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Press Articles

THE CANBERRA TIMES: MARCH 17 2002  TRAGIC END FOR A BUSH POET


CANBERRA TIMES: FEBRUARY 25 2002

MAYBE THIS IS THE SNOWY HORSEMAN

            By Hugh Capel

Many people have claimed over the years to know who really was the Man From Snowy River.  But the jury is still out.  One name rarely mentioned is that of Charlie McKeahnie - a horsemen from the Snowy Mountains renowned in his own time.  Banjo Paterson wasn’t the only poet who wrote about him  Another Australian bush poet, Barcroft Boake, also immortalised him in verse. 

There is no doubt in Neville Locker’s mind that Charlie McKeahnie is the legendary Man from Snowy River.  Neville is a fifth-generation Snowy Mountains man, whose family have been on the property Happy Valley at Adaminaby, since 1848.  A heritage consultant who runs a successful tourism business based on Australian Heritage, Locker has been researching local history for over 40 years and has always been fascinated by the legend. 

He believes he now has compelling evidence in Charlie McKeahnies favour.  However, Man from Snowy River research has always been controversial.  All claimants have much at stake.  Historian's reputations are on the line. Locker is holding his cards close to his chest at present but says he will have a comprehensive display of material on show at Happy Valley later this year in support of his belief. Locker has no doubt this will stimulate very lively debate.

Charlie Mac, as he was called, was a third generation McKeahnie.  (McKeahnie is pronounced m’-keck-nee - don’t ask me why.)  The McKeahnies were an early pioneer family in the Canberra/Monaro district, with holdings at various times in the mountainous country that is now Namadgi National Park, including Boboyan, Gudgenby, Congwarra, Booroomba, Orroral, Cuppacumbalong and Cooleman Plains.  Mrs Elizabeth McKeahnie, Charlie’s grandmother, officially opened the bridge over the Murrumbidgee River at Tharwa in 1895.

Charlie grew up at Rosedale Station (now called Bolaro) near Adaminaby.  By the late 1880’s, when Barcroft Boake came to live in the Adaminaby district, young Charlie’s prowess on a horse was renowned. Boake was so impressed that he made Charlie the subject of one of his poems, On the Range, published in the Bulletin in 1891.

Boake (1886-1892) is best known for his striking outback poem, Where the Dead Men Lie.  This was also published in the Bulletin in 1891.  Less well known is Barcroft’s connection with the Monaro, where he spent the two happiest years of his short life, from 1886 until 1888.  He worked as a surveyor’s assistant based at Rocklands Farm, near Adaminaby on the old Cooma/Adaminaby road.  The road is now flooded by Lake Eucumbene. 

While at Rocklands, Boake became friendly with the McKeahnies and in particular Charlie’s sisters, May and Jean.  Barcroft used to ride over to Rosedale Station to spend Sundays with the McKeahnies.  Here he rode with young Charlie Mac, gaining the experience he was later to draw on when writing On the Range.

He was no mean horseman himself.  He was described as “a good horseman, and a first class bushman” and it was said “he looked infinitely better on a horse than off.”  Charlie Mac was clearly in another class.  Barcroft writes as follows about Charlie in “On the Range”:

A bold mountaineer born and bred was young Mac,
A galloping son of a galloping sire
Stiffest fence, roughest ground, never took him aback;
With his father's cool judgement, his dash, and his fire,
The pick of Manaro rode young Charlie Mac.
And the pick of the stable the mare he bestrode . . .

The poem goes on to tell how Charlie chased a wild brumby stallion from the headwaters of Nungar Creek to the upper Murrumbidgee gorge at The Gulf, where the horse died after crashing into a granite boulder.  It is not one of Boake’s best works but like most of his poems it tells an interesting story.  The chase was based on a true story, as many years later people were taken to see the bones of the dead stallion at the foot of the boulder. Boake may even have been there at the time, as the poem accurately details the rugged terrain in the mountains near Tantangara Dam through which the chase occurred. 

There is no doubt Charlie was an outstanding horseman.  It will be more than a little interesting to see what Locker can produce later this year, and whether this will finally put to rest the debate over who really was the Man from Snowy River.

Both Boake and Charlie were to end their lives tragically before reaching the age of thirty. Boake hanged himself with his stockwhip in 1892 after he returned to Sydney and was unable to find work in the 1891-93 depression.  It has been suggested that he killed himself for the love of one of the McKeahnie girls.  Charlie died in 1895 from injuries he received when his horse slipped and fell on ice on the wooden bridge over the river at Bredbo.  The place where he finally died, in front of the fireplace at the Bredbo Inn, can still be seen.

I hope Locker is right.  It would be a fitting tribute to Charlie, and would vindicate Boake’s own judgement, if his young Monaro riding companion was truly the Man From Snowy River, the most famous horseman Australia has produced.