Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Echuca: All The Rivers Run

Moama NSW, on the Murray’s northern bank, was the first port to be established along this part of the river. It was settled by a British ex-convict called James Maiden, in the 1840s. The biggest challenge to Maiden was another British ex-convict Henry Hopwood, who was sentenced to transportation in the same British court on the same 1834 day as Maiden.

Map of Victoria

Henry Hopwood's rise to power and fame in Echuca was due to establishing his own punt across the river, originally called Hopwood's Ferry, and building a hotel nearby. When the punt was closed, travellers had to sleep and eat locally until it re-opened. As it happened, Hopwood's Hotel was the closest place to find accommodation. And as Hopwood made money, Echuca shared his prosperity.

The crossing was important in the 1850s because of the market for meat created by the thousands of men on the goldfields, but with the decline of that market and the slump in cattle prices, Maiden went bankrupt. Hopwood, with financial support from the big cities, developed Echuca which was formally founded in 1853 and surveyed one year later.

The Victorian railway came to Echuca in 1864 and transformed the town into a major port. The centre of Echuca during its expansionist decades was the huge (400-metre long) redgum wharf built in 1865 and later restored. Many of the paddle steamers towed barges, lying low in the water beneath loads of redgum timber, cut from local stands and shipped to Echuca for milling.

Redgum wharf, 1865

A railway bridge across the Murray was initially opposed by Echuca, because NSW would derive the benefits. But it didn’t matter; the railway company built its own bridge in 1876, with a lifting system that allowed steam boats to pass. Just to annoy the Victorian government, the NSW government built an iron bridge a mere 50 ms upstream in 1878. In time, the town became the trading hub from as far as Queensland, utilising the Darling and Murrumbidgee Rivers to transport their agricultural products, then by rail to the Port of Melbourne.

By the 1870s Echuca had become Australia's largest inland port and was enjoying substantial urban growth. Being the point of shortest distance between the Murray River and the major city of Melbourne, Echuca was both a key river port and railway junction. Steam-driven paddleboats would arrive at Echuca's wharf, unloading their goods to be transported by rail to Melbourne. Wool, wheat, other grains, livestock and timber were the most common cargoes.

Bridge Hotel, 1858

This industrial boom led to a rapidly expanding population to over 15,000 people, with all the amenities needed by a working town: pubs, brothels, gardens and music halls. The two-storey building Bridge Hotel (1858) was erected by town founder Henry Hopwood across the way from his punt and pontoon bridge. Now restored to its original design, the upstairs rooms can be viewed by visitors during a Wharf Museum Tour. An important pub in connection with public transport was Redman's Commercial Hotel (1862). It used to be a staging post for Cobb & Co passengers en route to Shepparton. The Echuca Hotel (1873) opened for business to replace the 1858 original which had been built for famous explorer, Thomas Mitchell. The Star Hotel (1867) was also very popular. When the Star Hotel lost its license at some stage, it continued to serve customers. Its underground bar developed an escape tunnel for drinkers so that they could get away during police raids.

Every sailor/paddle steam captain and port worker needed a brothel which, in Echuca, was a very fine institution. The Old Brothel (1875) had two floors, each with three small rooms and separate entrances for privacy. Spouse and I stayed at the excellent Steampacket Inn (1860s), half way between the brothel and the port!

Echuca Brothel, 1875

But visible wealth and increasing population left the town anxious about criminal activity. A number of beautiful bank buildings were erected, to assure people that banks were safe, dependable and respectable places to do business. The Bank of Victoria (1860), with its traditional architecture, still retains its original safe. The original police station and lock-up (1867) is now used as the Echuca Historical Society Museum. The museum collects all the material available relating to Henry Hopwood, Echuca’s river trade and the local timber industry. The Bank of NSW (1877) opened in a very beautiful, two-storey classical piece of architecture.

Bank of NSW, 1877

Another facility for security-conscious citizens was the town’s first courthouse. It was built in 1869, a simple building with decorative brickwork designed by Mr Wilhelm Vahland who designed some of Bendigo's most important public buildings eg Town Hall, Shamrock Hotel, hospital, School of Mines, Mechanics Institute, Princess Theatre and Masonic Hall. This Echuca courthouse became the town hall in the 1920s and the library in the 1950s. The second, larger Echuca Court House was built in the 1870s as the Shire Hall and was taken over by the government c1880. The plain exposed brick walls of the single storey building were decorated with stucco mouldings. The three bay Hopwood Gardens facade has a small central Doric portico, as visitors can still see today.

2nd court house, 1870s

The coming of the railway was inevitably going to harm the riverboat trade, although the railways largely travelled north-south en route to and from Melbourne. In any case, the paddle steamers continued to carry essentials to homesteads along the river system and returned heavy with bales of wool, and harvests of wheat.

Railway station, 1864-77

The historic port is now home to the largest collection of paddle-steamers in Australia. Many of them have been fully restored and offer daily cruises, along with insights into a trading river from over 100 years ago. In fact it was recorded that 240+ boats had used the wharf facilities in one year. Now Echuca is regarded as the home of the largest number of paddleboats in the world. The wharf is still operational, open to the public all year, and is now on the Australian National Heritage List. Six tourist cruising paddle-steamers run river tours: PS Adelaide, PS Alexander Arbuthnot, PS Pevensey, Pride of The Murray, PS Canberra and the PS Emmylou.

Every civilised rural centre needed a top quality post office. Echuca’s post office (built in 1870), with its distinctive clock tower, suggested that this was a city very proud of its short history and very confident of its future. In a sense that confidence was misplaced. With river cargo through the Port of Echuca all but ceasing by the turn of the century, Echuca returned to a quiet life. Fortunately the main 1870s architecture remained in situ. Today the population has stabilised at 12,400.

Post Office, 1870

The Tourist Bureau people note that this lovely rural city is only 206km or 2.5 hours north of Melbourne. The historic Port of Echuca alongside the wharf is a living museum. Original buildings, horse-drawn carriages, gravel roads, blacksmith and wood turner all create an atmosphere that feels appropriate for the latter C19th. I found a very useful book called Echuca: A Centenary History, Jacaranda Press, 1965, written by Susan Priestly

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Art and Architecture, Mainly

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