Monday, June 11, 2007

Bellingen - what was the flood of 1870?

Photo: the Bellinger River at peace.

Looking at searches that had led people to this blog, my curiosity was caught by one search "1870 flood in bellingen".

Flood are not uncommon in Bellingen since the town is bisected by the Bellinger River. This rises in the escarpment to the west of the town around Dorrigo, one of the wettest places in Australia.

I remember one time when staying at Sawtell on the coast north-east of Bellingen, a cyclone dumped 24 inches in 21 hours on Dorrigo, creating a vast flood that stretched across the lower Bellinger Valley blocking all north-south and east-west access for a number of days.

So given that floods are not uncommon, what was it about the flood of 1870 that made it significant? This took me on a web tour trying to find out.

My starting point was the 2001 Bellingen CBD master plan. This reminded me that Bellingen was originally known as Boat Harbour as the head of navigation on the Bellinger River. By the 1930s, the river was no longer navigable as far as Bellingen. However, a reminder of the town's shipping past is provided by the three masted topsail schooner, The Alma Doepel. Launched in 1903, this is now a popular tourist attraction at Port Macquarie.

The plan appears to contain one reference to 1870, a simple statement that by 1870 all the cedar trees that had lined the river has been cut out.

My next port of call struck pay dirt. This was the SES Bellingen flood safe guide. From this we learn that November 1870 was indeed the largest flood since records began, topping out at 11.55 metres.

This would indeed have been a huge flood. In the main town, the river is constrained within a relatively narrow channel with 10 metre high banks. So the 1870 flood would have topped those banks by over a metre and a half.

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