The Wangaratta area was originally inhabited by the Pangerang People whose hunter-gatherer lifestyle was eminently suited to the broad expanses of the King and Ovens River floodplains. ‘Wangaratta’ is Indigenous language meaning ‘Wonga’- resting place of the long neck wonga (cormorants) and ‘ratta’- meeting place of the river. For thousands of years the land was managed and conserved by Indigenous Australians. Through understanding Indigenous culture we can come to appreciate and gain a spiritual connection to the land.
The first European exploration of the area began with Hume and Hovell (1824) and their reports of the area were further enhanced by those of Major Thomas Mitchell in 1836 (the Major Mitchell Trail passes through the town). The Ovens River was named after a Major Ovens, who was secretary to Sir Thomas Brisbane, Governor of New South Wales at the time.
The first settler in the Wangaratta district was George Faithful who arrived in 1838, others, including Joseph Docker who took up the deserted Bontherambo run and Thomas Rattray who established the first punt service across the Ovens, soon followed and the settlement of the Wangaratta district commenced and flourished.
Thomas Rattray sold his business to William Clark who is acknowledged as the ’Father of Wangaratta’, having built a timber slab store with a bark roof along the riverside.
The original punt was eventually replaced by a narrow bridge (in 1855), a wider bridge in 1886, and an even wider one (at the present site) in 1934. The modern day bridge was constructed in 1967, and was named the Mitchell Bridge, after Major Thomas Mitchell; a plaque on the Bridge was taken from a previous bridge, and commemorates Wangaratta's first centenary (1838-1938).
The townsite had its first formal survey in 1849, and other storekeepers who followed William Clark, include many people whose family names are preserved by street names, Bickerton, Crisp, Cusack, Ford, Meldrum and Swan to name but a few of these early traders.
The 1850s gold rush in the North-east helped the new township to establish itself as a major centre, and the first bank (the Bank of New South Wales) opened in 1859, and a plaque on the current bank premises (the WestPac Bank, in Murphy Street) commemorates the centenary of this event in 1959.
The age of steam trains arrived in 1873 and, by 1884 the town had a population of about 1400, four churches, two breweries, three flour mills, two foundries, a hospital, a tannery, a tobacco processing factory and a theatre.
As with many towns, geography was to play its part in the development of Wangaratta. As part of its golden era legacy, Beechworth was for many years the major administrative, and legal services, centre of the North-east, but gradually gave up this position to Wangaratta.
A wool-processing mill was first opened in 1923, with several other mills opening over the next 30 years, with textiles continuing to remain important to the economy of the city. World War II brought about many changes to the town, with several manufacturing complexes (including an aluminium factory) being built to help the war effort. At this time the town had its own power station, and the availability of cheap power was a factor in locating the aluminium facility in Wangaratta.
After 1945, the town continued to attract manufacturing, particularly textiles, but the town was to gradually evolve as a service centre, as well as a manufacturing centre.
The town of Wangaratta was declared a city in 1959, and amongst the city’s many assets are some well-kept historic buildings such as the Anglican Cathedral, dating back to 1860; St Patricks Roman Catholic Church which dates from 1863, as well as the close proximity of many of the North-east’s premier tourist attractions, and a wide range of excellent accommodation.
Because of these factors Wangaratta is one of the more popular bases for touring in the North-east, with annual events including the Annual Wangaratta Festival of Jazz.