Travelling Australia - Journal 2012
13-20 April 2012 - Echuca
PS Canberra
PS Canberra in the Murray River at Echuca. Paddle-steamers such as this are fundamental to Echuca's tourist industry.
We stayed in Echuca for about a week. The weather for the first few days was delightful with clear blue sky, bright sunshine and little wind. A little rain arrived on the night of the 17th and was followed by a few days of cloud culminating in a thunderstorm at about sunset on the 19th when a downpour flooded the access roads in the park and saturated anybody out in the open. Fine weather returned for our last day.

We stayed in the caravan park in the town of Echuca within walking distance of Echuca Port; on two previous visits to this town we had stayed at caravan parks further out and had found the travel a nuisance but this time we were very well placed in a remarkably pleasant park.

Although the caravan park was full when we arrived about half the visitors left over the first weekend. We assumed this was because school holidays in Victoria were ending. There had been an unusual number of tents in use on powered sites; the conventional wisdom holds that holidays makers who would have gone into debt and used a motel for their holidays a few years ago now choose to avoid debt and use a tent. Once the tents had gone the grassed sites had a chance to recover and to allow the yellowed grass which had been under the tent to return to green.

We generally stayed in Echuca, or in Moama across the Murray River in New South Wales, during this visit. The exceptions were a trip on Paddle Steamer Pevensey on the Murray River near Echuca and a trip on MV Kookaburra at Barmah and along the Murray River where it flows through the Barmah Choke. Apart from these trips we spent the time in the shopping centre, in the Historical Precinct, or in the Port of Echuca.
McCulloch building The McCulloch building in the Historical Precinct well illustrates the change in Echuca's economy. William McCulloch and Company was a transport firm which owned five paddle-steamers and was agent for about ten more. These steamers carried wool to Echuca which was then sent to Melbourne by train and by sea to the London sales. McCulloch was the largest transport company in Australia and had twenty branch offices throughout Victoria, South Australian and the Riverina; this one in Echuca was the largest. Now this former wool transport company office is a restaurant serving tourists.

Echuca began as a punt across the Murray River which began operating in 1850 when the place was known as Hopwoods Punt. The name 'Echuca' was adopted in 1855 but the small country town did not develop until the 1870s.

Echuca's early development was driven by the growth of the port which became a major centre for paddle-steamers carrying wool from pastoral properties to be sent by train to Melbourne. Growth of the railway system meant the end of the paddle-steamer trading network (see  River Trade in the Murray-Darling System  for details on the growth and collapse of the paddle-steamer network).
Travelling Australia - Echuca - page 2
Most paddle-steamers were destroyed, or abandoned and left to rot, when their trade collapsed but a handful have been restored and are the backbone of Echuca's tourist business. Parts of Echuca, which had been closely associated with the river trade, also survived and have become tourist attractions.

Echuca town centre contains three main elements adjacent to each other. The conventional shopping centre is near the bridge across the Murray River to Moama in New South Wales. This shopping centre has a full collection of retail businesses including the larger operators such as BigW, Coles, Safeway (the Victorian arm of Woolworths) and Aldi. Nearby are several streets crowded with smaller stores selling a range of products and including the banks. Shops and businesses expected in a town of 12,000 people (2006 census) are to be found. A bit surprisingly, parking meters are used along the shopping streets but a charge of 80 cents an hour, or 20 cents for fifteen minutes, is hardly enough to be a major factor in shopping activity. (I use the word 'surprisingly' because parking meters are not often seen in rural centres).

Immediately adjacent to the shopping area is the old town along High Street officially described as the Historical Precinct. This is a street of older shops retaining a nineteenth and early twentieth century appearance including verandahs with posts, no neon signs, restricted lighting and very limited advertising. Of course, parking meters do not fit with this environment and angled parking along the street is free.
Historical Precinct shops Shop fronts along High Street in the Historical Precinct.

This precinct specialises in tempting the thousands of tourists who visit Echuca. There are hotels, bed and breakfasts, and a wine-bar as well as countless coffee shops and restaurants along the street, all with tables and chairs on the footpath. A couple of large, well-equipped camping goods shops and a disposals store with heavy emphasis on camping and caravanning are a welcome sight and the second hand book shop is particularly well stocked and worth a long visit by readers. Bakeries, fish and chip and take-away food shops are available among the photographers and picture galleries. The shop dealing in ground coffee ready for percolators has to differentiate itself from the numerous coffee shops selling coffee to drink. Then there are shops which are nothing but temptation; gift shops, chocolate shop, cheese shop, lolly shops and ice creamery. Exactly how the shop advertising spray-on body tan or the business specialising in lawn bowls equipment fits in with the tourist image is unclear.

The difference between the two shopping areas was obvious on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Most of the conventional shops were closed and those streets fairly empty. The Historical Precinct was a buzz of activity with many people enjoying a long lunch in the sun or taking a coffee-break from wandering around the shops all open for business. According to Internet sites Echuca's economy used to rely on supporting the surrounding agricultural region but now relies on tourism.

The third element in Echuca's layout is the Port of Echuca along the Murray River, immediately adjacent to the Historical Precinct, and in some ways part of that precinct. The Port is centred on the wharf built when Echuca was a major transport hub in the paddle-steamer period. Several business premises from that time, including a blacksmith and a timber mill, have been retained and become tourist attractions. Several paddle-steamers are moored near the wharf or regularly take passengers on river cruises. The Port is more than paddle-steamers; along the bank downstream from the wharf there is a houseboat mooring area.

This somewhat unusual arrangement where a tourist/historical area is immediately adjacent to a conventional shopping area works extremely well to serve and entertain thousands of tourists visiting Echuca each year. Many buildings in the Historical Precinct are of an age which would normally have been destroyed by "development" in past decades but these have survived to be valued and to become tourist attractions in their own right.
Travelling Australia - Echuca - page 3
Echuca Wharf Echuca wharf. The barge in the right foreground is engaged in replacing the timber in the wharf as part of a $14.2 million Echuca Port refurbishment project.

The older buildings probably survived because of geography. Echuca began as a punt across the Murray River and the site of that punt is marked near the Port. The first businesses serving travellers using the punt, were established near the punt and natural growth would see the first road or street developed from there. Present-day High Street through the Historical Precinct is probably very close to the route of that first street in Echuca.

In most places a township expands outward from the initial settlement site leaving the original point roughly at the centre of the present-day city or town. But in Echuca, expansion from High Street for businesses, shops or residences was heavily influenced by the Campaspe River which enters the Murray downstream of Echuca and flows so close to the Murray at Echuca that there were few options available for the first town planners not wanting to build on the flood-prone floodplain. The Murray River and the Campaspe River imposed limits on the direction Echuca could expand.

While Echuca was a minor river port limits to expansion were tolerable but in 1864 the railway line between Echuca and Melbourne opened for business and in that year the first bale of wool arrived at Echuca via paddle-steamer for forwarding to Melbourne. In following years the first section of the Echuca Wharf was built and Echuca began its life as a thriving river-port handling wool from stations in the Murray-Darling river system being sent by train to Melbourne for export.

Inevitably, Echuca expanded to handle this business and an expansion township was laid out along High Street which now extended south of the land limited by the Murray and Campaspe Rivers. An imposing post office building opened in this new area in 1870. Since then, residential development has taken place to the south of the older part of Echuca so the city layout is lopsided with central Echuca at the northern edge of the built-up area and mostly near the Murray River.
Old Echuca Post Office Old Echuca Post Office built in 1870 when Echuca was entering its boom time as an inland port. The ground floor of this imposing building has been converted into a restaurant/coffee shop to serve the tourist industry.