Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Origin of Names: Sassafras

Due east of Melbourne, on the outer suburban fringe, the suburb (and town, pop. 1008) of Sassafras occupies the green, forested slopes of the Dandenong Ranges. The scenic beauty of the region is well known, but less well known is how it came by its exotic name, one of my favourites in the city.

As Melbourne expanded in the decades after the gold rush, the city's new inhabitants began to explore their surroundings more thoroughly. Mild of climate and richly forested, the Dandenong Valley drew visitors from Melbourne well before any settlement was based in the area.

One of these early explorers was English born chemist Ambrose Eyles, who arrived in Melbourne in 1849.

Atherosperma Moschatum, or Southern Sassafras.

Exploring the Dandenongs in 1850, Eyles identified large numbers of the tree species Atherosperma Moschatum in the gullies of the area. The Atherosperma, or Southern Sassafras, is a medium sized, native evergreen tree that requires a cool climate and high rainfall, meaning it is mostly found in Victoria and Tasmania.

The concentration of Sassafras trees in one river valley lead to the area becoming known as 'Sassafras Gully' (and the river as 'Sassafras Creek').

Painting of Sassafras Gully by Isaac Whitehead, 1870.

Sassafras Creek, 1870.

As the formal city boundaries were pushed further east in the late 1800's, more land was opened to development and agriculture. The lush soil and mild climate of the Dandenong Valley was well suited to farming, and small farm lots went on sale in 1893. A post office, at the time often the key sign of a township's development, opened in 1901.

The new town was initially known as 'Sassafras Gully'.

An early homestead in Sassafras Gully.

Alongside farming, the forests of Sassafras Gully seemed well suited to logging and the timber industry was soon active in the region. But from a surprisingly early time, locals realised that an even more lucrative enterprise was available to them.

The popularity of Sassafras Gully as a getaway destination for Melbourne's inhabitants soon meant that tourism became the bedrock of the local economy. Hotels, cafes and restaurants sprung up to cater for the demand created by city folk who wanted a weekend away in the country, conveniently only 45 km from the city.

By the time the name of the region, and town, was shortened to plain 'Sassafras' in 1917, the area was well established as one of Melbourne's foremost tourist destinations. A role that it continues to serve to this day.

Main street of Sassafras, 1940s.

Main street of Sassafras, today.

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