Article by Clare Jackson
The old Echuca wharf stands today as a stunning memorial to the riverboat history of the Murray River System. The massive redgum structure has witnessed many changes; the peak and decline of the river trade, and the resurgence of interest in Paddlesteamers and Murray River history.
Construction was begun on the present Wharf in mid 1865. The original contract was completed in 1867, but the wharf was continually expanded to accommodate the growing riverboat trade. This trade peaked in the 1870's, with 240 boats and barges cleared from the wharf in 1872.
The top deck of the wharf was built 43' above the riverbank, and two lower landings were incorporated to cope with the varying seasonal river heights. At its peak time, the wharf had two huge sheds and 7 hydraulic cranes, with over 300 persons employed in the area. Five rail sidings serviced the wharf area to carry the wool and produce from the river to Melbourne. Echuca was the biggest inland port in the southern hemisphere.
In 1884 the wharf was 1 km long (five times its present length), however trade on the river had begun its decline, with an average of only 145 vessels cleared during the 1880's, and 76 vessels in 1890. The wharf was in constant use until 1936 for wool and general cargo.
During the second world war, firewood was scarce in Melbourne and the wharf was used once again to unload forest firewood from the paddle steamers. The wood was sent to Melbourne by rail. This use prevented the complete destruction of the wharf, although four-fifths of it was demolished and sent to Melbourne in one foot blocks, also for firewood, during the war.
The remaining portion of the wharf was used sporadically and gradually fell into disuse as the era of riverboats ceased. The railway lines were lifted in 1970. With the resurgence of interest in paddleboats, which began in the 1970's, the wharf was once again brought into use, and restoration of it began.
During the 1980's extensive work was carried out on re-alignment of the wharf, and over the next decade new piles were installed to replace decayed ones. An extension to the top part of the wharf was also built during this time, and in 1991, further extensions to the lower part were undertaken.
Today, the wharf is used by the Port vessels, P.S. PEVENSEY and P.S. ADELAIDE, and PS ALEXANDER ARBUTHNOT; other vessels have access to it from time to time. The COONAWARRA visited in 1990, and the P.S. OSCAR W tied up at the wharf in September 1991, after an epic journey from Goolwa, South Australia.
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