Heatherlie Quarry History – Mt Difficult – Grampians, Victoria, Australia

Heatherlie Quarry

Heatherlie Quarry


During the late 19th Century and into the beginning of the 20th Century, the Mt Difficult Freestone Quarry (or better known as the Heatherlie Quarry) provided substantial quantities of freestone of the highest quality. Its principle use was for building construction and monumental work.

The stone was used in several important historic buildings in Melbourne, including Parliament House, the Town Hall and the State Library.

Of such significance was the freestone, that a tramway was constructed to link the quarry to the main railway line at Stawell, Victoria. A new township of Heatherlie was gazette close to the quarry.

Walking around the site of the quarry today, remnants of the quarry’s equipment, accommodation houses and rock faces still showing the marks of the operations of the quarry.

Part of the Quarry face at Heatherlie Quarry

Part of the Quarry face at Heatherlie Quarry


This quarry is off the Hall’s Gap-Mount Zero road (also known as the Bolte Highway), 13.5 km north of Halls Gap. It is at the base of Mount Difficult Range, on the eastern side.

A carpark is located on the left hand side quite an easy walk to the quarry – about 2.5 km round trip.

Chronological History of the Heatherlie Quarry

1861-1862 Francis Watkins, a stonemason of Stawell, discovered an outcrop of freestone in the Mt Difficult range while on a shooting trip, and recognised that the stone was extremely durable
1866 Watkins submitted an ornamental carved freestone pillar to an ‘exhibition’ in Melbourne. It was latter returned to him.
1870’s Grampians freestone from ‘Watkins Quarry’ used in construction in Stawell. It was initially used for rebuilding after a fire in the Main Street of Stawell, but mainly for headstones and similar items. Watkins obtained a lease over 3 acres for a quarry at the Mt Difficult site. The methods that Watkins and his workmen used did not meet what was expected in quarrying.


Surplus or reject stone was used in the police quarters and railway engine shed in Stawell
1872 Watkins submitted samples of the freestone from Heatherlie quarry for consideration for use in the Governor’s proposed new residence
1876 Watkins again submitted samples, for the new Law Courts. He enlisted the support of the local member of Parliament, Mr John Woods MP. The samples were rejected because they were too expensive.
1877 Mr P Galbraith, a Mining Agent of Stawell, sought a rough estimate (from local member of Parliament, Mr John Woods) of the cost of a tramway from Stawell to the Mt Difficult Quarry. Inspector Sutton, Public Works Department, visited the quarry to test the quality of the stone for possible use in an extension to Parliament House
1878 Stawell Quarry Co. borrowed a crane from Public Works Department for use at the quarry.

Victorian Railways Assistant Engineer, Mt F Rennick, Public Works Department Inspector Mr Sutton, Francis Watkins and ‘Mr Smith’ of Stawell investigated two suggested routes for the tramway.

Mr P Galbraith, who wished to form the Grampians Tramway and Freestone Quarry Co. to develop the quarry, again sought details of the cost of constructing a tramway.

Consequently, a preliminary survey was authorised. A survey camp was established in the vicinity of the quarry, with Mr C A Lawson in charge. About this time, Watkins gave up his quarry lease “to the company” in which he held a 10% interest.

A lease of over 3 acres was granted by the Lands Department to 3 people for 21 years. The lessees agreed to supply stone for any Government buildings at a fixed rate.

The Leggatt Committee suggested a gullet be put into the quarry to show whether or not it was worth opening up. This was not done because of insufficient funds.


1879 Lawson was instructed to survey a line from the quarry tramway line to Halls Gap. Victorian Railways refused to build the tramway to the quarry and to supply Mr Galbraith with so he could do the job himself.

The Commissioner for Public Works appointed a Board to examine a report upon suitable stone for the erection of the Houses of Parliament. The Board examined a sample of “Stawell Freestone” and visited several quarries including Mt Difficult. It recommended, unanimously, that “Stawell stone” be used and that a tramway be constructed from Stawell to Mt Difficult.

Tenders invited for west front of Parliament House but all were too high.


1880 The Royal Commission on the Parliament Buildings adopted the Boards recommendations.

Victorian Railways again declined to construct the tramway, but in October, it was agreed the Public Works Department would meet all construction costs.


1881 Contract for the construction of the extensions to Parliament House signed by Mr Samuel Amess, the government having undertaken to build the tramway from Stawell to the Quarry.

Contract for construction of the tramway signed by Messrs Pallett & Tamlin in February


1882 Amess arranged with the lessees of the quarry for them to supply the stone for the extensions to Parliament House.

On 23rd February the first four rail trucks carrying stone from the quarry reached Stawell en route to Melbourne.

Considerable controversy broke out about the quality of the stone sent to Melbourne. It was found to be inferior to the samples originally supplied, exhibiting “peculiar” defects of an unexpected kind. The Public Works Department ordered work at Parliament House to cease.

An expert committee, a board of enquiry and a Parliamentary Select Committee investigated the quality of the stone, all visiting the site in the process.

The Select Committee confirmed the original selection:

“the Mt Difficult freestone was superior to any other….known to Melbourne, local or imported”. It recommended that the Government make an advance to the quarry company to enable development of the quarry by “putting in a gullet” of about 60 metres into the mountain, or to the extent necessary, to obtain the best quality stone.


1884 Contract was let Comben, (?) and Otter of Yarraville to “put a gullet into the freestone at the Grampians, Stawell”.

Samuel Amess declined to continue work on Parliament House, forfeiting his contract.


1885 John Pigdon’s tender for the west face façade, using Mt Difficult freestone was accepted


1886-1887 Peak period of production at the quarry. Over 100 men were employed. They lived in crude huts nearby, which may have been partially built of stone fragments. Derrick Cranes were supplied and erected; several leases were being worked.


1888 Township of Heatherlie was surveyed; land sale from November but few blocks taken up. About 33 children of school age living in Heatherlie. Many of the workers who had first lived in tents were building houses.

Site for a State School gazetted.

School building removed from Darra to Heatherlie (August)


1889 School closed in October – attendance dropped to only 4 children.


1890 As a result of a strike, a tender for the supply of building stone from the quarry was not let.


1891 Five Children (and their families) were living at the quarry


1892 Seven families at the quarry

Only two “decent” houses had been built, others were of bark


1893 The quarry was probably closed earlier in the year mainly due to the cessation of the Public Works Department Contract.


1900-1910 Standard Quarries Pty Ltd took over the existing mining leases


1938 Lack of orders forced the quarry to close.


1939 Quarry untouched by the disastrous bushfire


1940 Some of the machinery was removed to marble quarry in South Australia


1949 Tramway line officially closed to all traffic


1951 Legislation passed to authorise dismantling of the tramway line. Almost the whole of the track removed. Many of the sleepers and a few rails are still in place in the quarry.


1971 Some stone extracted to face a building in Adelaide


c 1981 Stone from the quarry used to face a wall in the City Square, Melbourne, and in extensions in an ANZ Bank in Melbourne

Grampians Freestone

Geological description

It is one off the strongest and most durable freestones in the world. A fine, even grained white sandstone, probably Lower Carboniferous, it is characterized by siliceous segregations and by absence of cementing and colouring matter. Because of its hardness in situ and the presence of flints, the stone is difficult to quarry cheaply, but its unrivalled durability, very low maintenance requirement and appearance make the effort well worthwhile. It can be used as a veneer only 5-6cm thick. Its failure in a building is almost unknown.

Heatherlie Quarry Stone

Heatherlie Quarry Stone

Some Buildings built using Mt Difficult Quarry freestone.


Extensions to West Wing of Parliament House, Spring Street

General Post Office, Elizabeth Street

Port Authority Building (Notably the columns on the North and west faces of the building)

Former Bank of New South Wales building, Collins Street – between Elizabeth and Queen Streets). – Freestone Veneer.

Supreme Court Annex (formerly Crown Law Offices) – Lonsdale Street facing of front and side elevations

Melbourne Town Hall

State Savings Bank (Head Office), Elizabeth Street, exterior

Taxation Office

Newspaper House

Regent Theatre – renovation of west wall


Court House (Completed 1872)

Town Hall

Shire Hall – Pillars in front of Building

Anglican Church

St Patricks Roman Catholic Church

For more information on Heatherlie Quarry

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For a full set of photos of Heatherlie Quarry, click here

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