Oxley Highway: History and Development

A road along the current route of the Oxley Highway was first opened between Port Macquarie and Bendemeer in September 1842. A road between Tamworth and Gunnedah followed in 1868 and was extended to Coonabarabran in 1882. However, in 1878 the railway was opened to Tamworth and the road to the coastal port at Port Macquarie lost importance, gradually falling into disrepair.

The newly formed Main Roads Board declared the unused road part of State Highway No. 11 in August 1928 and set about reconstructing the Highway to modern standards. Examinations of the section between Port Macquarie and Walcha revealed that the central section between Yarras and Yarrowitch had fallen into complete disrepair. The route was still the original route of the bullock teams which had hauled wool from New England to Port Macquarie. The road had outlived its usefulness as a dray road but the growth of motor traffic in the twentieth century gave it a new significance.1

Surveys were commenced in 1927 to find the best line between Yarras and Yarrowitch. “It was arduous work in country often covered with dense scrub and vines; sometimes as many as four different routes had to be tried before a decision was made.”2 A 21 mile deviation of the Highway between Yarras and Black Hill (Tobin’s Camp) was commenced in 1928 and completed in December 1930. This was followed by a section of approximately five miles in length, extending east from Yarrowitch which was constructed between 1929 and 1931. The final thirteen mile section westerly from Black Hill completed the link in 1934. Reconstruction of the Highway between Bendemeer and Woolbrook, which closely follows the MacDonald River, followed and was completed in December 1935. Thus, the Department of Main Roads declared the Oxley Highway ‘open’ between Bendemeer and Port Macquarie. The more heavily trafficked lengths of the Highway were given a bitumen surface but the pavement was generally left unsealed, this being considered suitable for the traffic of the time.

Improvements west of Tamworth began in 1930, involving such major works as the Devil’s Pinch and Abbott’s Gap deviations between Gunnedah and Coonabarabran. These projects were both completed in 1932.

Prior to the establishment of the Main Roads Board in 1925, on small isolated sections of the Oxley Highway between Coonabarabran and Trangie had been improved. Between 1925 and 1936 extensive improvements were carried out in this section, including three deviations at Tooraweenah, Biddon and Berrida, and extensive reconstruction in the vicinity of Uargon Creek where the road descends a spur of the Warrumbungle Range . The most important of these improvements was the Tooraweenah Deviation. The old highway had proceeded rather deviously through town and was subject to flooding from Terrabile and Tooraweenah Creeks. The deviation follows higher ground and provides a much more direct route.

No further major works were carried out on the Highway until 6 June 1951 when it was re-routed from Collie through Warren to Nevertire in order to provide a more direct route to/from the west. Between 1953 and 1959 several lengths of pavement at the eastern end of the highway were reconditioned and sealed so that, by 1959, a sealed surface extended from Port Macquarie to the junction with Comboyne Road and from Bendemeer to Walcha.

Following this work a programme was initiated by the Department of Main Roads in 1963 for the reconstruction of the Oxley Highway between Comboyne Road and Walcha – a 95 mile length of gravel highway. Lower profile work, sealing the remaining unsealed sections of the Highway west of Tamworth was also included. The work was divided into three sections with the third section, a 20 mile length between Ralfe’s Creek and Mount Seaview , was the most difficult. This section rises 3,500 feet in 20 miles at a relatively constant grade of 1 in 20 and the existing alignment was very winding with a large number of small radius curves. Owing to the difficulties of improving the alignment in such “rough and mountainous”3 country the existing route was retained, with some improvement effected by way of widening of the formation. Section 3 work was commenced in 1963 and was completed by 1968.

Other works in the upgrade included a 7km deviation between 44 and 51km east of Walcha and by 1971 work was completed on all but a 45km section centred on Yarrowitch. Many new bridges and culverts were constructed, including a 100m bridge over the Ellenborough River , a 42m bridge over the Yarrowitch River , a 50m bridge over the Tia River and a 62m bridge over the Apsley River at Walcha. On 7 June 1977 the bituminous sealing of the entire highway was completed, a landmark which drew immense praise from the local press.

“The Department of Main Roads, and particularly the men who have worked on the road, are to be commended and complimented on their skills and perseverance, for life has not been easy for them in the conditions so often prevailing along the highway.
Indeed only last winter, men working at the Walcha end couldn’t keep warm even if they sat on the roadside fire.
Constant rain in the mountain areas, constant dust from timber lorries and the like, and constant land slides were but some of the difficult and exasperating conditions the road-makers had to overcome to bring Oxley Highway to its speedy, safe and completely sealed state.”4

Since then, only a handful of major works have been undertaken, including the construction of a railway overpass at West Tamworth (opened September 1987) and the construction of dual carriageways between Wrights Road and Hindman Street in Port Macquarie (opened June 1991). A major deviation was constructed on the eastern side of Gunnedah, where the existing highway was subject to flooding from the Mooki River . Three new high-level bridges and a substantial length of embankment raised the Highway above the 1 in 20 year flood level to eliminate this trouble spot. The deviation was opened in 1995 and utilised part of Trunk Route No. 68 which has now been reclassified as the Oxley Highway . In November 1996 the legal classification of the Highway was changed, removing the length of highway long Gordon Street , between Hindman St and Horton St , in Port Macquarie. However, a black painted AD sign still remains on the old alignment.

The only current construction work on the Oxley Highway is centred on Port Macquarie. The ‘Oxley Highway Upgrade – Wrights Road to Pacific Highway ’ was announced in August 2002 and involves the a 7km deviation of the highway with full access control and a 100km/h design standard. Construction is expected to commence in late 2005.

Note: The day after writing this article, the New South Wales Government has announced that this project will now be deferred until the 2007/8 financial year.


1. Department of Main Roads; Historical Roads of New South Wales: Oxley Highway : Extract from March, 1953 issue of “Main Roads”: Journal of Department of Main Roads New South Wales; p. 75
2. Department of Main Roads; Historical Roads of New South Wales: Oxley Highway : Extract from March, 1953 issue of “Main Roads”: Journal of Department of Main Roads New South Wales; p. 75
3. Department of Main Roads; Oxley Highway : Reconstruction between New England Plateau and Port Macquarie in Main Roads Vol. 36 No. 4; June 1971; p. 116
4. ‘Historic Highway is Super Effort‘ in Port Macquarie News; 9 June 1977

Back to National Route 34