About 40 minutes to the south of Canberra, you will discover a small ruin – just a chimney – sitting forlornly beside the Monaro highway. I’ve passed this remnant of forgotten history so many times. I’ve watched it flash by my window and thought fleetingly of who might have lived there and why it was now a ruin. I’ve often wanted to just stop and pause for a time. But we are always in such a rush in these modern times, aren’t we? Well, on my last trip, I finally did stop.
The Michelago Chimney
As you can see, the chimney stands right by the side of the road surrounded by a bit of wire fencing. There is no plaque or sign to explain its significance or existence. And yet the wire fencing suggests some kind of gesture of care.
After returning home, I did try to research the back story but could find no information about it except for a scant listing in the 2013 Cooma-Monaro Local Environmental Plan under Heritage items. The listing just says:
- Suburb: Michelago
- Item Name: Ruin-chimney
- Address: Monaro Highway
- Property description: [blank]
- Significance: Local
- Item no: I1791
So I suppose the chimney has some kind of significance…some kind of story, but what that story may be remains a mystery to me.
Questions and Echoes
What is it about seeing a ruin that is so evocative of the past?
An old historic house can be quite fascinating in an academic kind of way, especially seeing how people used to live with the rooms all decked out with historically accurate furniture and so on.
But, somehow, if you see a fragment of a wall, a chimney, grasses growing tall amongst the tumbled stones – you are transported.
What happened here? Was there a fire? Did the people just leave? Was it destroyed through malice – perhaps war? Where did they go?
All kinds of emotions can be stirred.
Perhaps your family experienced hardship. Maybe their house burned to the ground or they were evicted, never to return. Maybe they sailed to foreign lands and new lives. And all that may be left is this fragment of their lives – a haunting reminder of their time in this place.
Remembering the Stories
Sometimes the chimneys help us to remember.
Museums Victoria has set up a Victorian Bushfires Collection to remember the events of Black Saturday, 7 February 2009 – the day of the worst bushfires in Australia’s recorded history. The bushfires claimed 173 human lives and over 2,000 homes.
As part of that collection, Museums Victoria dismantled a chimney from a nineteenth-century homestead called ‘The Uplands’ at Kingslake and installed this chimney in the Forest Gallery at Melbourne Museum. The chimney was all that remained of the homestead after the fire.
But why a chimney? Well, as Museums Victoria explained:
Museums Victoria has a fascinating series of posts about the homestead, the operation of dismantling and removing the chimney, and the stories they learned through the process:
This chimney is an evocative symbol of the impact of bushfires on landscape, families and communities. While it embodies a clear connection to the impact of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, it also represents the enduring nature of bushfires across Victoria’s settled history. The sight of a lone chimney standing in an abandoned property is familiar to anyone who has travelled the back roads of Victoria.2
- Victorian Bushfires Collection
- Item HT 23963 Chimney – ‘The Uplands’, Kinglake, 07 Feb 2009 (Bushfire Damaged)
- Collecting & Rebuilding the Black Saturday Chimney
- ‘The Uplands’ Homestead, Kinglake, 1890s-2009
- Stories Revealed Through Bricks & Mortar
Symbol of Destruction…and Survival?
But why is it so often just the chimney left standing? There are many suggestions and theories. The simplest ones seem the most likely.
In some places the house was made of wood but the chimney of stone. So it lasted longer. Or the chimney design is such that it is stronger and can withstand fires or strong storms while the rest of the building is destroyed.
So, over time, a lone chimney has almost become a visual shorthand for fire or destruction.But I think the chimney ruin could also be a symbol for survival and endurance. Amid the rubble, debris and despair, the chimney stands tall.
More Chimney Ruins and Stories
The Australian landscape is full of these remnants. Little mysteries of past lives and forgotten stories.
People are often captured by the romance or mystery of these places. On the Internet, you can find hundreds of photos and stories of little ruins and abandoned sites from all over the world. Here are just a few examples for you to explore:
- Carnamah Historical Society & Museum’s Blog: Ruins of Home Chimney on Lot M913
- Barwon Blog: Branching Out – Mount Doran
- Folkways Notebook: Puzzle: Historic Chimneys Without a Home
- Silent Soldiers: Old chimneys stand guard to history
- Old Stone Houses: Old Stone Fireplaces – The Heart of the Home
- Ireland In Ruins
Perhaps you know the story behind the Michelago Chimney Ruin. If so, I would love to hear the story from you.
1 Australia, New South Wales government. (2016, August 5). Cooma-Monaro Local Environment Plan 2013. Retrieved June 12, 2017, from http://www.legislation.nsw.gov.au/#/view/EPI/2013/614/sch5
2 Museums Victoria (n.d.). Item HT 23963 Chimney – ‘The Uplands’, Kinglake, 07 Feb 2009 (Bushfire Damaged). Retrieved June 12, 2017, from https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1487715