"On Wednesday 4 July 1900 it started snowing across the upper mountains. At Blackheath it snowed incessantly for twenty-four hours, resulting in a total fall of 90 cm - the greatest known until that time, or since. Unlike most of the Blue Mountains snowfalls, which are confined to the ridge tops, this snow extended well down into the valleys. It was followed by heavy rains which, combined with the thaw, served to swell the Grose and all its tributaries for many days.
The two Barton brothers - James, aged twenty-four, and George, twenty-two (no relation to Edwin Barton) - could not have picked a worse time to be in the valley. They had set out on Monday from their family home at Bell to go possum trapping and shooting. They had never been in the Grose before, but they were regarded as experienced bushman and had with them a tent and supplies for three days. On the Wednesday, the day the snow started, it was expected that both would return, or that one would return to collect more provisions.
Neither returned that day. The snow piled up and gave way to rain, and they still did not return. Their parents, waiting at home at Bell, became increasingly anxious. On the Sunday, when the brothers were four days overdue, a search was organised. At least eight local volunteers led by the Hartley Vale policemen, constable Bleechmore, set out down the old Engineers Track from Hartley Vale Siding - the route believed to have been taken by the brothers. The weather had cleared and there was little snow left, but the creeks were still swollen.
That afternoon, near the track and somewhere just upstream from Burra Korain, they found the body of George. Covering him was his older brother's coat. Nearby was a swag, their pitched tent, and two trees which had been felled over the river, evidently to provide a crossing. It was concluded, and later confirmed by the coroner, that George Barton had died of exposure in the snow, a couple of days beforehand. The body was carried up to the siding by nine of the searchers.
With the possiblity remaining that James Barton was still alive somewhere in the valley, the search resumed in earnest the next day, a Monday. The brothers played in a local cricket team and the Barton family were well known in the area, so volunteers came from as far away as Lithgow. There were at least thirty searchers, led by constable Bleechmore, and constable Matheson of Lithgow. The aim was to search the upper Grose and all its branches.
Two or three kilometres down from Burra Korain, the searchers found the tracks of two men, along with two guns, a rifle, blankets and some bread. Elsewhere, tracks were found heading up the valley. Bleechmore, who was described by his senior sergeant as 'the best white-man tracker he had met' followed these for a while but lost them. It was thought that the brothers were trying to make their escape from the valley amidst snow, floods and fallen trees, when George collapsed from exhaustion and cold: James had gone on for help, having to fell trees to get across the river.
The searching continued through the week, though the volunteer numbers dropped off as men had to return to work. By the Friday, when only Matheson and Bleechmore were searching, most of the valley as far as Blue Gum Forest had been searched. Each night the policemen had made their way back out to Hartley Vale siding, as they had no equipment for camping in the valley. Their clothes and boots were worn out from the rugged terrain, scrub and lawyer vines. There seemed little hope of finding James Barton alive, so Matheson returned to Lithgow.
The next Sunday, with all the townspeople on holiday, the search was resumed with renewed zeal. Altogether, some fourty-four men were involved: nineteen from Hartley Vale, six from Bell, six from Mount Victoria, two from Lithgow and eleven from Blackheath. The latter which included Thomas Rodriguez and John Cliff walked down from Perrys lookdown and followed the river up to the siding. Four of the party returned the same way - quite a feat in one day - while the others took a coach home.
Most of the searchers, under constable Bleechmore, scoured gullies in the head of the Grose. They split into four groups, each being assigned a gully: To complicate matters, one of the searchers named Enderby, became seperated from his party: when all the parties had regrouped and learned of the missing man, Bleechmore and others followed his tracks up on a gully till dark, shouting and firing a revolver. Enderby eventually turned up that night, without assistance, by which time all concerned had endured a long, rugged day. It was remarked that 'Constable Bleechmore looked as if the native dogs had been at him'. His efforts earned him a cold, which prevented him from searching the next week.
Matheson was back searching during the next week, while a small party from Blackheath repeated the walk from Perrys to the siding. By the end of the week, after almost two weeks of searching, more bad weather and snow came in, forcing the search to be suspended.
A week later there was more searching, this time with the aid of Albert Barlow, an Aboriginal tracker from Sydney. Even after that, Bleechmore and Matheson went out again, but by 7 August , four weeks after the disappearance, all searching had ceased. All in all, over 150 person days of rugged searching had been conducted.
James Barton's body was never found. The popular belief was that he had been washed away by the flood, possibly while trying to cross an improvised log bridge. To make matters worse for the distraught parents, a black comedy had occured whilst the searching was going on. It was the occasion of George's funeral. The intention was to bury him at the Hartley cemetery, but owing to a misunderstanding no arrangements had been made and the mourners had to go back with the body, to the Mount York cemetery, where the grave was dug while everyone looked on. There was apparently no proper tombstone, as there is no record of the grave.
In a sequel to that regrettable circumstance, the death certificate issued for George Barton was mistakenly lodged in the name of James Barton. The error was discovered in 1902 when a certificate was lodged for the missing James, but the correction amounted only to a notation added to the first certificate: to this day, government records list two certificates for James and none for George.
On 6 July 1902, two years after the tragic events in the snow and floods, there was a sad little ceremony down in the valley, at which a tablet commemorating George Barton was set on two posts at the spot where his body was found. Fourteen years later Harry Whitehouse and Cecil Webb stumbled on 'the melancholy memorial', which however has since been lost or burned.
Was there ever a memorial to James? Perhaps not. The bereaved parents probably lived on in hope that their son would one day emerge from the valley."
Excerpt from Back from the Brink - by Andy Macqueen.