Having been born in Katoomba and raised in the shadow of the Blue Mountains, folklore and history have become a passion of mine. Especially because the sprawling mountains are rich in myth and legend. There’s the three cursed sisters, long turned to stone who stand watch over the Jamison Valley, large black cats that stalk the undergrowth and a ghostly figure who wanders Victoria Pass at night.
In keeping with the spooky tone of October, I wanted to share my favourite ghost story. Not only is this story spine tingling and seriously creepy, but it’s also heavily rooted in Australia’s colonial history. I’ve been extensively researching this post for the past two weeks and I’m so excited to be finally sharing it with you. That being said, this story may evoke disturbing images and might be particularly triggering to some readers.
So huddle close, turn out the lights and settle in for the true story of the Black Ghost of Victoria Pass…
Australia is still very much a young country. Well, in terms of European civilization that is. After the initial colonization of Botany Bay in 1788 [mostly by convicts], the colonists wanted to expand their settlements and push inland. But exploring Australia’s interior proved impossible, as all attempts were thwarted by the rugged expanse of the Blue Mountains.
The Blue Mountains stretched across New South Wales for miles in a natural barrier before merging into The Great Dividing Range. Going around wasn’t an option – the only way to expand was to venture past the foothills and over the mountains to the western plains of Bathurst beyond.
In 1813, an expedition was formed by Gregory Blaxland to follow a long line of ridges west. Joining him were William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth. They would become the first European explorers to pioneer the dangerous terrain, blazing a primitive trail for the settlers to follow. After the crossing was completed, former army official William Cox was commissioned to construct a road.
The original, roughly hewn Western Road was precarious and quickly began to deteriorate – especially as traffic increased across the mountains. By January of 1830, General Thomas Mitchell had plans to adapt the road, and work on an ambitious new bypass had begun.
Which brings us to Mount Victoria and it’s infamous, eerie Pass.
The bypass wound its way along a new line in Mount Victoria and was to become a symbol of colonial engineering. The crowning jewel was a sloping viaduct that carried the road across a plunging gully.
But the viaduct was paved in the blood and sweat of hundreds of labouring convicts. Using crude, simple tools, these convicts constructed the causeway from masonry stone. The work was tough, conditions weren’t ideal and most worked with their ankles shackled in heavily weighted chains. Many lost their lives.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting the Pass, you’ll know that even now, it’s a steep, slippery road that winds around the rock face. The road twists and turns, trucks careen past, black ice lingers on the tar and the mountain itself is often wet, cloaked in a thick blanket of low hanging cloud.
And then of course, there’s the ghost.
Caroline James was born in 1827 to a rather unstable family. Her parents were convicts, her father ran an illegal alcohol business on the sly and her mother was a notorious alcoholic. After Caroline’s mother was discovered hanging from the rafters of the family home, her father was accused of her murder. He was convicted and sentenced to hang in Bathurst.
While the hanging didn’t actually go ahead, the family fell onto hard times and Caroline went to work for one of Hartley Vale’s most prominent families, the Collits. The Collits family ran the Hartley inn and were well respected in the community. During her service, Caroline caught the eye of one William Collits who was, unfortunately, known as the black sheep of the family. They were married in 1840 – Caroline was only thirteen.
But Caroline’s marriage was almost as unhappy as her childhood. Like her mother, William struggled with substance abuse and it wasn’t long before Caroline left him to live with her sister in a rather odd arrangement. Caroline’s sister was married to a man named John Walsh. John was an ex-convict who had been charged [then later acquitted] of murder. It was said that he had actually groomed the sisters and had a sexual relationship with them as children. There were also reports that while Caroline was living with them, the three were involved romantically.
Sources note that on the night of January 3rd 1842, Caroline was witnessed drinking lemon syrup in the local tavern with her husband and John Walsh. Upon leaving the tavern, a violent brawl broke out and John knocked William to the ground. Caroline seized John’s hands and screamed for William to run for his life.
The next morning, at approximately 6am, a postman was driving along the Pass when he came across Caroline’s broken body sprawled across the road. The official report is that Caroline suffered a deathly blow to the head and had been raped. Another source claims that Caroline had actually been decapitated and that her severed head was dragged off in a trail of blood and left meters from her body. Most sources agree however, that her body was severely bruised, almost unrecognizable, and that a bloodied rock was found beside her.
John Walsh was convicted of her murder and hanged at Bathurst in May of 1842 but the locals believed that Caroline’s ghost was trapped, forced to wander the wuthering, isolated Pass for eternity. And while this might make for a creepy ghost story, people have been glimpsing her ghost along the Pass for almost 200 years.
My Great Aunt is an accomplished artist, local to the Mount Victoria region. When researching Caroline’s history, I reached out for some firsthand accounts and possible ghostly sightings. What followed was a particularly riveting conversation about local folk lore and the ghost. [Spoiler alert: apparently Caroline Collits isn’t the only spectre lurking around Mount Victoria]. According to my Aunt, the community really rallies around Caroline [since dubbed the Lady in Black], and her legend has recently been immortalized through a historical mural in Memorial Park.
When it comes to Caroline’s physical appearance there are a lot of conflicting accounts but it’s widely agreed that she’s seen wandering the Pass dressed in Victorian black. Some say her ghost is headless while others report on her glowing eyes, which are described to be like a tigers. The ghost is always said to appear on the road and vanishes almost as quickly as it appears.
My aunt believes that Caroline appears as this sort of “black shadow”. That was how Caroline was described to her by one of her close friends after she had actually driven through the ghost. It was a dark night and she recalls how the shadow materialized in the middle of the road, “coming up towards her, in front of her car”. At the time, there were no distinguishing features that stood out. The ghostly shadow simply vanished into the rear-view mirror. It was a chilling experience – one that was never forgotten.
But this isn’t the only account of sightings by locals. Truck drivers and motorists claim to see her at night, when the frigid temperatures and black ice force them to slow down. And in the 1800’s, travellers reported that their horses would become spooked, often “restless” as they approached the viaduct. The Lady in Black even inspired The Ghost at the Second Bridge by Australian poet Henry Lawson after he swore he saw her “once upon a ne’re-to-be-forgotten night”.
We might never know for sure if the ghost of the Lady in Black actually exists but it makes for one seriously sinister ghost story. Over the years, the Pass has been widened and upgraded and so the ghostly sightings of Caroline have dwindled away. But yet, one can’t exactly deny that the isolated Victoria Pass holds a certain aura. Cars have been known to flip, breaks fail and dangerous accidents occur regularly.
Only one thing’s certain – you will never find me travelling along old Victoria Pass at night.
I hope you enjoyed this different style of post – I honestly loved putting on my journalist cap and taking a deep dive into Caroline’s traumatic past. Be sure to let me know if you would be interested in seeing more posts like this. Happy Halloween!
★ State Library of New South Wales (2015). Crossing the Blue Mountains. [online] State Library of NSW. Available at: https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/stories/crossing-blue-mountains.
★ Collection – State Library of NSW. (n.d.). [Sir Thomas Mitchell sketches and watercolours of New South Wales, 1830-1855? / drawn by Sir T. L. Mitchell]. [online] Available at: https://collection.sl.nsw.gov.au/record/9arpaoOn/580wJyBy5Zg5e.
★ Jepsen, B. (2020). “Truck drivers see her at night”: The true story behind the Blue Mountains’ Lady in Black. [online] Mamamia. Available at: https://www.mamamia.com.au/victoria-pass-ghost-blue-mountains/
★ Karskens, G. (1988). An Historical and Archaeological Study of Victoria Pass Mt. Victoria NSW. [online] Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.4227/11/54D029B6A2FBC
★ Lawson, H. (1891). THE GHOST AT THE SECOND BRIDGE. Freeman’s Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1850 – 1932), [online] 26 Dec., p.5. Available at: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/115568774.
★ Merriman, J. (2014b). Murder on Victoria Pass, Caroline Collits. [online] Blue Mountains Local Studies. Available at: https://bluemlocalstudies.wordpress.com/2014/03/30/murder-on-victoria-pass-caroline-collits/
★ mountvictoria.nsw.au. (n.d.). Victoria Pass – MVCA. [online] Available at: https://mountvictoria.nsw.au/our-great-places/victoria-pass/
★ National Museum of Australia (n.d.). National Museum of Australia – Blue Mountains crossing. [online] http://www.nma.gov.au. Available at: https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/blue-mountains.
★ The “Ghost” Of Mt. Victoria Pass. (1950). Lithgow Mercury (NSW : 1898 – 1954), [online] 26 Sep., p.4. Available at: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/219766312.
★ THE MOUNT VICTORIA MURDER. (1842). Sydney Herald (NSW : 1831 – 1842), [online] 27 Apr., p.2. Available at: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/28652525