Have you been down to Echuca in Victoria on the Murray River (the NSW and Victorian border) and been for a ride on a paddle steamer? The story of the paddle steamers is one of Australia’s amazing inland pioneering transport systems on a par with the camel trains, bullock drays and Cobb and Co coaches.
The Murray River was first navigated in 1853 by William Russell and Francis Cadell who responded to the South Australian Government’s 2,000 pound competition to open the Murray as a waterway. From then on numerous paddle steamers began travelling inland with stores and passengers and returning to port laden with wool. The paddle steamers which came to trade along the inland rivers of the Murray, Darling and Murrumbidgee were an Australian design. Some 300 were built of local red gum.
Paddle steamers were flat bottomed with a broad beam for greater stability. They usually had two or more decks, and were propelled by steam engines driving paddles, either at the rear or more often the side. Their carrying capacity was increased by towing barges with goods such as wool, sheepskins, hides, tallow, station supplies, timber and farming equipment. Loading the wool bales onto the barges and lashing them together was a skilled job. Up to 2,000 bales were carried, stacked in the hull and piled in several tiers above the deck. Careless work would affect the stability of the barge and there were many accidents with barges capsizing. Barges were steered by a man standing on a makeshift wooden platform high on top of the wool. An enormous iron helm was connected to the rudder by ropes and chains. On the Murray River tow lines between the steamers and barges were 100 feet (30.4 m) while on the Darling, with its tighter curves, 50 foot (15.2 m) lines were used. River regulations stipulated that all steamers must stop at night, but few tied up before 10.30 pm and if there was a full moon many would travel through the night.
Other types of paddle boats on the inland river systems included hawking boats fitted out as travelling shops which called at isolated homesteads and timber cutters’ camps. They remained profitable and popular until the 1920s. Another vessel, the “Etona”, was equipped as a travelling mission boat to provide religious instruction to the isolated settlers along the Murray until 1912. It had a small chapel accommodating about twenty people, complete with an altar and organ.
Low water, overhanging trees, sandbars, driftwood, dangerous currents and sudden shallows were everyday hazards for paddle steamers. Snags, where red gum trees which had fallen into the river, presented the most dangerous problem. They were impossible to spot in the brown water of the Murray and frequently caused holing and sinking of vessels. From the beginning, the South Australian and Victorian colonial governments ran snagging steamers which were small vessels fitted with powerful engines, winches and strong tackle to drag snags out of the river.
Paddle steamers navigated sandbanks by rushing the small ones and winching across the large ones. Because of the seasonal variation in river height, the boats could only be operated for about eight months of the year. Sometimes river levels fell so quickly that paddle steamers and their barges would be trapped in pools, occasionally for months at a time. When the rivers were in flood the vessels could paddle almost anywhere but it was easy to get lost as familiar landmarks disappeared. Some boats were found miles from the river, left high and dry after the floods receded.
One of the most interesting objects from this period of transport history in the Museum’s collection is a river navigating chart used by paddle steamer captains on the Darling River between 1870 and 1890. The river course, landmarks, woolsheds, hotels, mills and homesteads from Wentworth to Menindee, NSW, are hand drawn with notes about rocks and dangerous areas. The chart is made of heavy sail cloth and measures 39 metres in length. It is mounted on rollers which were wound on as each section of the river was passed.
By the first decade of the 20th century the river trade was rapidly disappearing to the growing network of roads and railways. Gradually more and more steamers and barges were tied up at the river bank waiting for work which never came and were left to rot. By the 1930s there were only about thirty paddle steamers still in service while the trade was completely finished by the end of the 1960s.
Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator, Transport