Echuca and Murray-Darling Trade, Victoria
The ‘paddle-steamer capital of the world’, Echuca on the Murray River might be Victoria‘s prettiest small town.
The name Echuca is an Yorta Yorta Aboriginal word meaning ‘meeting of the waters’. It is here that three great rivers meet: the Goulburn, the Campaspe, and the Murray.
The Yorta Yorta were the traditional owners of the land around Echuca. The European settlement was established in 1853 by the ex-convict Henry Hopwood, who settled on the banks of the Murray, converted some rough sheds into an inn and a store, and then established punt and ferry crossings over the Murray and Campaspe Rivers. The Gold Rush had meant that a large number of cattle were being moved from New South Wales to the Goldfields: by developing a monopoly on transport over the river, Hopwood prospered.
Over the following years, Echuca became a focal point for the extensive Murray-Darling River trade. It was Australia’s most important port, a centre of the paddle-steamers which moved down the river, transporting wool from sheep stations to the city, and consumer goods from the city to the stations. In 1864, Echuca was linked to Melbourne and Bendigo by rail, enabling wool to move to the major market of Melbourne; and to be shipped to the even bigger markets in the United Kingdom. From 1861 to 1871, the town’s population grew threefold to 4789; while the population eventually reached around 15, 000, with more than one-hundred pubs in the city centre.
The still Murray was suddenly in perpetual motion, as paddle-steamers passed up and down the river. The paddle-steamers were of an Australian design, particularly adapted for the Murray. Flat-bottomed with a broad brim, they offered greater stability, and usually had two decks or more. Steam powered the paddles, usually at the back or on the sides of the boat.
From 1865 to 1867 a huge wooden wharf of red gum was built – 10 metres high (to cope with tidal change), and 75 metres long. By 1884, it was 332 metres in length.
However, Echuca’s fortunes shifted in the 1890s. The expansion of road and rail networks deeper into the Australian outback reduced the significance of the paddle steamers. Cargo transport on the Murray River through the Port of Echuca ceased in the very early 20th century.
The early 20th century saw the lands around Echuca irrigated, and the town convert to agriculture. Today, agriculture and tourism are the major industries supporting a population of almost 15,000.
Echuca remains home to the biggest fleet of paddle-steamers in the world, today in operation transporting tourists up and down the Murray on cruises. The PS Adelaide, built 1866, is the world’s oldest operating wooden-hulled paddle steamer. Other historic vessels include the PS Pevensey (1911), PS Alexander Arbuthnot (1923), PS Canberra (1913), and the PS Pride of the Murray (1924). The PS Emmylou (built 1980 with a steam engine in use from 1906) hosts dinner cruises and longer, 3-4 day journeys.
The history of the paddle-steamers can also be explored on the red-gum Port of Echuca, still in use for the leisure cruises. The heritage-listed wharf remains in its original form, though the 1884 extension was removed in the 1940s. The Port of Echuca Discovery Centre is home to an interactive museum devoted to the port’s history and paddle-steamers. The wharf’s cargo shed offers an audiovisual presentation depicting life on the paddle-steamers. Stop in at the Star Hotel, and look for the underground tunnel, which helped drinkers avoid the police in the days when the pub was a ‘sly grog shop’.
The nearby Sharp’s Magic Movie House and Penny Arcade is an authentic and fully restored penny-arcade, with heritage machines – you’re given a fistful of pennies on entry.
The Red Gum Works is a historic sawmill that recreates the old timber-milling days, with wood-turners and blacksmiths working on traditional equipment.