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Published October 11th 2016
For history, and stories old and new on this walk
Early one morning, as I was rushing around in the Adelaide CBD, I came across a retired couple who were obviously tourists looking vaguely onto the busy street. I asked if they needed assistance. They asked me how to get to Glenelg, so I directed them to the tram, even though they had no idea why they wanted to go there. But Adelaide has far more interesting places to go than there I told them. They pricked up their ears, so I proceeded with a little information about the wonders of Port Adelaide. After hearing about ships and trains and fabulous old buildings the gentleman, now with eyes wide open, looked at his wife and said, "can we go there?" They agreed they would, but on another day. I had sold them on the notion of day at the Port.
The Port River today is clean and inviting, a far cry from days of old. Image by Out and About taken on the Birkenhead Bridge
The Port river today has been cleaned up and the course of the river has been altered over the years. The Port area was really the birthplace of Adelaide. Yes, the first ships did anchor off shore near present day Glenelg, however there was no safe harbour here. They later found a safe place a little further north, where the Port River meets the sea. It was here the sailing ships found a safe berthing spot as they could come in from the ocean and sail down the lengthy Port River where there were many mooring locations.
This old stone wall once enclosed a cottage garden, alas now all gone, but the wall remains. Image by Out and About.
The new immigrants' smiles soon turned sour as they stood on the decks watching their arrival as they slowly sailed down the murky and very muddy backwater swamp. They must have wanted to stay on the ship and return to England. But these early free settlers made the best of it and a town quickly started from when the first ships arrived as a new road was being built from the city to the port, now known as Port Road. An interesting read of these early days is the book by Thomas Horton James, (published 1848) about his first six months in Port Adelaide in 1838. He called the place 'Port Misery' as it was nicknamed at the time. The intolerable weather and living conditions were indeed miserable in the early days.
A grand old doorway on one of the old buildings at the Port. Image by Out and About.
The Port Adelaide Visitor Centre runs an interesting free guided walking tour around this historic part of Adelaide. The Visitor Centre is located in a good position only one block from the lighthouse which now proudly sits at the end of Commercial Road. Finding a car park for the tour can be a bit tricky as this is a busy area. Most parks are for one or two hours, so best to park in the Kmart shopping centre and allow time to cut through the Port Canal Shopping Centre and cross at the corner of Commercial Road and St. Vincent St to get there. The building is a few metres up on your left.
The tour starts with information about the building the visitor centre is now housed in and the many uses over the years. We spent too long in here and my friend and I were chaffing at the bit to start walking. The guide did not observe the group was losing attention already. Finally, we were off with only mere metres to the next stop of interest, being the grand old two-story building on the corner at the end of Commercial Road. What a grand magnificent building this is, and we were astonished to learn it is sitting there empty. This building, pictured below, is opposite the Fishermen's Wharf Market held in the old warehouse. At the time of writing, this Sunday market is at possible risk of finding a new home. This is the last of the ten huge warehouses that once lined the river bank and now risks demolition. Progress brings constant changes to any city, and even though this warehouse does not have heritage listing, it is good to see many of this area's heritage colonial buildings do remain.
Enjoy a ramble around the historic Port with a guided walk. Image by Out and About.
Large old stone buildings were all purposed for the shipping trades. Image by Out and About.
And that is the way it goes on this tour. There is so much to see and so much to tell about now and then at almost every building, you don't walk far before you stop again. But the stories of years ago and of the characters that have made the history of the Port are interesting and entertaining.
The historic Railway Hotel on St Vincent Street. Image by Out and About.
We stop to admire the old Railway Hotel, and learn that the original railway station was right here opposite the pub, where the new, and incongruent police station now is. How I wish they had left the old one here as it is a bit of a hike now to the current railway station. I have been told this superb Victorian era station was a glorious building and was more spectacular than the Adelaide Station. When the old steam trains left in the afternoon they would sound the whistle so workers would not miss the train home. Workers would scuttle from beer o'clock at the pub or from after work chat on the wharf. There were many small homes in the Port area, but as the place grew more suburbs were built, so workers took the train to their homes in nearby Alberton, Ottoway and Woodville. These stations are still on the current Outer Harbour line. No-one lived too far from work in those days.
The train ride from Adelaide is the best way to have a visit to the Port. It's a leisurely easy 30 minute journey through these old suburbs where the port workers use to live. Take a look out the left side window at the old Alberton Station and you will see the row of shopfronts with residences out the back. These are where workers would have picked up their smokes and afternoon newspapers to take home or perhaps visited the barber.
The red iron lighthouse at the end of Commercial Road. Image by Out and About.
Continuing on we pass by old barn doors, and find the location of old cottages now demolished. Our guide carried a folder of photographs from the olden days and when we stopped we saw the picture of what was once standing in that spot. We search for old signs that hint to shipping trades and a mariner's working life. A large old sign still on the side of a building says, "ship's chandlers" which is a candle maker for sailors. Many of the large old stone buildings were bond stores, used to store goods for ongoing sale and transport to country areas. One of these buildings now houses the Maritime Museum, which would make an ideal inclusion on a day trip to the Port district. Looking around the outside of this building, you can see the doors up high where pulley systems would haul goods up into the building for storage. Many of the port buildings have these doors.
The old bond store is now home to the SA Maritime Museum, a must see for visitors. Note the outside features when you visit. Image by Out and About.
The Port Adelaide guided walk took about two hours and was an enjoyable free outing. You do not walk very far but do have to stand the whole time. The guide highlighted a mixture of old and new. We heard some history and some news of what is currently happening in Port Adelaide. The guide pointed out which buildings have had recent renovations and the ones that are sitting idle. This walk would be suitable for all ages, but perhaps young children would get a little bored. Those who used to live here or had family members who worked or lived in the area would find it fascinating.
Some of the colonial buildings at Port Adelaide. Image by Out and About
The walk ended at the last point of interest so ensure you know where you are or take a map before you head off on the walk. All the walks are done be volunteers. Many have been doing heritage walks for many years and know the Port district well. Our guide was easy to comprehend and we could hear her well. However, after a long train ride, I would have liked to do a little more walking at the start and slow down towards the end of the walk. Perhaps ending at the visitor centre and explain about that building then. The Visitor Centre can tailor a walk of interest for your group or on a weekday that is required. Send them an email with your enquiry.
You pass by many old doors and windows on the tour. Image by Out and About.
OTHER THINGS TO DO
After the morning walking tour, you could have a spot of lunch. Try the Red Lime Shack cCafé, or take in a meal and a brew at one of the historic hotels. You may then enjoy a visit to the links SA Maritime Museum,Railway Museum,or the Aviation Museum. Perhaps visit the many art galleries for some unique gifts. WeekendNotes has many articles on places to go - just search for Port Adelaide on the Adelaide home page. The Visitor Centre will mark places to see on a map. Extend your outdoor time with an extra walk over the Birkenhead Bridge with views over the river to the port area. You could even walk up to Semaphore where you can relax by the sea.
TRAVEL BY TRAIN
To make the journey by train, you will need a metro travel card or buy a ticket at the booth in station foyer. Take the Outer Harbour Line from Adelaide Railway Station and alight at Port Adelaide. Walk west along Commercial Road in the direction of the red iron lighthouse in the distance. Take a timetable with you so you can get the train back. For return trains from Semaphore go to the Glanville Station.
BOOKING A WALK
There are many tours at Port Adelaide, including ghost, crime, dolphins and more. You can see a list at the visitor information centre website. This free guided walk is held every Sunday at 11am or for other groups at other times by arrangement. See here to book.
Port Adelaide Station, has trains every 30 minutes. Image by Out and About.
I imagine people would think Port Adelaide is a working port and not all that interesting. But the shipping days and wharf storage are now gone leaving many fine character buildings and back lane ways to explore. Industrial areas are further up the river and not in the suburban part of Port Adelaide. Cruise ships dock further north at Outer Harbour. The hidden secrets of Port Adelaide are often neglected on a trip to Adelaide, so if you are a visitor do include it in your Adelaide itinerary. And if you are a local, go rediscover all the Port has to offer. You won't be disappointed for there is a lot to see and do, in fact, more than you could fit into one day.