Hidden Secrets – ‘Dead Man’s Pass – Gawler’
Before European settlement, Dead Man’s Pass and the Gawler region was the home to the indigenous Kaurna Peoples.
Known originally to European settlers as The Para Pass, the river crossing was first used circa 1836. Colonel William Light is recorded as having stayed at a camp near the pass in 1837, while exploring the Barossa Valley region and attempting to find passage through the Mount Lofty Ranges towards the Murray River.
The crossing got its name after an exploration party returning from the Barossa ranges came across an exhausted traveller, whom they offered respite too. Once stopped at the crossing they checked on their new companion who had fallen asleep in the back of their dray, only to find him dead.
Having no tools with which to dig a grave, they placed his body upright in a hollow tree and covered it as best they could with sticks and branches.
Not long after, another travelling party happened across the gruesome site, and, after taking samples of the gentleman’s clothing, encased him with clay in the tree. The name “Dead Man’s Pass” was adopted circa 1842 as the permanent name of the South Para River ford, in honour of the dead man found in the hollow coffin tree.
There are many different accounts of the finding of the dead man. No one is certain which account is true. Perhaps there is a little truth to be found within each version of the story.
Dr George Nott wrote of finding the dead man in 1860 in his book: Short Sketch of the Rise of Progress of Gawler.
In his diary Colonel Light wrote: “13th January 1839. Returned to the Para. We halted here the rest of the day. Having heard of a dead body being there under an old tree, we examined the spot and found it. There is a mystery in this affair as it had been kept a secret. The skull is large, and the flesh almost entirely gone. Part of his dress remained. His trousers of corduroy seemed good as far as his knees – under those much torn. His short on one part contained much coagulated blood. The body was covered over again and some of his clothes packed up and conveyed to Adelaide.”
In the book “The Story of Dead Man’s Pass” The Honourable B.T. Finnis of Gawler wrote a story with a slight variation to Colonel Light’s.
“Travelling with Colonel Light on one occasion before the selection of the Gawler Survey, we camped at the Gawler River and whilst resting there we were surprised to find a dead man buried in an upright position and plastered with clay. No part of his body was visible except the toes. The
wild dogs had evidently discovered the corpse and had somewhat mangled the feet. It was evidently a white man’s burial place from the clothes. The story that was circulated in Adelaide as to the cause of the death of this unfortunate man originated with a party under the charge of
Mr Bernhard. It was stated that travelling to the north, having a dray with them, on nearing the ford of the Gawler River, a man in a distressed state rushed from the scrub west of the line of the road and fell down in an exhausted state, perishing for want of food and water. He was taken
every care of, but died very soon after meeting this party, which precede ours on the way north. They had buried him in this tree and plastered him in to save his body from the wild dogs. We afterwards called this tree
“Dead Man’s Tree,” a large hollow gum tree. The dead man was supposed to have been a sailor, escaped from some ship off Port Gawler, who had lost himself in the scrub in his endeavour to reach Adelaide, and thus perished miserably.”
In yet another variation, The Southern Australian newspaper on the 16th of January 1839 published an article titled “Suspicious case”. Which read;
“The body of a man, buried some time ago in the bush to
the northward, was exhumed last week by Colonel Light and Mr Finniss whilst
those gentlemen were out on their surveying expedition, and it was found that
the shirt, vest and trousers of the deceased were stained with blood, and his
pockets were turned inside out. The clothes were brought to Adelaide for
examination by the authorities and we hope a strict investigation into the affair
will be held. At the time of the reported death of this man in the bush, many
months ago, no inquest was held, as there ought to have been, and we trust the
coroner will not be allowed to neglect his duty.”
Dead Man’s Pass became a much-used crossing into the main street of Gawler as the only roadway for bullock drays and horse and carts. The ford crossing became a secondary way into town once a new bridge was built in the 1860’s on the Adelaide Road.
In 1869, Gawler Council surveyed a new roadway at Dead Man’s Pass. Council workers began constructing the new road and came upon a skull and bones. Examining further, they found an almost complete skeleton. The bones were taken to office of James Martin and examined by Doctor Nott. Dr Nott concluded that they were the bones of a very tall European man owing to the size of the thigh bones.
It is thought the bones were those of the man buried in the base of a tree some 30 years prior. The unknown man’s remains were interred in an unmarked grave in the newly formed Gawler Cemetery, now known as Pioneer Park.
In May 1890, a footbridge was installed at Dead Man’s Pass, erected by Mr T White.
In 1901, Patrick Condon, a Gawler Corporation employee had a fatal accident when his night cart flipped when it fell down an embankment, and landed on him, killing him.
Also, in 1901, a young crippled boy was found dead in Black Hole billabong at Dead Man’s Pass. Anton Johann Link’s clothing were found on the banks of the billabong by another young lad, who went to search for him, only to find Anton floating in the water, dead.
In 1914, Mr S. Fotheringham held the town of Gawler to ransom. The Dead Man’s Pass footbridge crossed the river onto his land. He offered to sell the portion of land to the council for 50 pounds, or that they pay him 8 pounds a year in rent. Both the East and West Munno Para District Councils (The Two Councils governing Gawler at the time.) agreed to buy the land, but ultimately the East Munno Para Council refused. Fotheringham, in response to the refusal, fenced his end of the walkway bridge with barbed wire, and threatened to cut down the tree on his property that the bridge was suspended from. In April the same year, an agreement was made with Mr Fotheringham, and the bridge reopened.
Floods in 1917 extensively damaged the footbridge, with water being recorded as being as high as Ayers Road and reaching the buildings of the former gasworks
In 1923, raging flood water washed the old footbridge away…the bridge was repaired in 1924 and stood in place until the early 1980s when it was finally removed for public safety
In 1952, The Advertiser reported that Ernest L.B. Potter of Croydon, recollected that when he was 10 years old, his uncle Edward Potter, a geologist, uncovered a large skull while digging a hole for an underground water tank. The skull was found to be that of a Diprotodon which is from the Pleistocene Epoch of Australia., Diprotodon Optatum became extinct about 25, 000 years ago and was known to exist while indigenous populations were in the area. These animals grew up to 3.8 meters long from head to tail and stood about 1.7 meters tall at the shoulder.
Its closest relations today are the wombat and the koala.
There are many stories of paranormal encounters at Dead Man’s Pass. If one cares to visit the “Ghost village” website, one can read the story of a young man and his mate who were riding their bikes down first street. They were going too fast, and one kept hearing a voice in his ear say, “go right!” indicating to turn right into Gawler Terrace.
The boy didn’t have much time to make a choice, if he swept left around the dead man’s pass bend he would go into oncoming traffic, if he managed to turn right, he wouldn’t make the turn.
Going against his instincts, he turned right, and ploughed straight into the curb, flying through the air, and hitting a massive gum tree.
He lay there stunned. He looked up and saw two figures standing over him. A man and woman. The man said, “You’re lucky to be alive, lad,” and the Lady said, “Take heed, boy, you only get one chance like this!”…
The boys mate came over to see if he was ok. Laying on the ground, without a scratch on him, he asked his mate where the old people had gone. His mate replied that he hadn’t seen anyone, but he had heard his friend talking to someone. He then said he had watched him fly through the air, over 33 feet of gravel, and then land, almost softly on the big gum tree.
The land at Dead Man’s Pass has previously been owned by the Pile Family, and from 1907, the Riggs Family, who allowed the Gawler Three Day horse Events to run across their land. In 1978, Gawler Council purchased 20 Acres of Dead Man’s Pass and designated it a reserve.
Today Dead man’s pass is a beautifully kept park with walking, cycling and nature trails. It is home to many native birds and animals and is easily accessed and explored.
Thank you for watching Hidden Secrets.
Researched, filmed, edited and produced by Allen Tiller.
© 2020 Allen Tiller.
Resources used in research:
Anne Richards, Reference and Research
Librarian Number 8 in a Series of Historical Pamphlets produced by Gawler Public Library
© 2007 Gawler Public Library
National Library of Australia
State Library of South Australia
South Australian Museum