Paddle-steamers and riverboats were vital to the opening up and development of Australia. While ocean-going ships brought people to Australia, it was the river system and river trade that opened up the whole south-east corner of the continent.
The Murray, Darling, Lachlan and Murrumbidgee Rivers provided a network of water highways which, with relative speed and ease, allowed the movement of vast quantities of cargo over thousands of kilometres. Produce such as wool and grain was carried by the boats on these rivers to inland ports such as Echuca and Goolwa, for transfer to the ocean ports at Melbourne and Port Elliot or Adelaide.
Similarly, the vast quantities of cargo needed by the growing communities in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland were transported to them by the same boats. Before the days of efficient road and rail transport, the riverboats were the lifeblood of what is now the nation of Australia. For almost the first fifty years of the river trade, until Federation in 1901, the nation, as such, did not exist.
This in itself made transportation more complex with the requirements for customs clearances as boats moved between the various colonies.
Originally New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia charged the same rate of customs duty, with South Australia collecting for all three colonies. Over time New South Wales and Victoria increased their rates, establishing their own customs facilities.
Federation was a significant event, not the least for those involved in the river trade, as it ended the complexities associated with customs within the borders of the new Commonwealth of Australia. Remains of bond stores can still be seen today on the banks of the Murray River.
It was not only cargo boats that plied the rivers, however, as the practical and spiritual needs of the community also needed to be met. Passenger carriers, hawking boats, milk boats and mission boats all had their parts to play.
addition, boats were employed to clear the rivers of snags such as fallen trees whose submerged branches could rip open the hulls of the riverboats. After floods, the shape of the rivers could alter significantly, and the amount of debris posed significant risks to those engaged in the riverboat trade.
Prior to the construction of locks and weirs to manage and control water flow the riverboats were at the mercy of floods and drought, with either extreme making movement difficult if not impossible.
Boats could be stranded for months during low water, a situation that was commercially disastrous. The Jane Eliza was reported to have been away from its home port of Goolwa for three years, fifteen months of which were spent many kilometres away from the river, having travelled to Bourke on the flooded Darling River then to be stranded by the receding waters. Its engine was used during that time to drive saws at a makeshift timber mill.
Floods, on the other hand, allowed passage, but fast-flowing water and widened rivers with ill-defined banks made navigation difficult, further compounded by the danger of submerged trees.
The boats and barges drew very little water, often less than one metre when loaded. Even further at low water it became necessary for boats to be winched across particularly shallow areas when they had insufficient water to continue travelling.
The barrage at Goolwa provided a permanent barrier between the freshwater of the Murray and the saltwater of the ocean. Together with the other weirs it also regulated water levels, enabling year-round travel by the riverboats. Of the planned 26 locks and weirs 13 were finally built, benefiting not only the boats but also irrigation.
Long after the passing of the riverboat trade the locks primary function is now irrigation, servicing a major industry of fruit and vegetable production.
Australian paddle-steamers had two major differences from their American counterparts. The Australian boats were constructed from hardwood, with many original boats surviving and operating today, a century after the softwood built American boats have disappeared. The other key difference was that in order to cope with the many twists and bends of the Australian rivers and to enable the towing of barges, most boats had side paddles.
A few American-style sternwheelers were built but were used to push barges used in lock construction or to carry passengers without a barge in tow.
The boats were also home to many men, women and children. For these people, the boats were their lives. Women gave birth and raised children on the boats. Children's education and play was intermingled with the continual travel of the boats they lived on, chasing or delivering cargo.
While the names of the paddle-steamers are generally well known, the role of barges also needs to be recognised. In their era they were almost as well-known as the boats themselves.
Capable of carrying hundreds of tons of cargo, they were towed behind the side-wheeled paddle-steamers using the river network, with a master in charge of the barge. A portable steering mechanism was placed on top of the cargo, and chains were run back to the rudder, with a certified master taking responsibility for controlling the barge.
As well as highly stacked cargo such as wool bales, barges in the Barmah/Echuca region carried logs from the forests to the sawmills. Crossbeams were laid across the barges and logs from the giant redgum forests were slung lengthways beneath these beams on both sides of the barge.
Barges in many cases were converted to paddle-steamers with the addition of an engine and paddlewheels. The demand for these boats continued until well past the turn of the century when more efficient rail transport and better roads saw them fall into disuse, with many being broken up or simply abandoned.
A major event, "Source to Sea", highlighted the importance of the river trade during the 2001 celebration of Australia's Centenary of Federation.
"Source to Sea" saw the participation of hundreds of people and boats travelling together down the Murray River to Goolwa. Several paddle-steamers over one hundred years old participated in the event, with many other boats close to that vintage also involved, together with modern vessels.
Communities along the length of the River joined in the many events which recognised their heritage. The event reflected both the historical significance of the era of the working riverboats and also the tremendous interest in this part of our heritage today.
Today the interest in riverboats remains high, with a growing interest in the Murray River, and the other rivers feeding into it. It is not simply nostalgia, but a genuine interest in what has been a significant part of our heritage. The fact that so many historic boats exist today provides a tangible link with the past. The restoration and ongoing development of river ports and their historic facilities together with the historic boats provides a unique connection between past and present.
Text source: Australian Riverboats A Pictorial History by Peter Christopher
Publisher: Axiom Publishing
Photographs by: Adam Lee