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Going thru the stacks at the Footscray Mechanics Institute (FMI) library looking at some of the rare and old books and came across an old favourite. River Boats by Ian Mudie. A first edition from 1960. This focuses on the story of the exploration and development of trade on the Murray/Darling river network.


Mudie informs us that initially a couple of competitors Caddell and Randell took various river craft up the Murray competing for government incentive monies. Early western settlers had come across the river system with the trips of Mitchell, and at first confusion reigned as to where the rivers ran. Eventually they figured out the rivers ran to the west to the mouth in what is now South Australia. 


Early transport methods for goods concentrated on bullock carts. These were slow and expensive. Steamers began to change the face of trade and settlement as they replaced cartage and distribution networks. Settlement patterns changed as access to goods along and adjacent to the rivers developed. The power of the engines was generated by wood of which there many trees available. This was necessary as one ton of logs got only few hours of steaming. The fluctuating depth of the water ways and overhanging trees were major problems, as were the numerous snags under the water. The flood and snow melt seasonality affected movement. This could be 20 feet at Echuca for example. However his was circa 1850s, and by the 1860s boats were going far up the rivers to Walgett, in some cases some 4000 miles! Paddle boats rather than screw driven boats proved most effective especially when combined with towed barges.


The book details many a yarn of the players on the river-- captains and crews. Many are highly amusing. The crews were very mixed in terms of origins and there are many mentions of First Nations people and the relationship with the boats. The social context is addressed, religiosity for example and Sunday observance. The steamer trade flourished from the 1850s for 70 odd years. Eventually the new rail links, and the bridging aligned with them had its effect. Some trade continued to the 1950s and today one can still go for a tourist trip on old boat my mate tells me. NF

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