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(3018, 14 km SW, Hobsons Bay City)

Located on the western shore of Port Phillip Bay, Altona occupies a pocket of the western suburbs long insulated from through traffic. Since the mid-19th century, travellers on the main Geelong-Melbourne railway line and road (now the West Gate Freeway) have passed through the northern reaches of Altona, glimpsing first a pastoral landscape and, from the 1950s, towering petrochemical complexes. Altona remained for decades a tiny seaside settlement amid a predominantly rural landscape. Its growth as a suburb was most rapid between the 1950s and 1980s, when the siting of key industries, British and European immigration and the availability of land for housing boosted the population from 6698 residents in 1954 to 32 838 in 1986.

By the early 1840s two homesteads were located on Altona Bay. One of these, belonging to Robert Wrede, was named Altona after a village on the River Elbe in Germany. Wrede's neighbour, Alfred Langhorne, was one of four brothers who overlanded from New South Wales in the 1830s and established pastoral and commercial interests at Williamstown and Melbourne. Alfred's homestead, named Laverton, still stands as Altona Homestead in Logan Reserve, Altona.

Altona was on the edge of the Werribee Plains, but a neighbour to the port at Williamstown and developing industry at Newport. The first attempts to market suburban house blocks in Altona in the 1880s used the beach as the principal attraction. The Altona and Laverton Estate Co. subdivided Langhorne's property into the Laverton Homestead Estate, building a pier and extending a railway spur line to Altona station to encourage buyers. While many lots were sold, few houses were built. It was not until further subdivisions took place during and just after World War I that a suburban community began to take shape. Seaholme, a beachside enclave to the east of central Altona, was developed at this time.

Popular with picnic parties, Altona provided good fishing and bathing opportunities. It maintained a reputation as a popular seaside resort until the 1960s, though many of those who picnicked or holidayed at Altona came from nearby suburbs, such as Footscray or Newport. During hard times the beach was a refuge for people down on their luck, who could exist on fish, rabbits or mushrooms collected locally. Many houses built in the first half of the 20th century were technically only holiday shacks, though they were often used for permanent accommodation.

Although the first shaft was abandoned after it flooded, a coalmine operated on the site of Harrington Square shopping centre from 1905 to 1919. In 1901 the Truganina Explosives Reserve opened near Skeleton Creek at West Altona. The reserve, containing a number of specially designed brick magazines, replaced the older powder magazine on the Maribyrnong River at Maidstone, and operated until 1958, when it was replaced by another at Point Wilson.

Altona has been claimed as the birthplace of Australian aviation. In 1910, French aviator Gaston Cugnet used the Altona Bay Estate as a base for demonstration flights over Melbourne. In 1922, the Commonwealth Oil Refinery (COR), Australia's first oil refinery, was established north of the Geelong Railway and Kororoit Creek Road. It was a precursor of the petrochemical industries that were based in Altona from 1949, when an American company, Vacuum Oil Co. Ltd, opened a distillation plant for crude oil at Paisley. Mobiltown railway station was opened in 1953 to service the refinery. In turn, the refinery attracted PRA, a complex of seven plants completed in 1966, producing plastics for a variety of manufacturing uses. Land subdivided around the Galvin railway station, established on the Geelong line in the 1920s, was incorporated in petrochemical works in the 1950s. While many local people found employment with various manufacturers, there has been a constant thread of concern over pollution and the impact of industries on the natural environment and on the health of local residents.

Postwar zoning in Altona allowed for approximately a third of its area to be used for industrial purposes. In the 1950s houses began to appear at Altona North, as well as in the older estates along Altona Bay and at Seaholme, where the locally formed British Migrants Welfare Society built several dozen houses for its members in the 1950s. The local population was boosted in 1949 by the opening of the Wiltona migrant hostel. In the 1980s, house-building in the west of Altona, near the old explosives magazine, resulted in the Altona Meadows and Altona Green estates. With its proximity to the city and the bay, Altona's real estate prices rose steadily in the 1990s, particularly on the foreshore Esplanade. The predominantly brick veneer and timber detached houses of Altona share the city, not only with industry, but with a number of wetland bird habitats on creeks, swamps and Cherry Lake.

It was not until 1957, when it became a shire, that Altona stood on its own as a local government area. Until then it had been part of the Shire of Werribee (formerly Wyndham) since its formation in 1862. The City of Altona was proclaimed in 1968, and amalgamated into the City of Hobsons Bay in 1994.

Jill Barnard

Priestley, Susan, Altona: A long view, Hargreen Publishing in conjunction with the City of Altona, Melbourne, 1988. Details