Jenolan Caves

'I am in no position to rebuild' The destruction of old Caves House - 1895.

March 4, 2019

When Mark Foy opened his Hydro Majestic hotel in 1904, it was described as a Palace in the Wilderness'. The same could be said of Jeremiah Wilson's extensive tourist accommodation at Jenolan Caves, which by 1895 had virtually filled all the available building land in the Jenolan Valley.

A contemporary article lauded his development, which had played host to a succession of Vice Regal representatives, “ Many improvements had been recently made, some of a distinctly ornamental character. All the old buildings surrounding Caves House have been cleared away and the space neatly fenced off into gardens. The little settlement nestling under the hills has a clearly well kept appearance and is strikingly reminiscent of the Swiss villages one so often comes across in an Alpine ramble. Everything is peaceful and quiet and happy, and life flows on from day to day."

So it seemed, until on the night of March 13, 1895, when all was quiet, in the darkness of the autumnal night. Suddenly a disastrous fire broke out somewhere in the complex around 12:40 am.  With the buildings all made of wood, the conflagration rapidly took hold. The Sydney Morning Herald reported,"The fire ran through the buildings so quickly that little was saved, some visitors loosing all. Keeper Wilson and several of his family escaped in their night clothes ." 

Wilson's immediate neighbours rallied to fight the fire, with what ever they could, but as the 'flames lit up the hills around' it became obvious that nearly all was lost, except for a new house, 'which was saved after great exertion'.

Daylight revealed a sorry sight. A swathe of the buildings erected by Jerry since 1879 were burnt to the ground, in a tangled shambles of charred timber and twisted iron.The only building of substantial size still intact was the newer two-storey building dating from 1887.

How and where did the fire start?  There have been rumours and theories that the fire was no accident, that it was a 'torch job' to claim insurance or that that a jealous husband, enraged by Jerry's reputation as a ladies man sought revenge. Whilst the latter might be plausible, we can discount any part Jerry might have had in the destruction of his livelihood by fire. The fame of the Caves and the resort-like facilities were such that he could entertain State Governors and minor Austrian royalty such as Prince Joseph of Battenburg, who had stayed there the previous month. The verdict down the years is that it was an accident, pure and simple.

As to where it started, no one could really say. House fires were a common enough experience in the 19th century and despite having the kitchen separated from the main dwelling – a practice in place since medieval times – cooking using rapidly combustible wood, even with the newly developed range, could be a risky business. At night, bedroom candles could fall over and catch curtains on fire, as could an oil lamp.

A photograph taken the next morning reveals that the fire had taken out buildings next to each other, including the original Caves House with its kitchen, a billiard room and two dining rooms. Now we do know, from earlier accounts, that Jeremiah used to entertain his visitors at night before a roaring open fire piled high with logs in the old house. Could it have been that this fire was still in use? Perhaps a spark leapt out of the smouldering fireplace, setting fire to the carpet, and Jerry and his family, awakened by the frantic warning barks of their dogs, had only minutes to save themselves. The creeks in front of the fire enabled buckets of water to douse any flames reaching the new house, but buildings in a line along Wallaby Creek, caught fire one after the other.

We can truthfully surmise that Jerry was devastated. In a letter to the Government,he declared that he had erected all the buildings at his own expense, and although partially insured, was in no position to rebuild.  So he would have to relinquish his lease, which had been his for nearly 30 years. 

A new Caves House was built on the site of his original building, of solid limestone. Nothing today remains of Jerry's enterprise, except for photographs and some contemporary prints of the old house. These latter, donated by Robyn Felsch, one of his descendents, hang in the quiet elegance of the proudly named Jeremiah's Bar on the first floor of Caves House, which is open every night of the year, from 6:00 pm.

As you sit there and sip a cocktail, think of the effort Jeremiah Wilson put into bringing the Caves to the recognition of the world, only to see it all come crashing down that fateful night so long ago.

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4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911

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