The winter of Goolwa was thriving. Two slips working hard building barges for Captain Cadell – the
‘Murrumbidgee’ and the ‘Wakool’ had been completed by the end of 1854, and the ‘Darling’ was on the slip. The ‘Albury’ and the ‘Gundagai’ were rapidly nearing completion. Trucks coming and going between Port Elliot and Goolwa, carrying goods and passengers, and Her Majesty’s Mails.
Houses springing up one after another, built of local limestone and bricks from Port Elliot, The ‘Lady Augusta’ coming from up-river to unload wool and pick up mixed cargoes The ‘Melbourne’ coming through the Mouth with stores and passengers from Port Adelaide. Ketches and other small craft carrying wheat and milled flour all around the Lakeshore and river bank. Tom Goode building a fine store between the Hotel and his little hut, and filling it with stores from overseas in ever-increasing quantity and variety. Sam Shetliff completing the pretty house for his little family with its low stone wall and a stable and harness room for his horses. The Sumners building on the main street opposite Goodes store, a bakery and a two-storeyed house. The post office in the process of erection, with its ramp and verandah for the use of the railway passengers waiting for the truck – the post office window was for many years the railway ticket office.
Mr. Jones’s house a picture with its charming summer- house and garden. Plenty of work in the town. Work on the wharf, on the slips, on the railway track, daily loading and unloading. Houses to be built, roads to be made, flour to be milled, plans to be planned in the confident belief that they would be realised.. The people who had come down to the River port were buoyant and full of optimism. The Murray trade was there, ripe for plucking – they had only to stretch out their hands, and this rich plum would be theirs.
Early in August the news spread round the town (such rumors always began in one of three places, according to the sex and the time of day – down on the wharf, in Tom Goode’s store, or against the bar of the Goolwa Hotel) that the ‘Albury’ was ready at last to go up-river. She was to have her trial run up as far as the Finniss next morning through the Mouth more than 200 times. He took over the “Albury”, with his young cousin Tom Johnstone as mate, and Charles Murphy, later to be his partner for many years, as engineer.
Both Cadell and Younghusband were on board for the short trial run. The party returned full of satisfaction with the ‘Albury’s’ performance, and full of hope for her twin the ‘Gundagai’s. That night there was a farewell feast with goodwill toasts and speeches. Next morning she waited, with steam rising, funnel smoke holds loaded, Customs-cleared, barge Murrumbidgee” securely lashed alongside and the passengers aboard. The ‘Albury’ was ready.
On the wharf stood Sam Shetliff, his baby girl in his arms and Ellen beside him, hanging firmly onto young Joe who was doing his best to fall between the wharf and the steamer. Sam heaved a huge sigh.
“Ah wouln’t mind changing places with George Johnston – or even young Tom. Ah!d like to git the feel of a deck oonder me feet agen, an’ that’s a fact..”
Ellen looked at him with sharp, loving eyes.
“Y’d like a boat of y’r oawn, wouldn’t y’, Sam?”
“Aye, Ah would that, an’ all.”
“Why doan’t you goa oop on one o’ th’ boats, joost as a deckhand? Y’d git y’r master’s ticket pretty quick?” Sam shook his head.
“Nay, lass. Ah’ll settle thee and the children first, an’ make a coomf’table house for us. Then Ah’ll start thinkin’ abaht the river. Ah reckon there’s fortunes to be made oop the river. It’s not the same as th’ sea, boot Ah reckon it’ll need plenty o’ goomp to git oop to th’ top o’ them rivers. George Johnston’s all reet, handles a boat a fair treat,” he said, looking up at the wheelhouse, where they could see Johnston and Cadell talking to Younghusband. “Ah doant knoaw so mooch abaht that Cadell, he’s too impatient. It’s going to need patience getting oop thoase shallow places – “
Sam often remembered that remark in after years when he and his son, Sam junior, were winching the ‘Tyro’, their first steamer, up over the bad spots on the Darling on a low river. Nineteen times in one week they ran a wire hawser from the paddle-shaft, round a tree to the stem-head in the bows of the boat, sometimes adding three sets of block and tackle, before they could haul her along over sand bars and reefs.
The Sumners had joined the crowd watching the departure of the ‘Albury’. In those early days, the whole town turned out for every new event on the wharf, with huge enthusiasm. The Sumners and the Shetliffs were very friendly. Amelia’s dainty white frock, a mass of tucks and frills and lace insertions, was the handwork of Mrs Sumner.
“Amelia does look lovely,” said the baker’s wife. “I’m glad the little frock still fits her mo well, although she’s been shortened quite a time now, hasn’t she?” “Aye, she’s only a little thing, not half the size her broothers were. The dress looks reet luvely. Ah’11 have to set to, to make one for your Fanny, ready for when you shorten her.” Fanny Sumner, Goolwa’s second baby girl, was only a few weeks old and still in the long masses of frilly frocks and petticoats beloved of the Victorians.
“Where’s young Sam?” asked Mrs Sumner, watching the wriggling Joe.
“Oh, Ah suppose he’s making a nuisance of himself on board the ‘Albury’. Joe’s sooch a terror for gitting into trooble, Ah woan’t let him goa.” George Johnston had gone across with Cadell and Younghusband to watch the last stowing of cargo on the ‘Murrumbidgee’”
They were carrying tea and sugar, flour, salt, candles, ale, wine, timbers, mattresses, bedsteads, chairs, piping, gutters, galvanised iron (this was making its first appearance in the colony), glass, books, pictures, stationery, carpets, everything that settlers could possibly want to transform their comfortless existence, into one of comparative comfort and ease. Most important of all, they were carrying life and love up the winding miles of the Murray. For the contact of the river boats, and the comforts they carried meant women – wives and children who could live along the banks of the river, or within a few hours’ reach by coach or dray. This was what Goolwa did for Australia. Bit by bit the other river ports established themselves and flourished, but it was Goolwa that first made them possible. Slowly the railways reached out greedy tentacles to grasp those river ports and strangle the river trade. But before the railways came, the river brought life to the little townships and the solitary settlers, and the back country began to develop. Men were opening up the land, and wherever the rivers touched, women were coming to live with them, making homes, bearing children, rearing them, making Australia a nation.
Cadell had plenty to occupy his mind. He was desperately anxious for the success of the twin steamers. He had so far been given only £2500 of the £4000 bonus promised, and somehow the affairs of the River Murray Navigating Company were not progressing as well as he had hoped. Younghusband was spending less and less time and thought on business and more and more on politics and Parliament. Cadell was secretly very perturbed about affairs at Port Elliot where the anchorage was getting a bad name. The turnover of cargo was far too slow. He had complained urgently to Sir Henry Young to improve matters, but he had now left the colony, and Cadell’s best friend was gone. The ‘Albury’ and the ‘Gundagai’ had cost far more, to bring out and reassemble, than he had anticipated, and so had his barges. Another difficulty which he had not anticipated but was now
becoming acute, was the bitter inter-colonial jealousy. This was causing fierce Customs battles, and making trade and the passage of goods across the border extremely difficult. The Victorian press was publishing adverse reports on the cargoes being carried to the goldfields. Victoria was a formidable enemy to any enterprise which could benefit South Australia.
All these thoughts were passing through Cadell’s mind as he waited to speed the ‘Albury’ on her way. At last she was ready. The whistle “blew. All the local boys were rounded up and chased off her deck. The ropes were cast off. Thick clouds of smoke belched up into the sky as more fuel was thrown into the furnace. The paddle wheels slowly began to turn. It was August the 23rd, 1855, and the third of the steamers belonging to the River Murray Navigating Company was on her way.
Already life on a river steamer was beginning to follow a pattern. The ‘Albury’ carried a crew of ten, apart from the skipper, the engineer, the mate, the bargemaster, two firemen, four deckhands and the Chinese cook. She also carried some. thirty passengers, to be dropped along the route. These were accommodated in a large airy saloon (which became a dormitory for the men at night), and a number of staterooms aft for the women and children. Sir Thomas Elder in an account of a trip in the Albury’s twin, has left us the following description:
“The saloon is raised above the deck with windows on both sides, a large, airy space, used as a dining
room and sitting room during the day, and as a sleeping apartment for gentlemen at night, curtains extending from the roof ensuring the requisite privacy. Several state cabins at the stern were reserved for the ladies and children. One of the first things passengers do on coming on board is to .elect the place where they propose to sit at table, which is kept during the voyage. Considering the small sum charged for passage money from Goolwa to Albury, a distance of 2000 miles, namely £15 including provisions, we had good reason to be satisfied with our fare and stewards’ attendance.”
Presumably conditions were m-oh the same on the ‘Albury’, as on the ‘Gundegai’. The bargemaster and two hands lived on the barge and slept in tiny bunks built forr’ard under the prow. While the steamer was on a wide river, the barge was tied up alongside, and life for the bargemen was relatively easy except at re-fuelling time, when all hands went ashore to cut and load wood. At meal-times the cook simply handed the deckshies over the side, and cleared up the empties afterwards. But once the river narrowed, the barge was relegated to 120 yards astern, and the bargemaster’s job became a difficult and responsible one. He had to steer a heavily-laden barge through shallows, over reefs, across submerged rocks and dead trees, without power to help him. Admittedly he had the steamer in front to indicate the course to follow, but it wasn’t as simple as that. Throughout the history of the river boats, we find barges being snagged and stuck and upset and sunk. There were occasions when barges capsized and the cargo of wool bales slid over and trapped the men down in the hold so that all were drowned like rats in a trap. When the steamers were fighting for their lives against the railways, the safe handling and arrival of cargoes became absolutely vital. A skilful barge-master was worth his weight in gold. When the barge went astern, the progress of the steamer was slowed considerably. She always had to come to a standstill at mealtimes to allow the barge to come up alongside. If possible this was combined with re-fuelling, when everyone went ashore with axes and cross-saws. The ‘Albury’ burnt about twelve tons of wood a day. The timber – peppermint gum, or boxwood, or redgum, depending on the country – was sawn up on the bank into five-foot billets, which were passed from hand to hand into the stoke hold. There were usually about twenty billets to the ton and a day’s supply was loaded at a time. Gradually, however, the settlers were learning the needs of the steamers, and already even on the ‘Albury’s’ first trip, there were wood piles along the bank, cut ready for loading. This naturally meant a big saving of time for the steamers. The crew worked six-hour shifts. Going up on a full river, the ‘Albury’ ran through the night, tying up only on Sundays. Captain Johnston and young Tom took shift about at the wheel, with the deckhands taking an occasional trick, although on his early trips up and down the rivers George Johnston scarcely left the Wheelhouse. He was charting the rivers as he went, and teaching himself the navigation of the Murray.
Those that followed the pioneers had to pass examinations to gain their skippers’ tickets; a deep-sea-ticket was not enough. They served their apprenticeship as deckhands and mates, before they were allowed to take a paddlewheeler of their own. But a dozen or so of the earliest river captains had to teach themselves. Charts that later were passed on, copied and re-copied, had to be made in the beginning, and they were not like any other chart ever made. So Captain Johnston did not sleep for many of the hours of his off-shifts, and because cousin Tom was ambitious and eager for his own command, he spent most of his time off helping with the charts and making his own observations. They took soundings and made notes all the way along the winding miles, first from the entrance to Lake Alexandrina. After taking on more cargo at Milang on the Lake, they
headed out into the river again.
George said, “We must marrk a better channel through Lake Alexandrina. There is sooch an expanse of shallow water, and the weather can be so bad in the Lake. Boats must keep to the deep channel.” He pointed to an inlet by Point Pomona at the Lake’s entrance. “Ah tied up there, last time Ah cam’ doon wi’ the ‘Lady Augusta’. It’s best to wait a day for decent weather if it’s really rough. Ah’m verra much afraid the Lake may prrove to be a deterrent to mony steamers, onless we mak’ it worrth their while. We must mak’sure the carrgoee are handled quickly oot tae sea, or the skippers will be unloading at Mannum.”
The river soon began to meander in broad sweeping curves and the red banks carved out at each bend rose higher and higher till they became hundred-foot cliffs towering above the water. The banks were honeycombed with small caves out of which flew clouds of galahs and peewits as the steamer puffed her way along. Towards evening the wind always dropped, and on the river as they looked ahead, lay the still reflections of the river-gums standing knee-deep in water, and the scarlet and gold majesty of the cliffs in the sunset. The paddles thumped their way along to Murroondie where Scott still lived, although he abandoned the station shortly afterwards, so that there was no-one left to police the river or protect the aborigines of the river tribes. Blaokfellas still came and went along the banks. Pencils of grey smoke pierced the air in the morning mists as they moved on up or downstream, carrying their fires and all their worldly possessions on their tiny canoes, restless nomads of the water. At night they still seemed very numerous, for their fires showed up on mile after mile of curving river bank far away into the clear Australian night; but their numbers were rapidly dwindling. The reedy swamps and billabongs swarmed with bird life. As the ‘Albury’ went by, flocks of blue and white cranes would rise in flight, and then a thunderous surge and beating of swans -would blacken the sky above them. All manner of duck – widgeon, teal, wood duck, – flew before them, and here and there they saw for the first time the strange Cape Barren geese with their fat puffy faces, come with the spring to mate in the swamps. Pelicans, who kept their nests and their young on floating stick islands out in the lagoons, worked shoals of fish into the shallows, and swallowed them in their dozens and hundreds, usually in the early dawn. Gradually they came through the mallee country, around the Great Bend, to the lignum swamps and the anabranch country and the juncture of the Darling, its milky waters running strongly after the winter rains; the Darling with its flat grey plains, sage-coloured now with the rain, its stunted boxtrees, and the saltbush that glittered like a fairy tree in moonlight.
The river, which had been more than half a mile wide and thirty feet deep at the Great Bend, began to narrow. As they sounded they could feel the rocky bars that were to make navigation so treacherous in low water. George rarely left the wheel from now on, and the barge was towed astern. “There are turrible reefs here, Tom. Ye need to be awfu’ canny. There’s rooks and sandspits as well as snags. If ye’re coming doon on a rising river, watch oot!” They were going very cautiously through a bad patch of river. The water was confined between huge black boulders of hideous shape, and it moaned as it rushed between desolate overhanging banks that smelt of damp and rotting vegetation, a primeval smell as old as the ancient Carboniferous forests.
When they tied up to refuel – simple matter of going ashore and chopping wood – they found that the place was alive with snakes – black snakes, brown snakes, tiger snakes, snakes of all sizes. Nobody knew why they liked being just there; but steamer crews which followed the ‘Albury’ learned to avoid refuelling on that particular stretch of river. Young Tom, fresh out from Scotland, shivered and asked if they were poisonous.
“I dinna ken and I’m no expeerimentin’,” said his cousin drily. “But the rocks are going to be more dangerrous than ony snakes.” At last they reached Moama, and here for the first time the ‘Albury’ struck trouble.