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The river as a highway: Crossing the Murray

Crossing the Murray

Crossing the Murray has always been a problem - Hume and Hovell, and later Charles Sturt, and the various overlanding parties all had difficulties. They generally converted their drays to temporary punts to cross. Punts or ferries were used at many points of the river, and still are today. Bridges followed as traffic crossing the river increased.

Ferries and punts

Ferries or punts provided the first crossings on the River Murray for many years, and still operate in many places today.

In 1839 Charles Bonney overlanding cattle to Adelaide from Port Phillip, pioneered a river crossing near what would become Wellington.  More herds followed and crossing places were established at Woods Point, Wellington and Thompson's.  George Morphett established a small ferry at Wellington, and later another further upstream at Woods Point.  Charles Bonney also discovered another suitable place named Thompson's crossing (later called Swanport).  There was another crossing south of Wellington called Mason's, but this had tricky currents and weather sweeping off Lake Alexandrina seriously affected its use.  After Morphett, the Bell Brothers established a ferry at Wellington in conjunction with their hotel.  Then the South Australian government decided to run the service.  Legislative ordnance 4/1848 detailed this together with the scale of charges.  William Carter was the first to take up the lease and was appointed in May 1849.  These early ferries were hand operated and passengers were frequently asked to assist in winding the cable.  Traffic on the ferry increased - in February 1852, 1234 people, 1266 horses and bullocks pulling 164 carriages crossed the river; fees collected were over 64 pounds.  In 1857 there was a successful petition against the level of the fees.

Further upriver ferries and punts continued to provide the main crossings.  A private punt was established at Blanchetown in 1869 and was replaced by a government ferry in 1879.  This was relocated in 1922 when Lock 1 was opened and upgraded from time to time.  In December 1954 a second ferry was installed because of increasing traffic on the Sturt Highway, and in 1964 the bridge was opened to traffic.

A hand operated punt was opened at Mannum sometime before 1877, then another was constructed by the Crown Lands Department. From 1888 this was operated by the Mannum Council, and eventually fees were abolished. Ferries are recorded as operating at Waikerie in 1910 and like the others, was hand operated, later becoming motorised. Motors on the punt greatly decreased the time taken for the crossing. The Murray Pioneer of 6 January 1911 p. 8, records that the Blanchetown District Council installed a motor on its punt and that:

This will prove a great boon to the public, as formerly it took half an hour to cross the river, whereas with the motor, it will only take about ten minutes.

Swan Reach had a ferry by 1898. It was small and hand operated, like most of the others were at first, until a motor was installed in 1911. A bell was available either side of the river to call the ferry when a crossing was required. There had been some opposition to the ferry, with many believing it would be better installed further up the river. However, the ferry contributed significantly to the development of the land east of the river.

Ferries were subject to sinking, either from inattention or from overcrowding. The Murray Pioneer 9 February 1912 (p. 10) records the Swan Reach punt was raised by Lancashire Lass, and that its sinking appeared to result from a failure to attend the pumps.  The Advertiser 27 May 1955 (p.  6) records the Swan Reach punt again sinking with a truck weighing about 10 tons. Three people scrambled through waist-high water to safety and a bulldozer towed the truck from the river. Traffic had to be diverted to Walker's Flat and Blanchetown ferries while the punt was salvaged and repaired. Cattle were responsible for sinking the Morgan ferry - the punt tipped ...and jettisoned the stock into the river.  One black and white cow later clambering out of the water with a punt gate around its neck.

Nowadays the ferries on the river are operated by the Department of Road Transport and strict traffic regulations are applied. These ferries are designed to carry large vehicles and are very unlike their early predecessors.

Bridges

Today Blanchetown is the major crossing of the river to the Riverland, while Murray Bridge is the access to the South East and the Mallee regions.

There are bridges at Murray Bridge and Swanport, Blanchetown, Kingston-on-Murray, Berri, Renmark/Paringa, and the most recently erected and most controversial at Goolwa, crossing to Hindmarsh Island. Ferries or punts enable the crossing of the river at a further 11 locations: Narrung (Lake Alexandrina), Walkers Flat, Wellington, Tailem Bend, Mannum, Purnong, Swan Reach, Morgan, Cadell, Waikerie and Lyrup. 

The first bridge across the Murray was built at Murray Bridge in 1879, but had been proposed as early as 1864. Initially for road traffic, by 1886 it was carrying the rail line to the Victorian border as well. By the early 20th century, road traffic was being delayed for several hours at a time to allow the trains to cross in safety, and accordingly a second bridge solely for the railway was proposed and finally opened in November 1925.

The Swanport Bridge was opened in May 1979 as an extension of the South Eastern Freeway and bypassed Murray Bridge. 

The first bridge across the Murray at Renmark was a timber bridge built in 1888 by the Chaffey Brothers, to connect their new irrigation settlement with Adelaide.  In 1927 when the railway line was extended from Paringa to Renmark a new bridge was built which carried both road and rail traffic. The Chaffey Brothers' bridge was replaced by a timber and steel bridge in 1933. Although strengthened just prior to the 1956 flood, it was severely weakened and load and speed limits that had operated during the flood remained in place. Construction on a new bridge (called the Distillery Bridge) began in January 1959. It was made of pre-stressed concrete, a first for South Australia, and there were associated problems that had to be overcome. The bridge was completed 12 months later.

The bridges at Murray Bridge and Renmark-Paringa were the only fixed crossings of the river in South Australia. The flood of 1956 revealed the weakness in this system when the many ferries across the river were disrupted for months. In July 1958 the Government began to investigate the need for an additional bridge across the river and eventually recommended that a bridge be built at Blanchetown. This was opened on 24 April 1964.

The next bottleneck in the river crossings was at Kingston-on-Murray, and in 1966 it was decided that a bridge should be built to replace the ferry which had operated since 1922 and where delays could amount to 2½ hours. Construction of the bridge began in 1969.  Private enterprise initiated the next bridge across the Murray. The Berri bridge was built in 1996-97, again replacing a ferry service. This bridge also incorporated a first for South Australia - the 330 metre long deck was "incrementally launched on a circular vertical curve". The newest bridge to cross the river is the Goolwa-Hindmarsh Island bridge. Ngarrindjeri women protested that this structure would encroach onto their sacred ground, and it was only after years of court appeals and a Royal Commission that construction of this controversial bridge was finally given the go-ahead.

Further reading

Across the mighty Murray: Murray Bridge, [Murray Bridge, S. Aust.]: Murray Bridge and District Historical Society, 1988

Paddles, pumps, steam: notes for a field day excursion to South Australia's Riverland, 27-28 March, 1999, Adelaide: Institution of Engineers Australia, South Australian Division, [1999]

Simons, Margaret. The meeting of the waters: the Hindmarsh Island affair, Sydney: Hodder Headline: c2003

South Australia. Hindmarsh Island Bridge Royal Commission. Report of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Royal Commission, presented by Iris E. Stevens. Adelaide: The Royal Commission, 1995

Tuckwell, David. Swan Reach, South Australia: small town big history: a social reflection 1846-1996, Swan Reach, S. Aust.: Mid Murray Lands Local History Group, 1996

Turner, Robert. Sand on the roof: the story of Wellington on Murray, 2nd ed. (Rev.) Wellington, S.A: [Wellington Progress Association], 1984

Bridge building, Murray Bridge
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Bridge building, Murray Bridge
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Bridge over the River Murray, Murray Bridge
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Bridge under construction at Murray Bridge
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Car crossing river on punt
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Construction of Murray Bridge viewed from the eastern b
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Crossing place at Wellington
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Ferry traffic returns
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In pursuance of ordinance to establish a ferry
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Murray Bridge looking west from across the river
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Opening of the new bridge at Murray Bridge
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Paringa Bridge and Punt
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