|The Murray River|
The Murray River forms the border between New South Wales and Victoria and flows for 2530 km from the Australian Alps in eastern Australia to Encounter Bay, South Australia. Its major tributaries are the Murrumbidgee, Lachlan and Darling Rivers.
The first vessel to steam on the waters of the Murray was the Mary Ann. In March 1853 William Randell, keen to find a speedy, economic means of transporting his flour to the expanding markets of the Victorian gold fields, set out from near present-day Mannum for Swan Hill. He was forced to turn back, then set set out again several months later. He encountered Captain Francis Cadell in the Lady Agusta just three days from Swan Hill. Cadel was responding to a South Australian government initiative encouraging exploration of the river.
Both vessels arrived at Swan Hill on 17 September 1853. On their return journeys, they carried wool back to South Australia, and the use of the Murray for commercial shipping had begun.
The river trade
The river system quickly became a highway to the inland. Trade was varied. Steamers carried passengers, mail and supplies to the stations, and returned with station produce for coastal markets. By 1870 the Murray was the main channel bringing inland wealth to the coast.
River trade transformed inland pastoral industries. Station owners began to change from cattle, a good option when the only transport to market was overland, to sheep, because river transport of wool made sheep farming a better option. Towns in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales became, for a time, bustling inland ports. Eventually Goolwa (SA) and Echuca (VIC) became the key river ports with a strong rivalry growing between the two.
With the river trade came a new era in boat building. Most boats were built to a simple utilitarian design with the shorter and more manoeuvrable side-wheelers (a paddle-wheel on each side of the vessel) eventually beating out the longer and more cumbersome stern-wheelers (American style with a paddle-wheel at the rear).
Apart from special passenger vessels, most steamers were simple cargo ships accompanied by one or two barges. Deck passengers travelled cheaply, finding a place among the cargo. Some barges were purpose-built for the wool trade and vessels conveying timber from the Barmah forest to the Echuca/Moama sawmills had special barges with outriggers to handle the logs.
Causes of decline
Despite being a great advance on the bullock team, river transport had its problems. There was no co-ordinated approach to development. Intercolonial customs tariffs meant time consuming and burdensome custom-house requirements. The river itself was unpredictable and conditions were often dangerous.
Rising costs, fierce competition and the expansion of the rail system contributed to the decline in river trade from its peak in the 1880s.
River trade continued at reduced levels until the 1930s. Passenger steamers continued longer. Indeed, steamers can still be seen on the Murray River. Many individuals and organisations have restored vessels or built new paddle steamers to cater to the love of heritage and the resurgent tourist industry.