Jenolan Caves

The Strange Jenolan Paradox of 1917

December 14, 2020

The dazzling Orient Cave


This month, on 27 December, one-hundred and three years ago, the stunning Orient Cave opened to the public, to great fanfare.  Yet 1917 was also the most terrible year in Australia’s history!  Paradoxically, it was one of the best years in Jenolan’s history.

The Costliest Year of All Time

In 1917, the First World War brought upheaval and heartbreaking loss for Australia. Last ANZAC Day, The Australian wrote, “The year 1917 was the worst of the war for Australia—it saw the greatest casualties of any year, escalating domestic rancour, the longest strike, a bedrock war-weariness and the defeat of the second conscription referendum. It is the most damaging and destructive single year in Australia’s national history. The scale of death, tragedy and family bereavement is almost beyond comprehension.”[i] historian Peter Stanley, “Australia lost as many men in 1917 as in the previous years of fighting combined — almost 22,000. It was the year of the heaviest death toll and the most social division. That’s not just the costliest year of World War One, but of all time. Twenty per cent of all of Australia’s deaths in war happened in 1917. Behind the military losses, which we pause to remember today, were social and political disruptions of a scale never seen before or since. The bitter conscription debate, setting communities against each other in rifts that would not heal for decades; the Great Strike that sowed bitter enmity between “disloyal” unionists and “scabs”; a plague of mice that devastated crops; food riots; and a constant undercurrent of tension and suspicion that had innocent men hounded, impounded and banished for the crime of having a name that sounded a bit foreign.[ii]

We know that any Aussie who did not enlist was busy keeping industry going at home, and volunteering for organisations who who provided comforts for the troops. Commonwealth and state governments sold war bonds to raise money for the war effort.

Improvement to Caves

While all this was going on, what was happening at Jenolan Caves? Well, 1916 to 1918 were years of massive growth at Jenolan Caves.  In 1916, electric lighting was installed in Caves House, Jenolan’s hotel, and work also began on a massive accommodation extension. In 1917, our ground-breaking hydro-electric power station was expanded, to power the lights in the caves and to prepare to light the new Caves House extension. Then on December 27, the glorious Orient Cave finally opened to the public, with great fanfare.  

George FullerMany dignitaries attending the grand opening, including the Colonial Secretary, George Fuller. His daughter, Miss Gwen Fuller, in her speech, expressed the wish, “that the un-veiling of the Orient Cave’s unparalleled wealth of splendour will be the means of inducing many thousands of lovers of Nature's handiwork to visit this romantically situated tourist resort.[iii]

When the Orient Cave was first discovered several years before, the cave explorers, James Wiburd, Jack Edwards and Robert Bailey could scarcely believe its beauty. Following the discovery, Wiburd, said “it seems almost sacrilege to intrude upon this domain of purity”.

NSW Superintendent of Caves, Oliver Tricket, wrote that the chambers: "are so surpassingly beautiful, they are decorated from end to end. There are 'shawls' 8 feet in diameter, massive fluted columns 30 feet high, clear pools with crystal floors 15 feet in diameter, and 'shawls' with translucent white bands alternating with very dark bands. The variety of tints exhibited by the formations is not equalled in any other cave at Jenolan. For beauty, variety, and grandeur it is difficult to imagine anything to surpass the caverns.”

Huge 4 storey wing built on Caves HouseHuge Hotel Expansion

As for the massive new 4 story extension to Caves House, which was just about finished in time for the Orient Grand Opening, it was a huge success as well.  The Sydney Morning Herald provided some fascinating details.[iv] The grand staircase was built and a lift installed. For gentlemen, a smoking room was added, and the billiard room was doubled in size. There were 2 floors of guestrooms (a few even had toilets) bringing the total number of guestrooms to 100. The dining room was moved upstairs to a considerably larger space, where it could be “second to none outside Sydney”, and its kitchen featured the latest “ice plant and cold storage”[v].  (We take refrigeration for granted, but the first self-contained fridges were not sold in Australia until 1918, and only the very wealthy could afford them.)

All this expansion was wonderful and was deemed necessary because travel by horse and carriage was a thing of the past, and visitors were coming to Jenolan in motorcars, by the thousands, in spite of the war.

Help Solve a Mystery

It does make one wonder. Any historians out there reading this?  There is probably a good reason why the NSW Government of 1917 was able to carry out so many improvements at Jenolan Caves at a time when so much money was needed for the war effort. We are keen to know the answer to this paradox.

1 Comments (Reply)
Carolyn Hide (Reply)
I came across this article while doing some Jenolan research on Trove the other day. Though it is a couple of years before 1917, it may be a possibility that money was allocated for local tourism and was why the Government of the day may have chosen to spend money on the Caves while having to also finance the war: Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1883 - 1930), Wednesday 27 January 1915, page 6 RECORD AT JENOLAN CAVES. PROBABLE PROSPEROUS TOURIST YEAR. The superintendent of the Tourist Bureau, Mr. Percy Hunter, who has just returned from London to Sydney, says that one of the most noticeable features of English life in war-time is the solid determination of all classes to "carry on." It is felt to be vital to the national well-being that the normal currents should be kept flowing, and while every encouragement is given to the young and vigorous to fit themselves for the fighting line, those who are left behind are expected to behave as usual. Thus, all amusements are fairly well patronised. Indeed, some of the vaudeville houses in London have been doing record business. Asked as to the prospect of the tourist business in Australia this year, Mr. Hunter said: "As the oversea travel is, for obvious reasons, likely to be very much restricted, I see no reason why we should not have a good season, at all our tourist resorts. If there is one useful thing for a non-combatant to do in these calamitous times, it is to preach a cheery optimism, and to induce our people to view the future with confidence. A good way for people to achieve this is to keep fit, and well amused. A holiday in one or other of the lake or mountain resorts, at the sea coast, golfing in the salubrious air of the Kosciusko highlands, or dodging the hot westerlies in the cool recesses of the caves will be found to prove beneficial. This is a time when people who customarily go abroad might well devote some time to 'seeing Australia first,' and our local tourist business may be well expected, therefore, to have a good year. "We have started very well. Things are booming at Kosciusko, and at Jenolan the first fort-night of the New Year has proved to be the best in the history of the caves. It is a record in every way, and is fully 20 per cent, better than the corresponding period of last year. The Tourist Bureau will exert every endeavor to promote travel this year, and to provide our people with health-giving recreation. In this direction I purpose while I am here trying to effect a closer working arrangement with the other State Tourist Bureaux, so as to avoid duplication of effort and advertising, and to try and make the most effective use of our opportunities."
4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911

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