Monday, July 03, 2006

Rise and fall of the paddle steamer -inland river transport

In my last post I suggested that the history of inland river transport threw a clear light on economic competition between the colonies, competition that affected the history of New England. However, the rise and fall and now rise of the paddle steamer (the ships were all paddle steamers) is an interesting story in its own right.

1836 saw the establishment of the colony of South Australia. The possible use of the Murray River as a highway to draw traffic and business into South Australia from the pastoral interior attracted early attention. In 1850, just fourteen years after the colony's foundation, the SA Government offered a prize of 2,000 pounds each (a very substantial sum) for the first vessels to reach the junction of the Murray and Darling rivers. Two vessels, the Mary Anne and Lady Augusta, did so in 1853.

Between 1855 and 1859 a serious of adventurous voyages established the practical limitations of navigation along the winding sometimes tortuous river systems. A series of inland ports grew up: Bourke, Menindee and Wilcannia on the Darling; Balranald, Hay, Narranderra and Wagga Wagga on the Muurrumbidgee; Wentworth, Mildura, Swann Hill and Echuca on the Murray. Ultimately nearly 200 vessels were built to service the trade.

I have spoken before of the cost advantages of water versus horse or bullock drawn land travel. Even though the distances involved along the rivers were vast, the river vessels provided a more cost effective option for inland grown wool. This attracted freight, freight that the mercantile interests in each colony were keen to attract.

Initially Goolwa at the mouth of the Murray in South Australia was the main port. However, the river mouth created real problems for navigation, leading the South Australian Government to build a horse tramway (Australia's first public railway) from Goolwa to the nearby blue waters of the Southern Ocean at Port Elliot.

The freight business was too lucrative to allow South Australia's position to remain unchallenge. The Victorian Government quickly began to build a railway reaching Echuca in 1864. Echuca was only 250 kilometres (155 miles) from Melbourne, and the new line changed the shape of river trade. From this point, the majority of the steamers from the Murrumbidgee and Darling went upstream to Echuca instead of downstream to Goolwa. Measured by number of ships, Echuca became Victoria's second busiest port.

Fourteen years later (1878), the railway from Adelaide finally reached the Murray at Morgan. South Australia could again compete with Echuca, attracting Darling and lower Murray traffic. However, this newly acquired advantage was short lived.

NSW had begun its own railway building program. During the 1880s these lines at last reached the navigable waters of the inland rivers first at Wagga Wagga, then at Albury, Narandera and Hay. In 1887 the railway reached Bourke, a line directly designed to capture Darling traffic. Freight previously sent by ship to Echuca or Morgan was now sent to Sydney.

From the beginning of the shipping trade there had been discussions about the need for works to improve river navigability, especially on the bigger Murray. As early as 1863 an intercolonial conference resolved that action should be taken to improve Murray navigation. However, no action was taken.

NSW was the core diffficulty. While improvements to river navigation might improve the position of NSW pastoralists, they would also damage the revenues of NSW's growing railway system. It was not until 1917 that the states signed the Murray River Waters Agreement establishing the Murray River Commission. The new Commission began work on river improvements in the twenties, but by then the growing number of motor vehicles had sounded the final death knell for river shipping as a major transport mode.

Some shipping survived. However, the real resurgence of the paddle steamer came not from freight but from carriage of tourists who provided a far more lucrative marketplace. Today, steamers such as the PS Adelaide shown in the photograph and operated by the Port of Echuca again ply the Murray.

Source: Australian Heritage Commission, australia our national story, Chapter 2, "Ports and Shipping, 1788-1870,


Geoff Robinson said...

Was up at Echuca over Christmas and remarkable to see how it is a waterfront tourist town organised around the paddleboats. Add the size of Shepparton and it is not surprising the Nationals have lost the federal electorate to the Liberals.

Jim Belshaw said...

I think that that is probably right, Geoff. although it's not as clear as that.

I find it interesting the way traditional voting patterns in areas hold on, just as interesting the way they suddenly change. One of the difficulties with a lot of elctoral analysis is that it ignores history. Rather than commenting here, I think that this deserves a full post.