that.
In 1825, it was taken up by one of the region’s pioneering – and largest – landholders, Robert Campbell. Responsible for Duntroon House (1833), the Campbells purchased almost 2000 acres (809 hectares) seven kilometres south of Queanbeyan in 1836, then referred to as “The River Station”.
How it came to be “Googong” is one of the outlier’s many mysteries (so, too, its meaning, which similarly remains unknown).
One version suggests it became thus about the time it was sold to a raffish Irishman John Feagan who, legend has it, Campbell didn’t think could pay – until he opened his saddlebags to reveal the gleam of his discoveries on the Araluen goldfields.
Following Feagan’s death in a riding accident, his son-in-law Albert William Studdy became master of all he surveyed, building a new homestead on higher ground with a picturesque view of the river running through it and ringed by the hills beyond.
Of course, it was this natural amphitheatre that also saw Walter Burley Griffin incorporate it as a potential reservoir in his Canberra plan – and it was Studdy’s concern about this that resulted in the sale of his home to grazier JC Gorman in 1920.
In a revision of that account, detailed by the Queanbeyan Heritage Committee in 2010, it was suggested the name “Googong” had been “pinched” by Studdy or Gorman from another settler, James Brown, who also acquired much land in the vicinity. Eventually, this came under the ownership of William Joseph Wells, also in the 1920s, who it’s alleged at that time changed it from “Googong” to “Wellsvale”.
Whichever account is correct (and the first appears most likely), it was on Brown’s property the now disappeared Googong Public School was situated from 1883.
Described as “a single-roomed slab building with a chimney, that was open to the weather”after almost three decades of use, for some unspecified reason, it was moved closer to Queanbeyan. By the end of 1913 though, its tenure was at an end.
With no existing records of its actual placement, it was overlooked and eventually forgotten, any remains covered with the inevitable sands of time. Now an archaeological dig has uncovered old-style pencils and stone foundations they are hoping will see the schoolhouse re-imagined, reminding the young students of the area’s latest educational facility of how different things were for their forebears.
In the meantime, there are those that will never rise again – the skeletal remnants of that very first building that went to its watery grave in 1976, at that point offering an ominous prediction of the potential fate of the city lying below it.
The Googong Dam wall holds back the equivalent of 50,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools and when it stood only 17 metres high, Queanbeyan was subjected to its third most dramatic flood event on record. So serious were the fears the wall would be breached, 5000 residents were evacuated from low-lying ground.
As to Googong’s other anomalies, they’ve been vouched for by many a prominent source including a local policeman who, in 1874, discovered human bones hidden in a cave. The bones went missing in the time it took him to get to Queanbeyan and back again. One of the region’s most decorated war heroes, Maj-Gen Sir Granville Ryrie, recalled yowie encounters when he was a boy in the 1860s – and even “The Queanbeyan Age” reported the drowning of one of the mythical hominids in the ’76 flood.
With all of that, who wouldn’t want to be a Googonian?