William Benjamin Spargo (1888 - 1959) was born on July 16 in Bairnsdale in Victoria. His family moved to Brunswick but his heart was always in the high country. In his 20's he worked on the roads between Omeo and Mount Beauty when some Norwegian miners taught him to ski.
In 1923 he took responsibility for the Alpine road between Harrietville and Omeo for the Victorian Country Roads Board. During this time he lived in a stone cottage at Hotham Heights which doubled as his depot and by 1925 it was enlarged to accommodate up to 20 visiting skiers and it became known as Hotham Cottage or Hotham Heights Chalet. It grew in popularity and he even brought in a ski instructor to help out.
In 1925 he joined the Ski Club of Victoria and soon donated the Spargo Cup for a ski race which was held annually until 1948.
By 1933 the business at Hotham Heights had grown so much that professional management was needed and the Country Roads Board handed the Chalet over to Victorian Railways. Spargo stayed on as the Chalet's handyman and built a hut which still stands at Golden Point, over the valley of Swindlers Creek from Hotham. Spargo always had a passion for gold and throughout his tenure at Hotham Heights he had an eye out for gold. During his fossicking he found several promising reefs such as the One Alone Mine to the north west of Machinery Spur. But in 1941 he finally found the rich Red Robin Mine which he worked for 10 years before selling out and retiring to Magnetic Island in Queensland.
He died on January 7 1959.
His ancestors still live in the mountains and a lodge in Falls Creek (Spargo's) was managed by his relatives. The Falls Creek Hotel is still managed by the Spargo's and the Dockings (maiden name Spargo). The Red Robin Mine on Machinery Spur is still worked on a part time basis.
Obituary in Schuss. May 1959, pp. 97 - 98.
In memory of Bill Spargo: Founder of Hotham Heights. By Warrand Begg.
It is inevitable that our pioneers must pass on, and recently Mr. W. B. (Bill) Spargo died in Queensland.
Bill Spargo must surely be regarded as the founder of Hotham as a ski resort. In the middle 1920's he was Country Roads Board foreman of the Alpine section of the road between Harrietville and Omeo, and was provided by the Board with a substantial stone cottage which was completed in early 1925.
Prior to coming to Hotham, Mr. Spargo had experience of mountain road building, as he played quite a part in the construction of the Wild Dog Creek Road in the Apollo Bay district. His experience there must have been invaluable in maintaining sections of the Alpine road, such as that around Blowhard, in the days when it was little better than a narrow track.
Bill Spargo had a great love for the mountains and it was no hardship for him to live at Hotham right through the winter, although of course, no road work could be performed then as in those days there was no attempt at ploughing.
He received permission to accommodate skiers during the winter months, and thus started the first accommodation in what must be regarded as our best ski-ing terrain. At that time practically his only visitors were parties of ski tourers who were taking advantage of the newly-built Bungalow at Feathertop and the various cattle huts on the Bogong High Plains. A favourite round trip for these tourers embraced Feathertop, Hotham and the Bogong High Plains, in some cases the return to Feathertop being made via the Diamentina Spur.
Bill performed the functions of host, Postmaster, telephone linesman, chef and handyman. One of his duties early in the winter was, following the first snowfall, to lower the whole of the telephone line from Hotham Heights to St. Bernard into the snow. At that time the line was a single bar wire supported on poles, and it was found that no amount of guying would prevent the poles from snapping or the wire from breaking in heavy weather. The line functioned very satisfactorily when buried under the snow.
In 1928, a short-lived partnership between Bill Spargo and Helmut Koffler was instituted. However Spargo did not stay at Hotham for the winter, and I believe that was his only winter away from Hotham until the Chalet was acquired by the Railways Department in 1933. Even then Bill stayed on as an assistant to the manager.
During his years at Hotham he took full advantage of his knowledge of geology and spent a great deal of time exploring for gold. When he first went there the Brandy Creek Mine was still operating. He believed the source of this gold must have been higher up in the mountains and consequently he concentrated on the Higginbotham and Mt Loch country. There is still much evidence of his work which he carried out single-handed on both these mountains.
He built a hut on one of the spurs of Loch running into Swindlers Creek, and this is still a prominent landmark across the valley from Hotham Village. He must have had one of the best water supplies in the mountains as he diverted a strongly running spring right under the porch of his hut!
The traces of gold gradually led him beyond the summit of Loch to the North-Western faces where he discovered the mine which is still operating and which he named the "Red Robin". from the friendly little birds which are so evident at Hotham in the snow time.
Bill Spargo was very much a self-taught skier, but there could have been few men in Australia more competent than he at safely getting around alone in winter. He regularly completed the mail run between Hotham Heights and St. Bernard, very often alone. On one occasion when his assistant took his place and did not return on schedule, Bill searched for him and discovered that he had fallen over a cornice. Helping his assistant home was a Herculean effort and the strain told seriously on his health and necessitated him leaving the mountains for a period of some months. He soon re-appeared as fit as ever and, as we all know, carried on his gold mining.
The skis he used for his solo winter traveling were short with practically no camber, and each ski was fitted under the binding with a short keel some 9" long and 1½" to 2" deep. As can be imagined these skis made most distinctive tracks in the snow, particularly as no attempt was made to conform with the growing fashion of keeping one's feet locked together. Bill's tracks were further identifiable from the fact that he was an unashamed stick rider, -- a technique which would still be used even by modern skiers, if heavy packs such as his were carried in difficult country.
Even when the Red Robin had been proved an extremely rich mine, Bill worked as an assistant to the Railways Manager at the Chalet in winter and was still there during wartime and the early post-war period. In the summer of 1952/53 he sold the Red Robin mine and went to Queensland, where we understand he became interested in coal mining. But he finally settled on Stradbroke Island, off the Gold Coast, where he conducted several holiday cabins at Point Lookout. At the age of 74 he still walked 8 miles each way once a week to obtain his mail. Unfortunately it was discovered that he would have to undergo a major operation. Following this he was in hospital for several months and finally died in Brisbane early in January this year.
All Victorian skiers who met him at Hotham and in other spheres will sincerely regret his passing and their sympathy is expressed to his wife and relatives in their loss.
More information: The Feathertop Bungalow burnt down in the 1939 fires, while the Red Robin mine is still operating. A comprehensive biography of Spargo with an emphasis on his 27 years at Hotham can be found in: Ian Stapleton. Hairy-chested history: colourful characters of Hotham & Harrietville. The author, 2003. pp. 96 - 139.
A short and more general biography by Donald S. Garden is in the Australian Dictionary of Biography
( ~ D.S.)