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Developing trade and port histories: Outports - Port MacDonnell

Port MacDonnell

At one time Port MacDonnell could boast of being the second busiest port in South Australia. It is also the most southerly and is situated on one of the State's most dangerous stretches of coast.

The development of the interior, in particular the Mount Gambier region, saw the necessity for a nearby port. Overland freight for supplies before the advent of railways was expensive and dangerous. Sea freight was cheaper and faster, though not necessarily less dangerous. Small ships, ketches and schooners landed goods on the beaches at first. The growing number of wrecks led to demands for a lighthouse, so in 1858 the Cape Northumberland light was completed and operational. The ships bringing fittings for the lighthouse were the first officially recorded vessels into MacDonnell Bay in 1856. The lighthouse keeper Ben Germein was commissioned also to survey the bay and select a site for a port to serve the inland regions. Port MacDonnell was officially declared a port on 4 April 1860. Germein had marked a safe channel to anchorages protected by Cape Northumberland and Breakers Reef. Construction of a jetty began in December 1860. Nearby was a lifeboat shed, built in 1863. This together with the rocket apparatus would assist many ships in trouble.

A road (rather than a track) was opened to Mount Gambier and assisted the movement of goods. A Customs House was built in 1862, and Captain Edward French opened a shipping agency and warehouses. Port MacDonnell began to prosper and in 3 months to June 1864, 27,000 pounds worth of goods moved through the port.

Agriculture began to prosper, and in addition to wool, wheat became a major export. Potatoes followed as the next largest export; flour, wattle bark (for tanning), hay, hides and tallow were also exported through Port MacDonnell.

It was during the 1870s that Port MacDonnell reached its heyday. Revenue from Customs was second only to Port Adelaide. In the years 1876-1879 exports totalled 604,946 pounds and imports 263,961 pounds.

Large ships sailing directly to England loaded wheat and wool; ketches and schooners brought in supplies and loaded smaller cargoes, notably potatoes. Jetty maintenance was ongoing, and there was demand for a breakwater - this however did not eventuate during the port's heyday.  Shipwrecks continued, and the lifeboat and its crew were kept busy.

The residents of Port MacDonnell had rejected the notion of a tramway or railway since the mid 1860s. A railway to Kingston from Naracoorte was opened in 1876; in 1879 a line was built to Beachport and in 1883 to Bordertown, with the final connection to Adelaide in 1887. Cheap rail rates provided stiff competition for the shipping lines, and when finally a rail line was opened between Mount Gambier and Portland in 1917, the death knell was rung.

In 1882 a new lighthouse was activated - the cliffs beneath the old one had become unstable.  During the 1880s trade was still good but with a noticeable downturn. By the beginning of the twentieth century tourism was becoming a feature of the town. Coastal steamers called and a coach service ran to Mount Gambier: the concept of a quiet seaside holiday gained force - the absence of the railway was a bonus here. As the twentieth century developed cars became more common, and caravans followed. Caravan parks, and on the waters, pleasure craft, became features of the town and the port. 

The fishing fleet replaced the mosquito fleet of ketches that had dominated the 1860s-1880s.  Finally in the 1970s the South Australian Government built the long desired breakwater. At 1565 metres, this provides shelter and security for the fishing fleet and for private pleasure craft.

The beginning of the 21st century saw cutbacks in the commercial fishing fleet due to overfishing, but tourism and the 'seachange' phenomenon and the development of marinas on the south coast, continue to support Port MacDonnell, no longer the second busiest port in South Australia.

Further reading: 

Duruz, Rosamund.  The history of Port MacDonnell Warrnambool, Vic. : PAP Book Co., 1978

Ardrossan jetty
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Arrival of 'S.S. Morialta' at Port Lincoln.
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Australian warships at Victor Harbor
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Barque Lawhill
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Boats moored at American River
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Cargo ships at Wallaroo wharf
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Channel leading into Lake Butler
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Customs House, Port MacDonnell
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Glenelg jetty 1850
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Grain ships at Ardrossan jetty
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Jetty at Murat Bay
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Jetty Port Lincoln
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