Gembrook is 54 km south-east of Melbourne and 18 km east of Belgrave. It was the terminus of a narrow gauge railway from Belgrave, now the ‘Puffing Billy’ scenic railway.
Gembrook was settled in 1873. The country was suitable for dairying and orchards. Timber clearing provided income while farms were brought into production. The name came from small emeralds and sapphires found by early settlers in a nearby watercourse.
In 1878 a combined Anglican/Presbyterian church was built in Gembrook and a school was opened the following year. The general store was built in about 1880. The carriage of timber and produce from Gembrook was usually southwards to a railway station on the Gippsland line, but the roads were often boggy. Throughout the 1890s the Victorian Railways considered rail access to Gembrook from several directions, ultimately deciding on a narrow gauge connection from Belgrave. It was opened on 18 December 1900. The railway brought urban excursionists and stimulated timber mill activity. About 20 mills operated in the surrounding forest, with tramlines to the Gembrook rail terminus. A hotel was built in about 1901. The Australian handbook 1903 described Gembrook as:
The railway also transported potatoes to the metropolitan market, and potato growing became a major industry. The volcanic soils produced good yields which were topped up by increasing applications of superphosphate. Subsequent applications of dieldrin pesticides for potato crops have rendered some properties unsuitable for grazing of beef cattle.
A bushfire in 1926 burnt out many timber mills. The 1939 Black Friday fires were less severe, but the Gembrook Fire Brigade was formed the following year. North of Gembrook is the Gilwell Park Scout Camp (1927).
By the time the railway closed on 30 April 1954 (following a landslide which blocked the line), motor traffic had replaced much of the railway's patronage. The re-opening of the western end of the line as a scenic railway occurred in 1962, and a short section from Gembrook was re-opened in the early 1990s. A monthly market is held at the Gembrook railway station. The township is small, having a few shops, a Catholic church, a school (182 pupils, 2014), a community centre, a hotel and a sports ground.
The census populations of Gembrook have been:
Genseric Parker, Forest to farming, Gembrook: an early history, J.D.P. Consultancy, 1995
Marc Fiddian, Potatoes, passengers and posterity: a history of the Puffing Billy’s railway, 1978
M.J. McCarthy, Bellbrakes, bullocks and bushmen: a sawmilling and tramway history of Gembrook 1885-1985, 1998