Ross May in the Victorian Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands, oversaw construction of the Park in 1984/5 and he has kindly allowed his presentation to U3A in March 2014 on the history of the Park to be reproduced here.
Westgate Park – A Green Oasis at Fisherman’s Bend
A series of bores sunk by the Mines Dept. in the 1960s near to the current park revealed a layer of “Older Volcanics” laid down about 30 million years ago and which is about 60 metres below the current surface.
The “Older Volcanics” layer consists of basaltic clay as well as basalt rocks so it was probably exposed to weathering for a long time.
This basaltic layer is covered by a greenish-grey layer of micaceous siltstones containing marine deposits at about 45m depth so either the sea level had risen or the land had sunk.
At about 30 m depth , a thick band of Moray Street Gravels suggests a period of low sea level (or land rise) and high rainfall with vigorous run-off.
Overlying the gravels is the Fishermen’s Bend Silt up to 20m thick. It may be of marine origin and was later exposed to weathering before the sea rose again to around 8m above present . FB Silt is about 100,000 years old.
The overlying Coode Island Silt is up to 15m thick and is definitely of marine origin as it contains much evidence of marine life including dolphins and was deposited when the sea level was at least 3m above the present level about 50,000 years ago.
The overlying Port Melbourne Sands layer is about 10m thick under the park but is much deeper in other parts of the delta. When Europeans arrived there was a series of wind- blown dunes exposed but these were quickly removed for building purposes.
Quarrying for sand has resulted in the two lakes in the park – the larger fresh water lake having a large and diverse bird population but the smaller lake is highly saline, polluted with heavy metals and organics ( possibly waste oil) and is currently coloured pink by algae.
These various layers reflect the changes in land and sea levels in Pliocene, Pleistocene and Holocene times.
For example, about 1 million years ago , the Rowsley (west)and Selwyn (east) faults caused some of the intervening land to rise and Port Philip was sometimes dry except when sea levels were high. There are still minor earthquakes particularly along the Selwyn fault.
Near the end of the last Ice Age (about 18,000 yrs BP), the sea level was about 140m below present but by 6000yrs ago it was roughly about present levels. It then rose to be 1-2 m higher about 4000 yrs BP (probably when beach formation deposited the Port Melbourne Sand) and has since fluctuated by a metre or so around its present level.
Development of Melbourne town began in 1835. Because the Yarra was such a small stream (reported as 30m wide and shallow enough to allow horse crossing), dredging was necessary to allow ships to reach the new town and has continued since. As a result, the current river is far wider, deeper and has had many course changes since 1800. Flooding as a result of rainfall or storm surge is now unlikely
Site Management Prior to 1983
Fishermen’s Bend was part of the aboriginal Kulin empire although there is little evidence of their activities. The European invasion began in earnest with the establishment of Melbourne in 1835. Being a wetland, Fishermen’s Bend was treated as a valueless swamp by white settlers and used as a rubbish tip from the outset until at least the late 1940’s.
The earliest settlement was probably the shanty town established by fishermen at the bend in the river where it changes from a westerly flow to a southerly flow – hence the name Fishermen’s Bend for the locality south of the river and west of the town. Apart from the rather distant Melbourne town, Sandridge (later Port Melbourne) was the nearest formal settlement.
Industrial and commercial development gradually encroached, beginning with the construction of the first GMH factory in 1936, followed by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in 1937 and the Government Aircraft Factory two years later. The associated airstrips extended over what is now Westgate Park. The two aircraft plants are now owned by Boeing Australia.
Various other enterprises have mainly emerged post WW2 and include the Sunbeam Corporation, Rootes Group, Australian Motor Industries (later Toyota), Kraft, Herald and Weekly Times (which now forms the northern boundary of the park) and the still active GKN Aerospace, Defence Science and Technology and RMIT Aeronautical College.
The airstrips were used for motorcycle and car racing for about 10 years until 1958.
Construction of the Westgate Bridge began in 1968 with a large depot on the east side of the river covering much of the park site. After bridge completion in 1974, the park site was cleaned up. All Crown Land in Fishermen’s Bend reverted to Dept. Crown Land and Survey management. Licences were issued to Able Demolitions for the dumping of concrete waste and another company to mine for sand.
In the early ‘80s the Crown Land Management Section proposed a plan for a park in Fishermen’s Bend north of the bridge and submitted an application for funds from the Sesquicentennial Fund (150th anniversary of Melbourne).
After their election in 1983, the ALP government established the Lower Yarra Development Committee under the presidency of the Minister for the Arts, Race Mathews. A competition for the design of the park was won by Loader & Bayley and B. Mackenzie. The plan envisaged the creation of hills and access tracks, the planting of Australian flora, improvement of bird habitat and the incorporation of a narrow gauge railway, a sound shell and sculptures. Construction responsibility was assigned to the Department of Conservation, Forest and Lands and to be overseen by Ross May. Funds were allocated on the basis of what was available and what could be raised in tipping fees for the large amount of earth fill required.
The workforce was a combination of engineers, conservation officers, operators and supervisors from nearby CFL regions.
Site works commenced in late 1984. Decisions were made early to defer the railway construction except for earthworks and to bury the concrete waste under the proposed hills.
The Government decided to launch an unemployment scheme and assign unemployed to the park.
Construction progressed with a completion objective in the sesquicentennial year (1985). This was almost achieved despite adverse weather and an official opening was conducted in November 1985. The construction of the park in such a short time was the result of a high level of dedication by a skilled construction group.
On July 1 1986, management of the park was assigned to the MMBW for incorporation in the Metropolitan Park system.
Later, management responsibility passed to Parks Victoria which now arranges toilet cleaning and grass mowing services. Virtually all development and maintenance work is undertaken by the Friends of Westgate Park.
Friends of Westgate Park
This is a dedicated and skilled volunteer organisation which has clearly defined objectives, well planned work programs and regular reviews of work progress. The Committee members and others have a wide range of relevant skills.
Their primary objective is to gradually convert the flora content to a demonstration of typical flora of pre-European Melbourne. Plants are raised in an on-site nursery and are used to replace deaths, fill gaps, improve ecological structure and extend planted areas where appropriate. The Friends also direct the work of corporate teams from a large number of companies who have made Westgate Park the focus of their environmental programs.
There is no doubt that the park is in very good hands.
Fishermen’s Bend Urban Renewal Project
In September 2013 the State Government began a community consultation program on its proposal to establish four residential precincts in the Fishermen’s Bend area which it predicts will eventually house 80,000 residents. If and when this project proceeds, visitation to the park will increase dramatically and facilities will need to be upgraded.
Ross May, March 2014