Future of historic Cordillo Downs Station woolshed hangs in the balance after storm damage
The Cordillo Downs woolshed was commissioned in 1883 by pastoralist Peter Waite. (ABC North and West: Gary-Jon Lysaght)
The future of the Cordillo Downs Station woolshed, the largest of its kind in the world, is in jeopardy in Central Australia after a freak storm last year.
At 60 metres long, 13 metres wide and 135 years old, it is a reminder of a time when Australia’s economy rode on the sheep’s back.
Built in 1883, 160 kilometres north-east of Innamincka in South Australia, it once housed 120 stands to shear up to 85,000 sheep that once ran on the property.
But it has seen better days.
A freak storm in late 2017 ripped part of the shed’s roof off, with many concerned time is running out to save the historic building.
The Cordillo Downs Station homestead in South Australia’s far north-east is heritage-listed and includes the famous woolshed. (ABC North and West: Gary-Jon Lysaght)
An Australian icon
Cordillo Downs Station began running sheep in the late 1800s, before transitioning to cattle mid-way through the 20th century.
Station manager Janet Brook said the damage to the shed was significant and repair works were urgently needed to save it for future generations.
“It’s a turning point that if we don’t do something with it soon it will go beyond repair,” Ms Brook said.
“This building was put together barely 20 years after Burke and Wills wandered through this country and that’s a feat in itself.”
The building was commissioned by famous pastoralist Peter Waite while working for the Beltana Pastoral Company.
The Cordillo Downs Station woolshed once housed 120 stands to shear 85,000 sheep in Central Australia. (ABC North and West: Patrick Martin.)
Afghan cameleers ran wool from the station to the head of the rail line at Farina in South Australia’s far north via the Strzelecki Track.
Ms Brook said there were many challenges in restoring the building, including manpower and funding.
“I’m no builder, but I would estimate it would be about $200,000 [to repair],” she said.
A freak storm in late 2017 caused significant damage to the woolshed. (ABC North and West: Gary-Jon Lysaght)
“We’re more than happy to provide accommodation and meals … but really the money that’s required at this time is beyond our capacity.”
Ms Brook said the building’s importance could not be underestimated.
“There’s not much European history left in these parts of Australia, so we should be looking after the bits that are here.
Cordillo Downs station manager Janet Brook says urgent work is needed on the shed to save it for future generations. (ABC North and West: Patrick Martin)
“It gives us a glimpse and helps us imagine what it was like to be on a place like this in remote Australia during the 1880s and 1890s.
“It helps us with our own history of the country and how we ended up where we are today — it’s one of the integral parts of our history and it needs some care.”
Calls for national protection
Flinders University heritage expert Pamela Smith said the shed was architecturally significant.
The shed has many unique design features, including a curved roof and significant buttressing. (ABC North and West: Patrick Martin)
“Clearly when Peter Waite commissioned the building he must have had it architecturally designed,” Dr Smith said.
“The stone has been cut by an experienced stonemason. It has extensive buttressing down both sides.
“The front of the building is designed with a beautiful and elegant archway and behind that is the curved roof following the same line.
“It gives the overall aesthetic quality of a building that’s been carefully considered and rather more elegant than the other sheep stations would have had at the time, or since.”
Dr Smith said a decision needed to be made to secure the shed’s future, and more should be done to protect it.
“I think it should be on the National Heritage Register,” she said.
The shed’s main entrance is held up by a handmade support following storm damage. (ABC North and West: Gary-Jon Lysaght)
“Will the building be an icon of Australian woolsheds and an icon of the industry? Or will it become a ruin in a remote area? That’s the choice.
“We are talking about a unique building and the biggest and best that there has been ever in Australia, or possibly the world.”
Undeniable tourist attraction
The shed is a major tourist attraction for travellers in Central Australia, with Cordillo Downs Station accessible from Innamincka by road.
Victorian tourist David Blunden says the Cordillo Downs woolshed is a key stop for travellers in Central Australia. (ABC North and West: Gary-Jon Lysaght)
Victorian tourist David Blunden said bringing his family to see the shed was an important part of their journey on the way to the Simpson Desert.
“In the outback there’s a few places where people congregate — the Dig Tree, Birdsville — they’re like little waterholes, and when you’re on a big journey it’s great to stop and take some photos and record some history,” Mr Blunden said.
He said restoring the shed would keep the “mind-blowing” concept of settling a sheep station in remote Australia more than a century ago alive.
“I came through 14 years ago and it was good to be able to walk right through the building.
“Storm damage means we’re unable to do that and going in gives off a totally different vibe to be able to feel what might have been a shearer’s day.
“We’re such a young country [and] we must keep this stuff for future generations.”
Mr Blunden’s son Kane agreed with his father’s sentiments.
“I think it is a great historical thing and I’d like to see it back in action,” he said.
“I hope they can raise enough money to be able to fix it.”
Funding not guaranteed
Kane Blunden visited the Cordillo Downs woolshed with his family. (ABC North and West: Gary-Jon Lysaght)
Heritage South Australia’s principal conservation architect Peter Wells said it was up to the owners and lessees of heritage buildings to take “reasonable care” of them.
“This includes carrying out necessary maintenance and repairs to keep a heritage place, including buildings, in a stable condition,” Mr Wells said.
“There is no obligation to improve or upgrade a place. The intent is to preserve the fabric of a place to retain its heritage significance.”
He confirmed that the SA Heritage Grants Fund was being re-established and expected applications to be called for in early 2019, but did not guarantee funding for the woolshed.
No representative from Heritage South Australia has visited the shed since it was damaged.
Mr Wells said there was no legislative requirement to do so, with staff giving advice “remotely, based on phone conversations, descriptions and shared photographs, plans or other information”.
The shed had received more than $30,000 in funding from various sources for maintenance and repair since 1990.