Jenolan Caves

A Flooded Sanctuary!

January 18, 2019

At Jenolan Caves, in the Blue Mountains of NSW, guides are often asked, “Do they flood?” Yes, they do, but infrequently, and only when enough rain has fallen to saturate the catchment areas around the caves. However, a hundred years ago in February, a calamitous deluge hit Jenolan, causing panic, the closure of both the hotel and the caves and a damage bill of over £5,000 – a tremendous amount of money in 1919 - worth around $150,000 today. How did such a disaster happen? 

In 1880, the original Caves House hotel was built at the confluence of two streams, Camp Creek and Wallaby Creek. Builders were warned that the site was flood prone. But perhaps because flat land was rare in the valley, work went ahead. When the original hotel burnt down in 1895, its replacement, which still stands, was built in exactly the same position.

In 1919, a bushfire had denuded the hills above the hotel, and many mature trees had been cut down years earlier to feed the valley’s steam driven generator. It was a classic recipe for disaster.

Then, on the evening of February 26, the first inkling of trouble came when lightning flashed above the high points of the nearby Great Diving Range. But since summer storms are common, little notice was taken. Those who did notice “smiled serenely as they contemplated the warm beds that awaited them in the security of their airy bedrooms”. The smiles quickly vanished as the rain went from a musical patter to a voluminous drumming on the roof, “occasioning a deafening din”.

Camp Creek, which flows in front of the hotel became a frothing, muddy torrent, whilst behind the hotel, a tidal wave crashed down Wallaby Creek. Building up against the back doors, the wall of water burst into the Music Room, now the Guest Lounge.  “Affrighted screams arose, as the muddy stream swirled into the daintily appointed music room, and saturated the silken hosiery and clinging draperies of the ladies assembled there.” 

Fearing for their expensive Erté dresses, these ladies fled to the front door, seeking safety on the wide verandah. But they were confronted by the raging of Camp Creek and more water crashing down the steps behind them, bearing furniture and floor coverings.

The luckless music room was now over a metre deep in muddy foaming water. As more water entered, the grand piano began to float around the room like a de-masted schooner, eventually wedging itself upside down against the windows. Mr. Palmer, the Caves House manager, pluckily waded through the deep, angry waters and kicked at the French windows until they gave way. The flood water cascaded into Camp Creek, bearing its trophies of household effects down to the Grand Arch and beyond.

Mr Palmer speedily organised search parties to guide his terrified guests to the safety of the rooms on the upper floors, as the rain continued to fall, jamming shattered tree trunks and a myriad of other wreckage against the rear of Caves House. After an hour, the lights failed, but by this time the storm was largely spent, and the waters began to subside. All awaited the dawn, to ascertain the damage.

As the first light hit the valley, a scene of utter desolation greeted them. On Feb 28 1919, the Blue Mountains Echo painted an evocative word picture of the damage, “The retaining wall before the 'Old House' was riven and broken, and the concrete pathway below it had been torn up, as though by the hands of some malevolent giant. Carpets, mats, chairs, tables and what-not formed a littoral, from the entrance of the House to the gaping portal of the Grand Arch, and, mute witness to the fury of the vanished waters, the ruined piano straddled the music room window like some lifeless colossus.”

The Grand Arch was blocked with wreckage, cars were buried by mud, and huge damage had been done to the water, lighting and sewage services. Many guests had lost personal possessions, including a chauffeur whose trousers had been snatched away by the raging torrent!  He was forced to dig his car out and attempt to start it, without success, clad in a pair of striped pyjama pants. 

The deluge had not only assaulted Caves House and strewn wreckage over the De Burgh Bridge at the entrance to the Grand Arch but had also flooded some of the caves. In the Temple of Baal Cave, ash and coal slurry from the boiler house waste pit, ended up in the cave, forming a distinct tide mark that visitors can still see today.

In the Imperial Cave, gravel from the underground river washed into the Blue Lake, forming an artificial island. The rush of water wrenched a light reflector from its spot, jamming it five metres up a narrow cleft. It remains visible there to this day, mute testimony to the fury of the storm that raged a hundred years ago on that memorable evening in 1919.

Mr. Palmer had the last words on the matter, “You can announce that, owning to the crisis, the caves are closed temporarily.”  This disaster was one of very, very few times that the caves have ever been closed. Today, as always, Jenolan Caves and Caves House hotel are open every day of the year, including Christmas.

1 Comments (Reply)
Ian Rufus (Reply)
A brilliantly told story adding still more to the reasons to come and stay. I work in heritage, write this sort of thing and know that these added features attract people.
4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911

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