The Capital That Never Was

Canberra – it’s Australia’s national capital. The nation is governed from this city and it’s full of busy public servants and beautiful public buildings. Dalgety – it’s a tiny town in southern New South Wales with a population of just over 200. What could these two places possibly have in common? Surprisingly they share a historic link dating back to federation.

When the Constitution of Australia came into being on 1 January 1901, the six independent colonies of Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania formed the nation of Australia. There was considerable  discussion about where to place the national capital, and both Sydney and Melbourne lobbied heatedly for the position until a compromise was reached. The Australian Capital Territory would be created with a new purpose-built city planned and constructed inside its boundaries. The search for a suitable site ended in southern New South Wales, where Canberra is now located.

Canberra

It’s a little known fact however that the site where Canberra was established was not the first choice for our capital city. In 1903 the small town of Dalgety was chosen as the location for the new national capital. Its position on the Snowy River and its mild climate made Dalgety the perfect place for a city of such importance, but the Parliament of New South Wales, in typical Sydney-Melbourne rivalry, complained that Dalgety was too close to Melbourne and too far from Sydney. In actual fact, it was situated almost exactly half way between, but Parliament got its way and a site only 288 km from Sydney and 647 km from Melbourne was selected.

Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin, architects from Chicago, won the contest to design the city and construction began in  1913. Today Canberra is a picturesque city of parks and gardens, monuments and government buildings with the beautiful lake named after Burley Griffin at its centre.

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The Australian War Memorial

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The flagpole over Parliament House

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The Captain Cook Memorial Jet on Lake Burley Griffin

Canberra’s forgotten rival, Dalgety, is a tiny town with a few permanent residents, a single hotel  and its original police station.

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The old police station, no longer in use

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Buckley’s Crossing Hotel, on the main street of Dalgety

 An imposing timber and iron bridge spans the gentle waters of the Snowy River but, apart from our vehicle, the wide main street is deserted.

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Dalgety Bridge

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The Snowy River

Canberra and Dalgety – they’re worlds apart but linked forever by a common thread going back a hundred years. Where would you choose to live?

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20 thoughts on “The Capital That Never Was

  1. Fascinating! I have always been impressed with the fact you Aussies made a purpose-built capital city! Here we also had rivalry about where the capital should be – one place was Russell in the far north and the other was Dunedin in the far South. Eventually Wellington was chosen for its geographical location – half way between the two 🙂

  2. How interesting! I knew about Canberra being custom-built due to the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne but didn’t know about Dalgety.

  3. Tricky question. But I would like to see both places. Given the name of the hotel in Dalgety would you say that the little town had Buckley’s chance of becoming the capital, given the politics at play?

    • Yes, I think you are on to something there. The site was originally known as Buckley’s Crossing and was named after Edward Buckley. He had a farm near the river crossing on the stock route in 1832. In 1874 it was renamed Dalgety, after the maiden name of the wife of the surveyor who surveyed the town. Definitely a case of who you know…

  4. I always thought they should have built Canberra near the ocean (Bateman’s Bay) but learned they didn’t want to because they were worried about an attack on the capital from the sea 🙂

  5. Thanks for this link – most interesting to learn about Dalgety, and you also cleared up for me what Federation style buildings are (presumably built around 1901). I like Canberra, but I’d also like to visit Dalgety though there doesn’t look like there is an awful lot of it. I must have been near as I have visited the Kosciuszko National Park. I am glad they didn’t build the capital on the south coast – it would have spoiled that beautiful and peaceful coastline. I like that as it is!

    • There isn’t much there but it makes a good stop in a day trip. We did a round trip from Cooma to Jindabyne, Dalgety and Nimmitabel. The scenery on the way is fantastic and there is plenty to see in each of those places.

      Federation style architecture dates from the beginning of the 20th century and is quite lovely. Where I live in Queensland there isn’t much of that style, but in the southern states it is very common.

      I have to agree with you. It is a good thing the capital wasn’t built on the coast. Isn’t it gorgeous along there. Thanks for reading and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  6. I fell in love with Canberra when we house sat there recently. I didn’t know what to expect as all our Queensland friends rubbished it AND we were there through winter, again our Qld friends thought that was the height of stupidity. But I loved the fresh, crisp winter days.
    Here is just one of the posts I did. https://pommepal.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/inner-city-chic-im-loving-canberra/ we were there for 3 months.
    had not heard that snippet about Dalgety, so many hidden places of interest, thank you for the information

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