I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published September 26th 2011
For a large part of the 19th century Echuca was the focal point of the rich riverboat trade which operated on the Murray-Darling river system.
Throughout the gold-rush years river-boats supplied the diggings with a greater range of goods far more economically than bullock teams and, for the first time, isolated graziers had a relatively speedy and reliable means of getting their wool-clip to market. Paddle steamers reached Albury in 1855, Gundagai in 1858 and Walgett in 1861, while Bourke set records for the amount of wool shipped to the railhead.
Today Echuca's historic Port Precinct operates very much as it did throughout the peak years of the Murray-Darling river trade.
Construction of the Echuca wharf began in 1864, the same year that the rail link to Melbourne was completed. Built entirely from locally felled River Red-gum and originally a little over 92 metres in length the wharf was extended in 1877 and again in 1879. It eventually achieved an overall length of 332 metres and comprised three working levels to allow for the rise and fall of the river, frequently 10 metres between summer and winter levels.
River boats berthed at Echuca's historic wharf. Built entirely of local redgum it comprised three decks to allow for seasonal variations in the river level.
At its peak in 1872 two hundred vessels a week entered the Port of Echuca and a dozen timber mills felled trees in surrounding forests, cutting a thousand logs per week to fuel the boilers. A shipbuilding industry developed and in 1891 Echuca was even nominated as a contender for the site of the national capital.
You can cruise the Murray on PS EMMYLOU, a modern recreation of a 19th Century paddle-steamer.
Eventually though improved rail services in Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales were soon able to provide a cheaper and more reliable service than the river boats. This, coupled with an extended drought through the 1880s and an economic downturn in the 1890s , both of which substantially reduced the wool clip, forced the river trade into a decline from which it never recovered.
Privately owned paddle steamers moored in the shadow of Echuca's historic wharf.
In 2011, Echuca is home to a thriving tourist industry based on its river-boat heritage. Some 70 metres of the original wharf remains as the centre-piece of the Port of Echuca Historic Precinct and the largest fleet of operational paddle-steamers anywhere in the world, vessels such as the Canberra, Alexander Arbuthnot, Pride of the Murray, and Emmylou operate a variety of cruise options.
Other attractions include the Star Hotel (circa 1867) with its underground bar and escape tunnel, the Bond Store constructed in 1858 and the Customs House dating from 1884.
These together with a variety of interactive displays and demonstrations with actors in period costume all combine to make a visit to the Port of Echuca a truly great experience and an opportunity to immerse yourself in one of the most colourful eras in Australia's short history.
The PS EMMLOU steams downstream from the Port of Echuca.