Gibb River Road History
The road between Derby and Mount House through the King Leopold Ranges opened up 5 million acres of undeveloped country in the central and Northern Kimberley.
The Gibb River Road was known as the "Mt House road" up until 1962. The old Mt House road originally went through Windjana Gorge, Carpenter's Gap, Whisky Crossing and Wombarella. It then travelled onto Mac Creek where the new Gibb River Road crosses today. From here the old Mt House road went up to the Fletcher River then turned off onto Duncan Yards and then down to Old Mt Hart Station. From here it continued onto Stumpy's 1st homestead and then past Mt Broome and Mt Ord then down to Rifle Creek. It went through Imintji (which used to be known as Saddler Springs) and then through to Egon Bore (Mt House).
On this old road it used to take 1 month to travel by wagon for supplies from Mt House to Derby.
This old road was handmade - using pick and shovel large rocks and boulders were moved to create 'windrows' on either side of the track. This track was wide enough for a bullock wagon to pass through. In some sections of the old road the wind rows were built up to a metre in height, and where the road cut through the sides of hills the rocks in the windrows were piled high to try and help stop rock slides and erosion. A lot of hard work went into making this old road passable, and into maintaining it.
Photo; Main Roads Camp at Bell Pass, 127 Miles from Derby on the Gibb River Road, July 1975
Main roads came along in 1961 to upgrade 'the Mt House Road'. The rugged terrain of the King Leopold Ranges meant that the location of the approaches to, and the actual crossing of, the ranges required extensive and detailed survey investigation. The initial investigation was done by an engineer, Ollie Pihu, who had worked for Main Roads as a surveyor prior to completing his engineering degree. Felix Urb, an engineering assistant with extensive experience in rural road location and design was transferred from Northam to The Kimberley to be a part of the Beef Roads Scheme Location, survey and design team. It was Urb who finalised selection of the alignment of the Derby - Mt House Road through the Napier and King Leopold Ranges.
The road to Mt House was difficult to construct because there were numerous watercourses and rugged sections through the Napier and King Leopold Ranges.
Photo; Construction of Bell Creek Crossing April 1963
At Inglis Gap in the King Leopold Ranges Main Roads gangs had to blast a 50 foot cutting and further into the ranges at Urb Gorges (Named after Felix Urb) the road skirted a 100 foot deep gorge and, in some places, had to be cut into the lip of the Gorge. The intense heat and isolation caused by the flooding in the wet made working conditions hard. To keep the workforce of fifty men in touch with civilisation and provide essential supplies a landing strip for light aircraft was constructed near Inglis Gap. By the end of 1962 a track had been opened up through the King Leopold Ranges, but there was still a great deal of work to be done in progressively improving it.
Photo; The artist of the painting depicted here was Frank Pash who at the time was very much in demand for his depictions of Kimberley scenes. The main roads commissioner at the time (Don Aitken) had this painting hung at Main Roads along with other works by Frank Pash. The picture is of the Mount House Road - an earlier name for the Gibb River Road.
Main Roads had a camp at the Fletcher Crossing called '#1 Camp'. The new road they formed followed the old road to The Fletcher River. But they took the new road through the hills to Inglis Gap (instead of following the old Mt House road further west and along the Fletcher River and through to old Mt Hart station).
In 1962 when the road was opened up through Inglis Gap, Main Roads made their 2nd camp here.
Photo; Main Roads Camp near Inglis Gap in March 1963. The camp has tents, tin sheds, huts - all moved from Talgarno and a caravan. Work at Inglis Gap can be seen in the background.
The road was then taken as far as Dog Chain Creek and main roads set up their third camp across the creek on the left hand side of the road.
Main roads then did the road up through Marsh Fly Glen to their next camp, and as far as Glenroy Meatworks.
In 1963 the first Freezer truck of beef travelled to Glenroy meatworks along this new road.
By 1965 the road was extended through to Gibb River and Kurungie opening up large areas of pastoral country and eventually linking with Wyndham further to the East. And...'The Mt House Road' was renamed 'The Gibb River Road'.
Photos Below; Constuction of 'The Bench'along the Gibb River Road (The lookout before Bell Creek) using Explosives and heavy machinery. This was one of the hardest and most dangerous sections of the Road to complete...
Information generously supplied by Sam Lovell who worked as a Kimberley Stockmen for many years all through this country. He remembers and can still find the path of the old Mt House road today. Sections of this old road is now overgrown with native grasses, saplings and termite mounds. In some places it is hardly recognisable. Sam knew the stations along the length of the old road - he knew the people that lived and worked there, and their stories. Sam worked for Main roads in the 1960's to help build the new Gibb River Road. Some text and photos above were referenced from 'The Vital Link - A History of Main Roads Western Australia 1926-1996 by Leigh Edmonds 1997'. Many thanks to Mike Wallwork who played a major role in the construction of the Gibb River Road, for very generously supplying us with this book, and Frank Pash's print.