Waiting for the 1931 rock fall in Katoomba

As 1930 drew to a close,  coal miner Arthur Mellor made a disconcerting discovery at Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains of NSW. In the ground behind the great cliff known as Dogface Rock he came across a deep fissure measuring eight feet across.  When a surveyor was called in the  depth was estimated at 400ft. The Katoomba Colliery was nearby, and some people blamed the subterranean mining tunnels for the subsidence.

Katoomba coal mine
Entrance to Katoomba coal mine in the late 19thC

In mid December there was a violent  electrical storm in the area. One  woman was struck by lightning and died in the main street of Katoomba. It was believed that this storm further  loosened the projecting  cliff face. The possibility of using gelignite to blast  the cliff apart was considered, but it was decided that so much explosive would be required it was easier to let nature take its course. Fortunately there was no danger to the public, the mass of sandstone would simply fall into the uninhabited Jamison Valley.

By  New Year the crack had grown even wider. As news spread, tourists began to arrive.  There were all hoping to be on the spot to  witness the fall.

‘A mighty cliff between the coal mine at Katoomba and Narrow Neck is expected hourly to give way in a terrifice landslide which will hurl millions of tons of rock 2,000 feet into the Jamison Valley.

Running for 200 yards parallel with the cliff edge and 200 feet from it, a yawning fissure this afternoon was 10 feet across and steadily growing. Great clouds of dust were rising from the base of the groaning cliff and spectators were warned against approaching too close to the  scene.’

Much to everyone’s disappointment the dramatic event occurred in the middle of the night. On January 29th, residents were startled from their sleep by rumbles and strong  vibrations. Oh for heavens sake, they’d  missed it! Well……maybe not all of it.


There was still a giant slab teetering above the valley. Special trains and buses began bringing people in from everywhere. It was a much welcomed filip for the economy of the  Mountains  at the height of the Great Depression.

Enterprising locals took advantage of the situation by hawking postcards and setting up food stalls. I loved this report in the Sydney Morning Herald on February 7.

Rock fall tourists at Katoomba

‘An old spring cart comes up, driven by a small boy. It is loaded with cases of fruit and bags of watermelons, on top of which sit a big burly man in a ‘hard hitter’  [a bowler hat] and his little thin wife. Good-naturedly the service car men make way for the newcomers, for they are a well-known, hard-working family, and everyone is glad for them to make hay while the sun shines. Without losing time the cart is unloaded, and in a few minutes cases of plums, peaches, pears, and oranges gleam temptingly from the shade of a tree, and a heap of green-skinned watermelons hardly needs the invitation of the burly man, ‘Noice, roipe watermelon, penny a sloice…’ I have to say that the people pictured below look rather overdressed for mid-summer, maybe they were Queenslanders.

At least those waiting  (centre left in the picture below) could view the spectacular aftermath of the first great fall.

Rock fall at KatoombaMy 1931

Despite the gaping crevice It turned out to be a very long wait.

Katoomba Rock Fall
A sight o behold, the lone figure give an idea of the scale.

Patience had run out for most people when the finale occurred on  the afternoon of May 2nd. However, Sydney man Mr Cameron was holidaying in Katoomba  and had made the obligatory excursion to the look-out point. ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it crashed right now?’ he joked to his wife. And as if in response, the earth moved. With sounds like rifle shots the massive hanging rock split until it sheered off, plummeting into the valley. When a bus load of people arrived shortly afterwards there were still clouds of dust rising.

Ktoomba rock collapse 1931
A huge dust cloud lingered.

Later that month The Uralla Times published a light-hearted piece about recent events in the Mountains;

‘Mother nature has nearly finished a job of landscape gardening in the Blue Mountains which she started last year. One of the features of the majestic Jamison Valley used to be Dog-face Rock, a sandstone cliff face that overhung considerably. …..Mother Nature didn’t like it. She chopped 100,000 tons off it at the end of January and left another million tons or so partially severed. The general public, which is never so happy as when risking its life, has been capering about on top of the plot marked for removal every fine day ever since, but the sport palled, and on a recent Saturday, when the cliff slid succinctly to the bottom of the valley, there was nobody around to get killed.’

Back came the tourists in droves . One young girl reacted very badly when her parents refused to allow her to venture up from Sydney with a boyfriend.

Thankfully the girl recovered.

There was another near tragedy several months later. A group of local bushwalkers had decided to cut a path through the rocky debris in the  Jamison Valley. On October 4th, three volunteers were working; Mr S. Austin, his 19 year old son, and Mr C. Juergens. At about 10.00am young Austin was busy cutting down a tree. His plan was to fell it across a gorge as a makeshift  bridge. Unfortunately he slipped, slithered to the edge of the gorge and to the horror of his companions, disappeared. He was spotted lying motionless on a ledge, 30ft below. Mr Juergens scrambled up the gully to raise the alarm while Mr Austin risked his life by climbing down to his son. The young man was  alive, but covered in cuts and bruises. His left leg was smashed below the knee; broken in three places.

An ambulance arrived , but it was  soon realized that it would  be impossible to haul  a stretcher up. The only solution was to lower the patient another 40ft to the base of the gorge, then carry him through the valley. Just reaching the base took an hour and  half, followed by a four hour trek through virgin bush, negotiating  streams and huge outcrops of rock. Each jolt of the stretcher must have been horrific.  When they reached the Katoomba Colliery the stretcher  was lowered down an air shaft. At the bottom it was placed on a trolley and wheeled half a mile to the main shaft, then raised to the surface on a skip. The poor fellow remained conscious the entire time.  He was well aware of the effort being made on his behalf and did not utter a word of complaint, despite being  in  absolute agony.

The doctor who accompanied the party  and provided what pain relief he could was  Erik Dark, a keen climber and bushwalker himself. He was married to the well known writer Eleanor Dark. Eleanor also played her part on the day, having coffee and other refreshments waiting at the mine entrance  for the exhausted rescuers.

Dr Eric Dark, Eleanor and their son Mick, taken in the grounds of their home Varuna, in Katoomba.

Today, the avalanche in the valley has almost been obliterated by  forest growth. However, there are still giant, lichen covered  boulders as reminders of nature’s force. And  even after eighty years of weathering,  the ‘new’ face of the cliff  still stands out.

Dogface Rock Katoomba
Photo by Dave Noble

The landscape of the majestic Blue Mountains is always changing, with rock fractures and landslips.  I took the photo below at Shipley, near Blackheath. The fall occurred in 2016. It was nothing like the scale of the 1931 events and I don’t think it even made the news.

Impressive rock slip, Blue Mountains


1 Comment
  1. I have included your blog in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at
    Thank you, Chris

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