The Bellinger Valley remained insulated from white colonisation for several decades due to its inaccessibility. The sand bar at the river mouth proved a problem for seafaring vessels and deterred the efforts of early maritime explorers. It was only a matter of time, however, before an overland expedition was organized.
In 1841, Clement Hodgkinson, government survey from the Macleay, led a small exploration party along the banks of the two rivers. They were impressed by the wealth of cedar and the rich alluvial river flats, and returned to Kempsey to signal their discovery. Hodgkinson named the main river the ‘Billingen’ – an aboriginal word meaning ‘clear water’. The smaller of the two rivers he called the ‘Odalberrie” (Kalang). White settlers saw the land as wild and inhospitable. They carried with them however, a new-found sense of freedom and a vision from another land. They pulled on their leather boots, took up their iron tools and, with characteristic colonial determination, sought to transform the land into a more familiar creature.
In 1841 William Miles, a stockman from Kempsey, was the first European to enter the Bellinger Valley. He recognised the rich potential of the cedar, which abounded in the area. The following year the Northumberland crossed the bar at the site of modern day Urunga. It heralded a ‘tree rush’ with cedar cutters moving into the area, cutting the trees and waiting for the floods to move the trunks down to the river mouth. The cutters were followed by farmers who, recognising the rich potential of the river valley’s alluvial soils, grew maize and grazed dairy cattle. Although settlement began in the Macleay valley in the 1830s and the Clarence in the 1840s, land in the Bellinger valley was largely unsettled until the 1860s.
The “Robertson Land (Settlement) Act” of 1863 threw the land open to settlement. Holdings of up to 320 acres were available for “selection” on a conditional lease basis for a few shillings a year. Selectors also had the option of buying land, but the majority could not afford the purchase price of one pound per acre. The floodplain was cleared and burned.
Sugar cane and maize were planted and a sugar mill was built at Repton. Sugar proved unviable, however, as it could not withstand the frosts. By 1868 a pilot station had been built at Urunga (then known as Bellinger Heads) to help the sailing ships across the bar and up the river. The mouth to the river was always dangerous and inevitably it saw a number of dramatic shipwrecks including the Violet Doepel. By 1892 a breakwater had been constructed to help shipping.
During the 1870’s settlers moved into the Kalang valley. The first hardwoods were exploited and the sugar mill at Repton was converted to a sawmill. Early settlement at Repton, on the northern side of the Bellinger River, centred around this mill. In the 1890s, the first butter factory in the valley was established at Fernmount, followed by one at Raleigh. The valley’s second timber mill was built on the riverbank at Urunga. Regulation of the timber industry began with the policing of harvest operations in the Pine Creek area. The road to Dorrigo was completed.
North Beach Sailing Regatta circa 1920’sGold, arsenic, antimony and silver extraction began at the Valla Mine in 1919. Mineral bearing ore was extracted from the mine throughout the 1920s. However, by 1932, operations were no longer viable and the mine shut down. During the depression years of the 1930’s, the community led a Spartan existence. Scores of unemployed passed through the area, setting up temporary camps. In the 1940s World War II saw the depletion of the local labour force. An estimated 500 men and women left the district to join the war effort and the economy entered another recession. Italian prisoners-of-war were assigned to local farmers. They enjoyed a friendly working relationship with the local community, and several returned to Australia with their families after the war.
By now, most accessible areas of public forest had been logged and farming became the mainstay of the local population.