Travelling Australia
River Trade in the Murray-Darling
For several decades late in the nineteenth century, between about 1860 and 1890, the rivers of the Murray-Darling were important trade routes carrying wool for export from thriving pastoral properties and returning with supplies for these station. River traders became partners in the booming wool industry and prospered. But river trade did not become a permanent feature of the Australian scene because other, newer, transport methods provided better, and more economically attractive, ways of handling freight.

During the decades of successful river trade two major factors underlay activities. One was the political reality that the navigable parts of the Murray-Darling system flowed through three bitterly competitive, independent colonies (New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia). The environmental reality was that river flow in the Murray-Darling, especially on the Darling River, was intensely seasonal. During a normal year, water levels varied from so high that rivers broke their banks and it was hard to identify the river's course; at other times of the year there was so little water that rivers became collections of waterholes.

The river trade had its genesis in the spread of the pastoral industry across south-east Australia inland from Sydney. Initial expansion was from Sydney towards Port Phillip then pastoralist-explorers moved down the Murray establishing pastoral properties. In 1848 Murray Downs Station of 600 square kilometres was taken up opposite present-day Swan Hill. Initial stocking of the property which became Mildura took place in 1846; this was then very deep in the unknown wilderness. Wool produced on these properties had to be carried by bullock dray to the nearest coastal port or railhead for export, usually to England. But roads and track were non-existent or barely formed and progress of the bullock drays was subject to weather; transport was slow and expensive and an alternative would be welcome.

The River Murray had been widely viewed as a potential transport route into the interior when the colony of South Australia was established. When Charles Sturt voyaged down the Murray in 1829-30 he wrote that the river was navigable by vessels much larger than his whaleboat, he also considered the Darling River navigable, but nothing was done to make that vision a reality until 1850 when South Australia's governor offered a prize for the first boat owner to navigate an iron-hulled vessel from the mouth of the Murray to the junction with the Darling River. A jetty had been built at Goolwa and beacons and navigational markers had been erected between Goolwa and Wellington across Lake Alexandrina to encourage private enterprise to begin river trading. Still nothing happened until the discovery of gold in Victoria, and the opportunity of delivering stores to the diggings via the Murray River and tributaries if the route could be pioneered.

The Beginning
In 1853 two vessels competed for the prize. The small Mary Ann had begun carrying local cargo around the Murray mouth area in March 1853; the Lady Augusta had been completed in Sydney in mid-1853 and sailed around to Encounter Bay then across the Murray bar. In August 1853 the water level in the Murray was high enough and both boats set off upriver, Mary Ann captained by William Randell reached Moama and Lady Augusta, captained by Francis Cadell and towing the barge Eureka, reached Swan Hill, both well beyond the Darling River junction. Neither vessel met the full conditions for the Governor's award but both were rewarded for their success. More importantly, Lady Augusta bought more than five tonnes of wool on Eureka back to Goolwa. The stage was set for the river-trade to grow and prosper.

The captains of both vessels set up commercial riverboat operations and other operators begun running paddle-steamers. By 1855 there were five paddle-steamers on the river and Randell was building more in his Mannum shipyard. River boats offered a far cheaper means of getting wool to the coast than bullock waggons and station owners were willing customers. Availability of riverboats, and the lower freight costs they offered, resulted in more sheep stations being established along the rivers. This was a mutually beneficial process, more sheep stations produced more wool and encouraged more paddle-steamers to enter the trade; more paddle-steamers encouraged potential settlers to take-up more sheep stations because they could reliably send their wool to market. South Australia had led the way but by the mid-1860s shipping companies were being established along the rivers in New South Wales and Victoria. The river trade had begun an expansion that would take it to between 200 and 300 boats operating on the Murray River system at its peak.

As further assistance to the river trade, the South Australian government built the Grappler in 1858. She was designed and built specifically to remove snags from the river and carried a crane able to lift 14 to 15 tonnes, or logs one and a half metres in diameter. Snags are the remains of trees in the river, trees that have either been flushed downstream during floods and become stranded, or trees that have toppled into the river from the adjacent bank. With their branches and roots largely underwater they created an enormous hazard to shipping and their removal was beneficial to the trade. An alternative to removing snags was to whitewash the most dangerous parts to make them more visible, or to cut them off at the summer (ie low) river level.

River Trade - page 2
Mouth of the Murray
The original river trading intention was for riverboats to continue out of the Murray and take their cargo to Port Adelaide but the Mouth of the Murray proved unsafe for navigation. A few riverboats were reported to have safely crossed the bar at the mouth of the Murray many time but the general opinion was that the river mouth was not safe, nor could it be made safe, for routine shipping movements. Enough vessels were lost trying to cross the bar to support that belief.

Goolwa, located on the last bend before the river reached the sea, was selected as the place where riverboats would unload cargo from inland for transfer to ocean-going ships. Port Elliot was selected as the ocean port and a railway was built between Goolwa and Port Elliot. The railway, operated by draught horses pulling the carriages, was completed in 1854; this was the first railway in Australia. There had been some talk of digging a canal between Goolwa and Port Elliot but nothing came of that idea because of difficulties at Port Elliot.

Port Elliot was not a success. The water was shallow and the jetty was not long enough for the railway to reach anchored ships so wool bales had to be loaded by boat and barge. As well, offshore rocks made navigation difficult and the bay was not sheltered; it was frequently battered by gales from the Southern Ocean. In 1864, after seven ships had been sunk at Port Elliot, port activity was moved along the coast to Victor Harbor. The horse-drawn railway from Goolwa was extended to Victor Harbor which became the main access point for goods travelling up and down the Murray River.

The River Trade
During the later 1850s and early 1860s the practical limits of navigation on the rivers was found by trial and error. Along the Murray, Albury had been reached in 1855 and the Murray was understood to be usually navigable, at least for shallow draught vessels, from Goolwa as far upstream as Echuca. The Murrumbidgee relied on melting snow from the southern Alps for its water; fortunately the melt water arrived in the river just after shearing when the wool was ready to be moved. In years of light rain and snow on the Alps the paddle-steamers may have only three to four weeks of suitable water depth instead of the three to four months they usually had to navigate the river. In 1858, Randall's Gemini reached Hay before the water became too shallow, later that year during higher river levels in the spring they reached Gundagi but that was beyond the practical limit of navigation which was initially accepted as Wagga Wagga then, with time, revised downstream to Narrandera then Darlington Point. Along the Goulburn River the navigation limit was found to be Shepparton.

On the Darling River the settlements at Menindee, Wilcannia and Bourke were all reached (in 1860) and Randell reached Walgett in 1861, this proved to be the practical limit of navigation on the Darling under best conditions although there are reports that paddle-steamers also regarded Brewarrina, closer to Bourke, as the limit of navigation. A paddle-steamer arriving at Bourke was accepted as proof that the Darling could be a viable transport link with the outside world and transport patterns changed accordingly. Bourke and other settlements along the river immediately became transport nodes where wool was sent from northern New South Wales and southern Queensland to be loaded on paddle-steamers and sent south for export. Similarly, freight from the south was unloaded from paddle-steamers at river ports for forwarding to remote settlements and sheep-stations.

River trade along the Darling was more difficult than on the Murray because of the long distances and erratic river flow. Water levels in the Darling depended on rain in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales; the Darling varied from a magnificent river with eight to ten metres of water depth, as it was in 1870-1871, to a string of waterholes, as it was in 1885-1886 when seven paddle-steamers enroute for Bourke became stranded and spent fifteen months in the dry river bed waiting for the next rain to release them. One of those stranded was the paddle-steamer Jane Eliza which took 3 years between 1883 and 1886 to complete a voyage between Morgan and Bourke.

Unavailability of paddle-steamers was particularly undesirable along the Darling where river transport had prompted sheepmen to establish stations along the isolated river. Each station was a calling point for the river trade and the paddle-steamer was their only link with the outside world. Paddle-steamers not only took away their wool clip but also transported their visitors and carried stores; cooking pots, flour, tobacco, beer, galvanised iron, dried fruit, pipes, pickles, kerosene, candles, boots, books, saddlery, perfume, clothing, sewing materials, etc.

Most steamers carried passengers and stores in addition to the wool cargo but there were some specialised floating shops. In 1867 the Prince Alfred was built in Goolwa as a floating shop and others vessels followed, the largest was the Merle which towed a barge (Flo D) carrying additional stock. In a different line of business, two mission boats (Etona and Glad Tidings) provided religious services to isolated communities along the river.

River Trade - page 3
A few of the stern-wheelers popular on American rivers were in use but most paddle-steamers on the Murray-Darling were side wheelers which were easier to handle in the swirling currents and tight bends of Australian rivers. A few steamers were imported from America or Britain but most were built in shipyards along the Murray at Goolwa, Mannum, Morgan or Echuca. Local timber, often red gum, was used. Paddle-steamers usually had two decks and were up to 36 metres long, weighing up to 225 tonnes. They were nearly flat-bottomed and had very shallow draught similar to river craft on American rivers but Australian river craft had shallower draught than American vessels because of the low water level so common in Australian rivers. They used wood cut from the river banks to fuel their boilers.

Barges were widely associated with paddle-steamers on the Murray-Darling either towed behind or lashed alongside steamers to increase the volume of goods they could transport. Barges were empty hulls with several holds separated by bulkheads. Wool bales were stacked in a pyramid shape with a single row of bales at the top and spaces for pumps which may be needed during the voyage. Each layer of bales was firmly secured with wire cables, so the cargo would not move if the barge ran into a sandbank. Finally the cargo would be firmly lashed down all round. The barge steering wheel was raised at each successive tier, so that the steersman could see above the cargo. Many barges were handled by one man.

River Ports
Goolwa benefitted from being the first link between the Murray-Darling river trade and the outside world. With the river opened, and the railway and wharf established, the volume of trade through Port Goolwa (proclaimed in 1857) increased enormously. Paddle-steamers towed barges carrying supplies upriver to pastoralists, to the Victorian gold-diggings and to newly-established towns, and returned laden with wool for export. The town grew and prospered. Extensions to the Goolwa wharf were soon necessary and ship-building began with Goolwa being the first Australian river port to have a ship-building industry. The first vessels were built in 1853 but the main ship-building and repair yard, Goolwa Iron Works, opened in 1864. The Iron Works incorporated a slip in the river and an iron foundry producing ships and engines as well as railway trucks and other machinery and casting.

Goolwa's monopoly of the river trade began fading when the Victorian government decided to capture some of the river trade and railway line from Melbourne reached Echuca; the first train arrived in October 1864 and wool had been received at the Echuca terminal since August of that year. Echuca Wharf was built between 1865 and 1867. Wool from pastoral properties along the rivers far into New South Wales could now be taken to Echuca Wharf, transferred from paddle-steamers onto trains then taken to Melbourne for export. Echuca offered the lowest-cost way of sending wool from sheep station to ocean port and grew rapidly as a river port. The wharf was extended in 1877 and again in 1879 to reach a maximum length of 332 metres.

The 1870s was a period of substantial growth in the wool industry in New South Wales when the wool clip grew from 33,500,000 kilograms to more than 72,500,000 kilograms. Most of the sheep producing that wool were in the Murray-Darling Basin; by now sheep had spread into the northern reaches of the Darling so that outback New South Wales was akin to one vast sheep run with the Riverina as the industry stronghold. As the wool industry prospered so too did the river-boats. Paddle-steamers carried every imaginable item for outlying stations and for more remote settlements but wool bales for export remained their primary business and main source of income.

The South Australian government was not prepared to see Echuca in Victoria dominate the booming river trade unchallenged and established a new river port at Morgan with direct rail connection to Adelaide. This river port was intended to capture more river trade, especially that from the Darling River since Morgan was considerably closer than Echuca to the junction of the Murray and the Darling and promised faster transport of wool. The town of Morgan was surveyed in 1878 and in April of that year the first steam locomotive made a test run from Adelaide on the new railway line. River trade at Morgan was slow to begin but then grew quickly. Within a few years six trains a day were running between Morgan and Adelaide and the five steam cranes on the wharf were operating 24 hours a day transferring cargo between trains and paddle-steamers alongside the wharf.

Competition from Railways
The period 1872 to 1884 was boom time for the economy in the Australian colonies around the Murray-Darling; the wool industry, with its partner the river trade, were part of that boom. But the rail network was spreading and would soon diminish the river-trade. Few people foresaw that change and in 1874 the Port of Echuca recorded its busiest year ever with 240 boats trading with the port. In the same year the Victorian Government opened the final section of a railway line from Melbourne to Wodonga. Paddle-steamers previously carried freight to and from Albury and Wodonga via Echuca; now that commerce went by rail directly from Wodonga to Melbourne and the river trade lost business.
River Trade - page 4
The New South Wales Government had watched the growing wool industry and river trade with concern. New South Wales sheep stations were producing more and more wool each year and it was going to build up ports and businesses in Victoria and South Australia. Worse, many parts of the Riverina looked more to Melbourne than they did to Sydney because they conducted business with Melbourne via the river trade and Echuca. A programme of building railway lines to connect the sheep growing areas with Sydney was begun to provide competition to the river trade. Developments on the main southern line were incremental; from Goulburn the line went to Yass, then Cootamundra, then Junee, Wagga Wagga and Gerogery (reached in 1880) but not quite to Albury in case that encouraged trade between southern New South Wales with Victoria. A branch line from Junee went along the Murrumbidgee to Narrandera (in 1881) and then Hay, which was considered in Sydney to regard itself as virtually a Victorian town. An extension from Narrandera went to Jerilderie. To the west the train line from Bathurst was extended to Condoblin on the Lachlan River and from Orange, north to Dubbo on the Macquarie River and finally to Bourke in 1885. Now New South Wales could capture the pastoral trade previously carried along the Darling to Melbourne (via Echuca) and Adelaide (via Morgan) and divert it to Sydney. Paddle-steamers lost more business.

In South Australia a spur from the Adelaide-Melbourne railway line was laid to the wharf at Murray Bridge and the Port of Mobilong declared in 1886. A two level timber wharf 190 metres long was available for paddle-steamers. Murray Bridge as a working port meant the end for Goolwa and Mannum as river ports; trade through Goolwa had virtually ceased by 1890. About that time train lines were built to Loxton, Waikerie, Paringa, Berri and Renmark, Barmera and Glossop - all places which had relied on the river trade and now used the railway. Several of these South Australian places, and Mildura in Victoria, produced dried fruits which paddle-steamers carried to the nearest railhead. But the growth of irrigation was also seen as a threat to river-trade because irrigators continued pumping water out of the river during dry seasons reducing water depth further when it was already too low for safe navigation. South Australia was particularly opposed to irrigation lowering river levels.

The Boom Ends
The boom time had faded by the 1890s. In one year the Port of Echuca recorded 74 boats leaving the port after recording 240 in 1874. The reduced wool clip during the 1880s drought and the 1890s national economic crisis made life difficult for everybody, but river trade was also badly affected by competition from the growing network of railway lines offering a lower-cost and more reliable service to pastoralists than was possible from paddle-steamers limited by water depth in rivers. Motor vehicles were also threatening the river-trade. But the river-trade was far from dead and paddle-steamers continued carrying freight and passengers, especially to places such as Mildura which did not have a railway connection with Melbourne until 1903. Tourist trips became more popular, often linking rail heads with paddle-steamers; one example was a tourist trip from Melbourne to Echuca by rail, paddle-steamer from Echuca to Morgan, train to Adelaide then return to Melbourne by coastal vessel.

A particularly prolonged drought from the late 1890s until 1902 so badly disrupted irrigation and river traffic that the states met to discuss 'drought proofing' the Murray. By 1915 they had agreed to build a series of weirs and locks to manage the flow of the river for navigation and irrigation. But river traffic was declining and in 1924 the agreement was amended to give higher priority to irrigation requirements than to navigation. In 1934 the agreement was further altered to provide for only 14 locks instead of the original 26. Paddle-streamers assisted in construction by carrying cement, crushed granite and other building material to the construction sites.

After Locks 1 to 11 were completed in the late 1930s the Murray was navigable in years of normal rainfall from the Mouth to 100 kilometres upstream of Mildura. But the river trade had dwindled to insignificance; the Port of Echuca had so few movements that record keeping ceased in 1910. The last commercial river-boat left Bourke in 1931. There was still some activity around Murray Bridge with bagged wheat carried in the 1920s and 1930s and local movement of milk from dairies along the river to the milk factory downstream of Murray Bridge wharf. Around Echuca there was some local logging-related river activity until the mid-1950s, but the river trade as a whole ended decades before then.

The river trade grew from a very small beginning into a substantial enterprise because it provided better transport service, at lower cost, than bullock waggons. Pastoralists growing wool on properties along the Murray and Darling Rivers relied on paddle-steamers to move their wool clip and the paddle-steamers relied on the income from carrying wool to remain profitable. Despite problems with variable water levels in the rivers, and difficulties caused by competition between the three colonial governments concerned, the river trade thrived while paddle-steamers provided the best service available to pastoralists.
River Trade - page 5

But the growing railway network offered a more reliable, faster service to pastoralists and to the general community. The expanding rail network took business previously handled by river traffic and soon paddle-steamer operators were going out of business. Paddle-steamers replaced bullock drays because of better service and the paddle-steamer was replaced by the railway because the train offered still better service.

Narrandera's Paddlesteamer Era
These notes from the local visitor cente about the paddle-steamer era in Narrandera in southern New South Wales illustrate the major factors in the river trade as they affected one township:-

In September 1858 two South Australian paddle-steamers, the Albury and the Lady Augusta, arrived at Narrandera on their way upriver to Gundagai. The steamers came because pastoralism was booming in the Riverina and bullock drivers were charging 17 to 30 pounds a ton to cart stores up and wool down - paddle-steamers charged twelve pounds. In September 1865 John Jenkins launched the 60 ton Nangus and by May 1869 James Warby was running the J.H.P. through Narrandera. That same month the wagga Wagga Steam Navigation Company was formed, and bought the Victoria for 3,000 pounds.

At first South Australian boats dominated the river. However, in 1861 Victoria appointed a select committee to discover how to capture the Riverina trade, and in 1864 completed a railway to Echuca on the Murray. The steamers flocked to the new railhead and almost certainly Narrandera village did most of its business with Melbourne.

Business men in Sydney were not happy because paddle-steamers drew trade to Melbourne and Adelaide and plans were drawn up to build railways from Sydney to serve the area and take that trade. In 1880 dozens of paddle-steamers crowded the river but most of them were gone by 1885. The Narranderra-Hay railway took trade north of Murrumbidgee River away from paddle-steamers in 1881-2 and trade south of the river was lost to paddle-steamers in 1883-4 when the railway crossed the river to Jerilderie. After 1880 only one boatload of Melbourne goods reached Narranderra.

The Wagga Wagga was the last of the Murrumbidgee paddle-steamers. After hitting snags and sinking twice in December 1880, she was repaired but made only three trips in 1881. For the rest of the drought-striken 1880s low water stranded her regularly. By the 1890s she was being used chiefly for excursions from Narranderra. In 1918 she sprang a leak at Roach's Mill wharf and was run downstream, grounded and left to rot. Today, when the water level is low enough, the wreck of the Wagga Wagga is visible on the northern side of the river upstream of the railway bridge.

  Technology in Australia 1788-1988. at
  Walkabout at
  Australia's Great River by R.M Younger. Pub Horizon Publishing, Swan Hill, 1976.
  Narrandera Information Centre.