The traditional owners of the land upon which Ararat and surrounding townships now sit were the Djab Wurrung (literally meaning ‘soft language’) people. Theirs was a rich culture comprising some 40 clans, or around 4,000 individuals. In season, eels were a staple food for the Djab Wurrung and in autumn neighbouring clans moved to the fishing grounds at Lake Bolac where up to 1,000 people gathered to take advantage of the annual eel migration. The first white people arrived in Djab Wurrung country in 1836 when T.L. Mitchell’s exploratory party moved through the area. They were followed by waves of pastoralists and gold prospectors. By 1877, Census records show only 147 full-blooded Aborigines still living in the Western District. Three years later in 1880, only seven Djab Wurrung speakers remained.
The Gold Rush American immigrant Joseph Pollard is credited as discovering the first gold strike in the Ararat district. Pollard and his party of 10 unearthed 12 ounces of gold at Pinkey Point in late May, 1854, in what was to be the forerunner of many years of gold fever. In a bid to discourage the influx of Chinese prospectors arriving in Victoria during the 1850s, the State Government imposed a special tax on Chinese arrivals. This forced the ships to continue on to South Australia, leaving the prospectors to find their own way to the goldfields on foot. One such party arrived in the region, now known as Ararat, in May, 1857, en route to the Ballarat goldfields. Pausing to replenish their water supplies from a spring, they stumbled upon what is now known as the Canton Lead – the world’s richest shallow alluvial goldfield that stretched up to 8 kilometres. Their discovery quickly attracted thousands of other prospectors. By 1858, the Mount Ararat Diggings had adopted the name ‘Ararat.’
As the gold rush faded, Ararat’s primary function was to serve as a service centre for the surrounding pastoralists and for Government. The Ararat County Gaol was built in the 1860s, later becoming a ‘lunatic asylum’ for the criminally insane, or ‘J-Ward.’ The imposing buildings of the now de-registered Aradale Mental Hospital, to the city’s east, were also built around this time. Many of Ararat’s grandest homes were built in the immediate aftermath of the gold rush by those lucky enough to have struck it rich! Railway Heritage The arrival of the railway in 1875 marked the beginning of an important new chapter in Ararat’s development. Now, the city was to become an important junction and service centre for interstate and domestic rail. At the height of the steam era, up to 88 locomotives were allotted at the Ararat Depot and by the 1950s, the railways employed around 600 people. Architecture Ararat has a rich legacy of historic buildings and sites reflecting the many colourful periods of its evolution. Many of these are reflected in the ‘Historic Ararat’ Heritage Plaque series and the associated Historic Ararat booklet (available from the Ararat & Grampians Visitor Information Centre). Ararat is particularly famed for its art deco architecture, many fine examples of which can be seen along its main shopping strip. Harking back further in time are the grand old homes of the post-gold rush era.