These historical images are from the collection at the State Library of South Australia www.slsa.sa.gov.au unless otherwise stated.
The working steamers on the Murray-Darling system hauled barges loaded with goods for the pastoral properties and towns along the way and with wool and later wheat for transport to market. As well, there were the little fishing steamers, and the hawking steamers set up as a travelling shop. Whole families often lived and worked on the fishing and hawking boats.
Several companies owned and managed many of the paddle steamers, while some were run as private concerns. This image is of the steamer Resolution towing a covered barge. The barge pilot can just be seen looking out under the cover from where he manned the steering wheel. Distribution of the load on the barge was extremely important as with such a low profile in the water they were top heavy and in danger of the load shifting, especially on bends.
This image is of a daytime pleasure cruise, a popular weekend outing in the 1890s. There were no regulations regarding overloading or safety back then! This most likely depicts Lake Alexandrina, at the mouth of the Murray in South Australia, judging by the expanse of water.
The paddle steamers used the power of steam to keep the paddles turning. This required a large amount of wood to keep the boiler, er, steaming. Every thirty miles or so the boats had to load up with another three or four tons. If there was no wood pile in the area the crew would go ashore and chop. Woodcutters leased a section of woodland along the river to create the woodpiles for the boats. Purchase was on the honour system. The woodcutter would know what steamers were in the vicinity, usually by the sound of their whistle, and payment would be made in due course.
There was an industry of boat construction during the second half of the nineteenth century. Repairs were often done on the riverbank, but there were slips for building new steamers and barges. Generally the hull would be built and caulked and the boat launched with the superstructure being added on the river. The hull was of 3 inch thick redgum, but some later builds had a partial steel hull. Size of boat ranged from around 60 feet to well over 100 feet in length. If the boat was too long it had trouble negotiating some of the tight river bends. The draft was extremely shallow to cater to low water levels.
The largest wharf on the river was at Echuca, which had been connected to Melbourne by rail through Bendigo in the 1860s, purely to catch the river trade. The railway line ran along the wharf, which was extended in length in the later 1870s to cater to the volume of river traffic. Steamers and barges lined up along the river bank to take their turn at the wharf. Cranes were used for loading and unloading and the height of the wharf catered to the seasonally fluctuating water levels. The photo of the Pevensey at Echuca wharf is from www.echucapaddlesteamers.net.au.
Many of the paddle steamers that were generally working boats also carried passengers to add to their economic viability. Most only had one or two cabins available and when these were occupied by women and children, male passengers slept in the saloon with curtains hung from the ceiling for privacy. Large passenger steamers were constructed in the later 1890s and regular services operated between Wentworth, Swan Hill and Echuca, running day and night. These competed with the Cobb & Co coaches that travelled the coach road along the river, partly on the New South Wales side and partly on the Victorian side. The image above shows the crew and staff (and possibly several passengers) of a passenger steamer of the early 1900s.
This is the saloon in a passenger steamer. The poster on the wall on the right advertises Deering tractors and the one at the far end appears to be a decorative calendar. The table looks very festive. Perhaps it was set for a special occasion but it is more likely to be the norm for the time. Travel on the steamers was more costly, but much more comfortable, than by coach.
Before bridges were built across the river there were punts, which were flat bottomed rafts propelled by poles, hence the name. Later and larger punts were pulled along on ropes strung across the river, which was safer, as it prevented the punt being driven off course by the current. When paddle steamers needed to cross the path of the punt, the ropes had to be lowered. In this image of Hopwood’s punt at Echuca, sections of Hopwood’s pontoon bridge can be seen in the background.