Chapter Fourteen: THE DOOMED PORT

If old soldiers never die, the same might be said of the River Murray breed of freshwater skippers, many of whom seemed to live to a tremendous age:   William Randell with

his great white beard, Captain Dave Ritchie with his pointed silver Van Dyck, who died at 88, and who was still living in Goolwa when the Town’s hundredth anniversary was celebrated.           Many other captains were associated with Goolwa, of course, the Shetliffs, the Barbers and the Barclays, Dave Ritchie’s father James, and his three brothers;   Ned Cremer, and in later days Bob Reed, who lost the Renmark so tragically at the Goolwa wharf.

Then there v/as Tom Johnstone, Geordie’s younger cousin who had gone with him as mate on the Albury’s first voyage, and who was among the mourners when he was buried.  George Johnston died comparatively young, in 1882, when he was only 52 years old;    but his son “Gumtree George” Johnston carried on in the second generation, as did the Johnston carried on in the second generation, as did the second Sam Shetliff.    It was said that George Johnston never recovered from the grounding of the Queen of the South on March 18, 1879 – He and his crew swore a formal Complaint and Protest against “the aforesaid grounding” before the Notary Public on Goolwa.

They charged that the Signal Station at the mouth had signaled 8 ½  feet of water over the bar at half-ebb. This was at 1.30 p.m. as the vessel arrived from Port Adelaide, by way of Port Victor, laden with cargo and general merchandise (including a grand piano as deck cargo), “said Vessel being then tight, staunch, & strong, well-manned and found, & in every respect fit to perform said voyage.”   The document goes on:

“At 2.15 we got aground in 6 feet of water, when for the safety of the vessel, the crew, and the rest of the cargo, we at once commenced to discharge the deck load overboard… ”  At 5 p.m. the “Curmberoona” came down from Goolwa & got a towline on board, and the ship’s lifeboat and the Government lifeboat kept towing till midnight, but failed to move her… “At 9 a.m. the “Wentworth” arrived from Goolwa to the rescue.   Finally got off at 4:30 p.m. and arrived at Goolwa without damage.

“On 3rd day we swore a Complaint before Thomas Goode the Younger, J.P. and Mayor of Goolwa.”

The protest is signed by the whole crew: Robert Donaldson, Charles Smith, George Baillie, and George Johnston, Master.  It is evident that Captain Johnston felt very strongly that the Signalman had given a wrong reading of the water-level. He wanted to absolve both his beloved “Queen of the South” and his beloved river from any responsibility in the mishap.  Unfortunately the consignors whose expensive goods were dumped in the sea, did not look at it in this light; and once again the Mouth with its shifting sand-bar and unpredictable channel fell into disfavour.  At last the South Australian Government decided to implement the “Report on the River Murray Entrance” that they had called for in 1877 *   the report which announced that “steamers will be able to get through the Mouth with cargo only one day out of five”, that a breakwater should be built at Victor Harbour and the railway between that harbour and Goolwa should be put in working condition with steam rolling- stock and two sets of rails.   At the very same time the Morgan (Northwest Bend) railway was completed, cutting the river two hundred miles upstream.   Altogether a sum of £200,000 was spent on wharf works at Goolwa, remarking the channel through the Mouth with buoys and beacons, and replacing the Goolwa-Victor tramway with a railway.

“This belated effort” as Sir Archibald Grenfell Price* remarks, “was foredoomed to failure.

(*In “Founders and Pioneers of S.A.” (F.W. Preece, 1931).)

Edward Cremer was the first Signalman to occupy the lonely post at the Murray Mouth.    His job was to watch the beacons and the channel, to move them when necessary, and to signal from the flagstaff what depth of water was over the bar.    His salary was £150 a year.   He was appointed in 1857.  The Signalman’s cottage was on Younghusband Peninsula, on the far side of the Murray mouth, and the flagstaff was on Barker’s Knoll near where Captain Barker was speared.  It was a wooden cottage with piles driven well into the sand, and a brick chimney.   Although it was sturdily built, within a few years of the first Signal Station being abandoned in 1864, the place was a complete wreck.   The howling southerlies, driving sand, and salt spray had stripped the paint from the wood and rusted the nails away. It had been there less than ten years.  A red flag at the masthead did not mean danger to a vessel approaching the Mouth from sea or river.   The blue flag meant low water over the bar;   the red flag over a ball meant high water.  A second Signal Station was established in 1877, when the Mouth was once more suitable for navigation.   The flagstaff and signalman’s house were now on the western or Goolwa side of the channel.   Two more steamers, the “Enterprise” and the “Queen of the South” went aground in this time, and others were held up as long as five days waiting for suitable weather for the crossing.  Then the bar shifted again.   The steamer trade was failing, and 1881 only two vessels, the schooner “Elisa” and the paddle-steamer “Decoy” (now a houseboat, Still afloat, near Renmark) were recorded in the station’s log. Before the end of the year the Signal Station was closed down for the last time.   No trace of cottage, house, or flagstaff remains..

No wonder George Johnston died of disappointment. He saw the river trade he had helped to pioneer, the town he had helped to establish, dying before his eyes.  Perhaps, too, he had strained his heart in those terrible hours of anxiety when the “Queen” was helpless on the bar for a day and a night, with all their frantic efforts failing to get her off, and the chance of a southerly springing up at any moment to destroy her.  A few years later he was travelling in New Zealand in an effort to regain his health, when he died there, far from Goolwa and the river.   He was brought home to lie in state in his home on Admiralty Terrace.   Ironically, his dead body was not entrusted to the river entrance he had braved so often in life.  It was unloaded at Port Adelaide and conveyed overland to the Goolwa wharf.   From there the crew of the “Cadell” bore the coffin to “Cockenzie”, where people filed past to pay their last respects – including a party of wailing natives from the nearby camp.

A hundred and fifty children sang hymns on the verandah while the flag-draped coffin was borne out again for the burial at Currency Creek cemetery and six hundred mourners were at the graveside.    It was agreed by all his Scottish relatives that “Geordie’s was a grrand funeral!” With the passing of George Johnston, that great, black-bearded, ruddy-cheeked, big-voiced giant of a man, who was “strong as an ox and could swim like a dolphin”, Goolwa’s slow decline began. Johnston was only fifty-two; Goolwa was ten years younger; but both had outlived their usefulness.  There was something unlucky about the Goolwa wharf.  Indeed the whole South Coast seemed to have a share in the hoodoo or whatever it was that hung over it.   Victor Harbour never became a harbour of any importance, though it is thriving as a tourist resort – and even there tragedies still happen, like the loss of several members of the Rumbelow family – pioneers from Devonshire – in a fishing boat in fairly recent times;    and the last drowning on Goolwa Beach occurred only this year. (i.e. 1964)

In the 1940s the paddle-steamer Invincible was the last to make the long trip of a thousand miles from the top-end to Goolwa.   When she arrived her boilers were taken out and put into the steamer Renmark by Captain Reed, who was running pleasure cruises across the Lakes.  He invested all he had in the Renmark.    He was a river man through and through,  skipper of a long list of barges and steamers, including the River Murray Company’s famous Marion, one of the last of the active passenger-boats.  The Renmark was a part of Goolwa’s history, built by Goolwa men on the local slip in the days when Goolwa was still a busy port with a thriving boat-building industry.   Her engines were built by Percy Richards at the workshop on the river bank established by his father.   In 1951, the year when the fiftieth anniversary of Federation was celebrated throughout Australia, Goolwa was in the limelight again.   It had been decided to re-enact Sturt’s great journey down the Murray, with men in costume manning a whaleboat, and Sturt’s Landing at Goolwa would mark the end of the journey.  Just a week before, the “Renmark” came in from a trip on the Lakes, with a party of tourists on board.   At 6 p.m. she tied up at the Goolwa wharf, now sadly dilapidated.    By 6.30 she was a total wreck.  No-one knew how the fire started, but the whole vessel was  blazing from stem to stern, her wood-stack and even the wharf were burning.   The smouldering hull was at last towed away from the wharf and sunk between it and one of the dolphins where the “Renmark” had often been moored in her trading days, while waiting for her turn to unload.  Only her smoke-stack showed, just above the water, It is still visible today, with the warning notice “Wreck” on it. Bob Reed, who had just spent thousands having the boilers replaced, did not have her insured;   he lost everything Between those two misfortunes, the grounding of the “Queen of the South” and the loss of the “Renmark” there were seventy years,   but by 1890, less than ten years after the death of George Johnston, the Goolwa trade was virtually finished.   The Mouth was used only by fishermen, though as late as 1908 the “Tarella” (now on the bank above Murray Bridge) and the Murrumbidgee”, towing barges laden with wool, were still arriving from the Darling to tranship their cargo by rail to ships lying at Port Victor.

In 1881 the new 700-foot Goolwa wharf was put under Marine Board control.   The channel from the Elbow to the Mouth was dotted with beacons, and the vicinity of the wharf with mooring-dolphins.   The railway was modernised, new storage-sheds were built and everything was properly organised at last – about twenty years too late.

In May, 1865, 206 local residents and river captains had signed a petition for the extension of the Goolwa wharf:

“That there are now engaged in the River trade about thirty steamers and Barges;

“That the exports from Goolwa to New South Wales and Victoria during the year 1864 amounted to £56,642 sterling, and the imports, in wool alone, were 1,809 bales;

“That the wharfage accommodation is utterly inadequate for the large and important trade, there being only a full berth for one steamer:

“That the rolling stock and animal power on the tramway is also far short of the requirements or the traffic… “And your petitioners will ever pray…”
They went on praying to a deaf Government, while the wool cargoes grew to 7,000 bales, and in the peak year of 1883 to 20,000 bales,   By then they had their new facilities; but the rot had set in long before, and Goolwa Port was doomed.

go to chapter 15