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Port Wakefield

Beginnings

The regions immediately to the north and south of Adelaide were the earliest areas to be explored following settlement in 1836. The discovery of the Wakefield River in 1838 by William Hill was followed by further discoveries by explorers such as Edward Eyre and Robert Cock. Pastoralists followed them, taking up land with reasonable supplies of water. Soon they would need an outlet for the wool they produced. But the genesis of Port Wakefield was not the wool trade, but the copper boom at Kapunda and Burra in 1842 and 1845. Carriage of the copper ore was by bullock wagon, some 145 kilometres by rough track that became impassable in winter. Another solution was needed. The mouth of the Wakefield River was found to be suitable - it was considered 'easy of approach and secure' (Donovan p. 14 quoting The Register 2 June 1849) despite a sandbar blocking the estuary and access only for vessels of shallow draught. Thomas Lipson, the colony's harbormaster, investigated the site, and recommended that a channel be dredged through the sandbar. This was done, shipments of ore and supplies being made at the same time. By March 1850 dredging was almost complete, and the sale of town land began shortly after. Port Wakefield had the unusual distinction of being a government town, founded because of the need and initiative of the privately owned copper mines.

The town

Unlike the towns later surveyed during the 1860s to 1890s and which were modelled on Light's plan for Adelaide, Port Wakefield had a very different town layout. There is no main street lined with businesses and shops: instead the layout gives a scattered town. With a central oval area originally intended for a church, and one long diagonal from northeast to southwest, the town is otherwise laid out on a grid pattern. The street names reflect its origins as an adjunct to the business of exporting copper: the names of Burra and Walters of the Copper Company and Edward Gibbon Wakefield divided among the streets.

Port Wakefield is considered the first of South Australia's outports to be founded. As a port it was officially proclaimed 12 September 1850: basic facilities were rapidly established. Prior to its proclamation the port had already trans-shipped 6000 tons of coal, and 1156 tons of copper - the distance to the mines had been halved, with a corresponding reduction in costs. The Copper Company maintained its own fleet of barges.

The area between Port Wakefield and Burra prospered as a result of the 'copper spinoff'. However, as in other instances such as at Port MacDonnell, and later some of the River Murray ports, the advent of the railway changed this. The mining companies switched to rail for the transport of their copper, and for their incoming supplies. Generous government concessions fostered the change.

However Port Wakefield found a new product to ship - wool and later wheat.  In 1866 the port was beaten only by Port Adelaide in its wool exports, exporting over 3,300,000 pounds of wool. For the pastoralists east of the head of the gulf, Port Wakefield was the obvious port. It was considered by a number of captains to be a safe harbour, and the turn around time to be quick and efficient. Customs facilities were established at the port in 1855 because of the number of ships sailing directly to and from overseas ports.

In 1870 a tramway was opened to tap the potential of the inland, and was successful in bringing produce into Port Wakefield for trans-shipment. The line was extended five years later. Three years later another stretch of railway was laid which gave farmers and pastoralists direct access to the deepwater port at Wallaroo. Port Wakefield, the town, rather than the port, adapted. The railway workshops established in the town were a boon.

Adaptation to change

Wheat was now to become the major export from Port Wakefield - agricultural expansion was rapid following the development of mullenizing to clear the scrub, new grubbers for digging the stumps, and finally in 1876 the invention of the stump jump plough. The wharfs of Port Wakefield became stacked high with sacks of wheat waiting for shipment in the ketches of the mosquito fleet, or by lighters to the large ships anchored in deep water. In 1909, 300,000 bags of wheat were exported; 1840 bales of wool were also shipped.

Fishing also was carried out from the port; beginning from the 1860s modern refrigeration has ensured that this remains a useful addition to the port's viability. But again the railways dealt a blow - the broad gauge railway link to the east/west railway bypassed Port Wakefield, and the railway workshops were relocated to Peterborough. Port Wakefield became a fishing port. The heyday of the ketch trade is long gone yet the town continues to prosper, servicing the heavy road traffic that travels to Yorke Peninsula and the north.

Reading:

Donovan, P. F. Port Wakefield and district, a history: commemorating a century of local government [Port Wakefield, S. Aust.]: Port Wakefield District Council, 1978

Parsons, Ronald. Southern passages: a maritime history of South Australia Netley, S. Aust.: Wakefield Press, 1986

Bank Building Port Wakefield
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Governor Norrie with Tommy McGregor
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Horses and foals
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Institute, Port Wakefield
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Johnson's Store
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Ketches loading grain at Port Wakefield about 1912
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Rising Sun Hotel
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S.A. Northern Pioneers: A. Barker
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South Australian exports
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Wheat stacks at Port Wakefield
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