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The river as a highway: Steam navigation on the River Murray

When Charles Sturt voyaged down the Murray in 1829-30, the first European to do so, he wrote that the river was navigable by vessels much larger than his whaleboat. He also considered the Darling River navigable. The Murray Mouth, however, he considered useless to navigation. Debate over this issue would be hotly disputed for many years, until Francis Cadell successfully brought his paddle-steamer the Lady Augusta through the Mouth in 1853.

When the colony of South Australia was first established, it was considered that the Murray would be a highway into the interior and to the settlements of the east coast. However it was not until 1850 that any thing was done about this when the Governor, Sir Henry Fox Young urged that a bonus be offered by the Government. 

To further encourage river navigation a jetty was built at Goolwa and beacons and navigational markers were erected between Goolwa and Wellington. Still nothing happened until the discovery of gold in Victoria, and the opportunity arose of delivering stores to the diggings.

William Randell was the first to seize the opportunity and built his small paddle-steamer Mary Ann.  Built of local timber at Gumeracha, the frame was taken to the Murray near Mannum and completed there.  Loaded with provisions, the Mary Ann had first to steam to Goolwa to obtain a Customs clearance for her cargo. There also Governor Young inspected the vessel.  He told Randell that he would recommend that he receive a bonus of £300 for being the first steamer on the river.  The Mary Ann left Goolwa on 25 March 1853.  Unfortunately the boat only reached Lake Bonney before being forced back by low water.

Meanwhile Francis Cadell became aware of the bonus being offered by the South Australian government.  He then negotiated his own deal with the government whereby he would receive £1000 if he built a steamer and barge and reached the Murray-Darling junction, another £500 for bringing his boat through the Murray Mouth and a further £1000 if he successfully operated on the river for a year. Cadell arranged for his steamer to be built in Sydney, and when launched it was named Lady Augusta after the South Australian Governor's wife. It was then jury-rigged as a ketch and sailed to South Australia.  After successfully negotiating the Murray Mouth, the Lady Augusta set out on her first voyage on 25 August, towing the barge Eureka.  Three days from Swan Hill the crew of the Mary Ann were awakened by the sound of paddlewheels and saw the Lady Augusta steaming towards them. Over the next few days the two paddle-steamers passed and repassed each other. Cadell's voyage was well documented, as among the party aboard his boat were journalists.  Two accounts were subsequently published:  Allen, James Journal of an experimental trip by the "Lady Augusta', on the River Murray and Kinloch, Arthur The Murray River: being a journal of the voyage of the "Lady Augusta" steamer from the Goolwa, in South Australia, to Gannewarra, above Swan Hill, Victoria; a distance from the sea mouth of 1400 miles.

William Randell pushed on upriver to Maiden's Punt (later called Moama) while Cadell turned back to collect a cargo of wool that he had arranged. Randell received a bonus of £300 from the South Australian Government with a letter of congratulations for being the first to navigate a steamboat on the Murray. In addition to the money he had already negotiated with the Government, Cadell was offered a further £4000 if he would place another two vessels on the river within three years and make two voyages a year to Albury, Gundagai and Fort Bourke (Bourke). He accepted the proposal and ordered two iron-hulled boats from Scotland.

Cadell now formed the River Murray Navigation Company and was shown further favour from the South Australian Government when he was presented with a gold medal especially struck to commemorate the successful steam navigation.

Randell and Cadell vied with each other to reach higher and higher points on the rivers.  Randell increased the size of his boat by building another hull the same size as the Mary Ann and by placing the paddle-wheel between the two, creating a sort of catamaran and renamed it Gemini. With this he steamed up the Darling as far as Brewarrina.  He was the first to reach Fort Bourke (Bourke). By 1859 he had established his store at Hay.

By now Randell and Cadell were not the only men operating boats on the river.  Robert Napier and William Webb operated the Moolgewanke, and on 13 July 1860 were the first to reach Deniliquin. In 1856 the Leichardt (sic) was launched by Acraman, Main and Co, followed by a sister ship.  Navigation aids along the river were increasing and in 1858 the removal of snags from the river commenced.

By late 1858 or shortly after, Cadell's River Murray Navigation Company was dissolved, and two companies formed: Cadell, Turnbull and Company and Younghusband and Company split the fleet between them.

South Australians had led the way in the steam navigation of the Murray-Darling system, but by the mid 1860s companies were being formed in the other colonies: the Upper Murray Steam Navigation Company at Echuca; the Wagga Wagga Steam Navigation Company in 1869, the Melbourne and Riverine General Carrying & Forwarding Company in 1866; the Hay Steam Navigation Company in 1874 were just a few.

During the peak years on the rivers companies continued to proliferate, although there were also individual captains who operated a single steamer.  William McCulloch and Company commenced operations in 1866, and their busiest branch was at Morgan where a rail line from Adelaide terminated. Initially attracted by the high tariffs imposed by the Victorian Government, the company was forced out by a series of low water seasons.

Permewan Wright, established in 1872, successfully underbid McCulloch's branch managers in the freight rates they offered, and by 1884 had 35 branches in Victoria and New South Wales. Other companies included the Gem Navigation Company registered by Benjamin Chaffey; A.H. Landseer & Co Ltd of Milang, and Arnold's Line of River Steamers Ltd formed as late as 1913.

At the peak of the paddle-steamer era there were between 200 and 300 boats operating on the Murray River system and the river was vibrant with the noise of boat whistles and thrashing paddle-wheels.

For more detail on shipping lines see R.H. Parsons Ships of the Inland Rivers. Gumeracha, SA, Gould Books, 1996.

 Sidewheelers or Sternwheelers

The style of the paddle-steamers used on the Murray-Darling river system were sidewheelers, rather than the sternwheelers common on the rivers of North America. The reason for this lies in the nature of the rivers themselves. The Australian rivers are slow moving with many meanders, and could only be navigated by a smaller more compact boat. The sidewheelers are typically of this type.  North American rivers are generally wide and fast flowing with long straight stretches; sternwheelers were better suited to this type of river. In addition sternwheelers usually pushed their barges, whereas on the Murray, barges were either towed or lashed to either side.

Sternwheelers were tried in Australia. In 1861 the Settler owned by P.W. Jackson and Alexander Murray, was built at Fletcher's Slip at Port Adelaide. At 167 feet long including the wheel, she proved far too long to negotiate the many twists of the upper river. After just one season she was taken off the rivers. Jackson and Murray then built a smaller sternwheeler the Lady Daly, 112.6 feet plus wheel.  She served with some success until the 1890s.  A third steamer operated by these owners, although the shortest, was at least successful. On her maiden voyage the Lady Darling was snagged and sank three times in 239 miles.

The Captain Sturt was also a sternwheeler and 116 feet long.  It was however used only on the lower river with its long straight reaches and was quite suitable for this.


Barges increased considerably the amount of cargo that could be moved by a steamer, and were either towed behind or lashed alongside. Barges were essentially empty hulls with several holds separated by bulkheads. Sometimes a small space was provided for the crew, but many barges were handled by one man. The good management of a barge consisted of correct loading, as much as knowledge of the river and the ability to anticipate the moves of the steamer's master. The momentum of a heavily laden barge could drive it down upon the steamer and cause considerable damage.

Every barge was classified to carry a specific amount of cargo, as were the steamers. Loading was an art: to avoid capsizing the barge, no cargo could be loaded higher than two-thirds of its width. Wool bales were stacked in a pyramid shape with a single row of bales at the top. A properly stowed barge rode at an even keel. Each layer of bales was firmly secured with wire cables, so that in the event that the barge did run into a sandbank, the cargo would not be dislodged. Spaces were also left to insert pumps that might become necessary in the course of the voyage. Finally the cargo would be firmly lashed down all round. The barge's steering wheel was raised at each successive tier, so that the steersman could see above the cargo.


In the early years wool was one of the chief cargoes being shipped down river, with wheat and flour, building materials and general stores also a regular. Later as the irrigation colonies became established dried and fresh fruit, and wheat formed part of the regular cargo going downstream. Later during the building of the locks and weirs, cement, timber and crushed granite became regular cargo.

General stores included everything conceivable that could be used by settlers upstream: flour, tobacco, tea, beer, stoves, galvanised iron, wire, dried fruit, cheese, pickles, pipes, drapery, sewing machines, sugar, hay, kerosene, candles, vinegar, boots, saddlery etc. Low water in drought years or after a long summer could be disastrous for cargoes such as these. Dumped on the banks they would rot.

But wool would remain a mainstay, and the greatest period of the paddle-steamers occurred during the great growth period of Australia's wool industry.

 Mission boats and hawkers

In the heyday of Murray River shipping the great majority of the vessels on the river were steamers and barges engaged in commercial trade - either cargo or passenger.  There were however some vessels that followed a different business.  The mission boats Etona and Glad Tidings brought religious comfort to small settlements and stations along the river where the population was too small to support a church.

Perhaps more important to the settlers were the hawkers, who operated floating general stores.  William Randell and Francis Cadell had sold provisions on their first trip on the rivers, but had ceased this when they realised it conflicted with their supply of stores to storekeepers in the settlements. There was still a need though for stores to be brought to the more remote and isolated stations, for the woodcutters and fishermen along the river. The Prince Alfred built at Goolwa in 1867 was the first vessel built specifically for this trade. The Pyap and Queen, the Marion and Emily Jane, also operated as floating stores. The largest and longest operating was the Merle, with the barge Flo D carrying additional stock. The Diener family ran these, and the Kookaburra that succeeded them until 1956.

More unusual perhaps was the steam yacht used by a dentist to take his profession to the remote reaches of the river.  (The Queen also carried a dentist about his business).  Fishermen occasionally used paddle-steamers as their base for their operations.

Milk boats were common along the lower Murray during the first half of the twentieth centuries.  Usually motor launches, there were also some paddle-steamers engaged in the business of carrying the milk churns from the dairy farmers to the processing plants at Murray Bridge.  The South Australian Farmers Union operated a fleet consisting of Co-operation, Loyalty, Progress and Union.

 Customs Difficulties

Before the Federation of Australia in 1901, Murray River trade was governed by taxes from three colonies. Apart from the physical difficulties imposed by the river itself - snags, rocks, low water - taxes or border tariffs were the single most difficult issue.

The Australian Colonies Government Act was passed by the British Government in 1850 and enabled the colonies to levy Customs duties. There was no consideration that in the near future the Act would have dire consequences. The initial lack of interest in river navigation by New South Wales and Victoria saw Goolwa established as a major port, with customs to be cleared from there. Hence when William Randell set out in the Mary Ann in 1853 he had first to steam down river to clear his cargo, before proceeding up river to his markets. The taxes collected at Goolwa on goods carried to New South Wales and Victorian customers were credited to those colonies, but it became apparent quickly that they were loosing revenue and by 1855 these colonies decided to collect their own taxes, and Albury and Wodonga became customs points for their respective colonies. Low water for much of the year made this difficult. Different rates in the tariff charged by each colony were another factor.  Importers quickly discovered ways to avoid paying taxes.

In May 1859 the first of a number of attempts to resolve the problems came into effect when the three colonies signed a treaty: South Australia would collect all duties, at local rates, take 5% for its expenses and remit the balance. This didn't work out and in 1863 another attempt was made to accept a uniform tariff, but again this failed. New South Wales then decided to establish Custom Houses at Wentworth, the Swan Hill crossing, Moama, Corowa and Albury, to commence collecting duties in September 1864. Intercolonial rivalry was rife, and Victoria declared an increase in the number of materials that were taxable, and also decided to establish Customs Houses on its bank of the river: at Cowana, Narrung, Swan Hill, Echuca, Wahgunyah and Belvoir.

The large dutiable list of goods was a nightmare for the agents and captains of the steamers, as the two colonies of New South Wales and Victoria appeared to engage in rounds of one-upmanship, with South Australia as the chief beneficiary. In 1867 they abandoned the collection of duties, with instead Victoria agreeing to pay £60,000 annually to New South Wales. But a few years later in 1874 both colonies again began collecting border tariffs, and continued to do so until the new Federal Government finally abolished internal customs in 1903.

At one point in the strained saga of customs dues on the river, dried fruit produced in New South Wales was transported to Melbourne under bond, by steamer to Murray Bridge, thence by rail to Port Adelaide, then to coastal steamer. It was cheaper than by sending it by river to Swan Hill, and then rail to Melbourne!

 Navigation hazards

Snags, rocks, sandbars, low river, high river with its drifting debris, bridges, locks and weirs - these were the list of hazards that a steamer captain would face in his navigation of the river.  Many of these would be marked on his river chart, but many were not.

With the development of the locks and weirs in the early twentieth century the problem of low river was largely a thing of the past, but by then the age of heaviest steamer traffic was also a thing of the past.

When the river was in flood, the usual hazards of snags, rocks and sandbars, might be safely underwater, but trees that were previously on the banks and out of the way, were suddenly 'in' the river, and as well, there were other trees torn out from the banks and floating in the floodwaters.  The river in flood would also take 'shortcuts' and the boat might be steaming along the normal channel without any river current, only to be strongly hit in the side when the river returned to the main channel.


Snags are the remains of trees in the river, trees that have either been flushed downstream during floods and become stranded, or trees that have toppled into the river from the adjacent bank. With their branches and roots largely underwater they create an enormous hazard in the water.  The South Australian government built and launched the Grappler in 1858.  Designed by Francis Cadell, the Grappler was built specifically to remove snags from the river and was fitted with a crane able to lift 14 to 15 tons, or logs four to five feet in diameter.

Another remedy was to whitewash the most dangerous snags to make them more visible, or to cut them off at the summer (ie low) river level.  An accurate river chart was also a benefit in avoiding snags.

The Industry, built in 1876, was sold to the South Australian Government in 1887 for use as a snag boat. In 1911 she was replaced by another vessel, also named Industry and later sold to the River Murray Commission. She served as a snag boat, dredger and for lock repairs until refitted in 1969.


Sand in the river is a very mobile hazard, shifting and accumulating on river bends depending on the flow in the river.  Despite sandbanks being carefully marked on the captain's charts they would sometimes discover that it had shifted position between trips.


Isolated rocks, and rocky reefs presented particular problems at low water.  Some reefs extended well across the river leaving a relatively narrow passage through which the water rushed.  At another point on the river below Swan Hill a series of reefs caused a deep waterfall of two feet at low water - while not high in itself, this was unpassable by paddle-steamers caught either side of it.  At least at low water the rocks were visible.  With plenty of water in the river these would be covered and the value of the river charts that plotted these would be immeasurable.


The variety of bridges and the manner in which they permitted the passage of river traffic were many.  Some had a central lift span such as those at Wentworth or Tooleybuc.  The bridge keeper would raise the central section, and traffic waiting to cross could be delayed for half an hour or more.  Frequently steamer and barge would go under the bridge stern first - in the event of becoming jammed against the bridge pylons the steamer could then steam ahead and extricate itself and barge more easily.

The Menindee Bridge on the Darling River was placed at a point that was particularly difficult for steamers - on a bend.  Because the bridge carries the Sydney-Broken Hill railway line, the span cannot be raised during the heat of an inland summer because of metal expansion - the steamer must wait for the cooler temperatures of early morning or late afternoon.

The Bridge at Hay carried the town's water pipes, with the resultant loss of water whenever the bridge was raised.  On the other hand the two bridges at Murray Bridge are fixed and at high water, the steamers were required to lower their funnels to pass beneath in safety. Other bridges were difficult because of proximity to rocks or dangerous eddies.

Lake Alexandrina

Despite the broad appearance the lake is shallow, and buoys and beacons were necessary to guide the vessels into the proper channels.  The surface is also readily affected by the wind: a north westerly wind 'has the odd effect of pushing water out of the lake so that it becomes shallower, as opposed to the south-easterly wind which makes it deeper' (Drage, p. 172).

 Tourist Boats

The paddle-steamers carried passengers as well as cargo and by the 1890s the vessels' accommodation began to reflect the growing trend. George Chaffey and others formed the River Murray Navigation Company in 1888. When they purchased the Gem, these boats were already familiar in the passenger trade. The Company upgraded and refurbished them with electric lights, improved catering and accommodation. The Company promoted the steamers and by linking with the railway line at Echuca advertised a trip Mildura to Melbourne in 36 hours. Another round trip was Melbourne to Echuca by rail, Echuca to Morgan by paddle-steamer, thence by rail to Adelaide, and to Melbourne by coastal vessel.  Other owners became interested in the passenger trade and added their vessels to the Mildura/Echuca run.  The emphasis on comfort gave a new lease of life to the river trade, at a time when the railways began to make inroads in the movement of cargo.

There were also excursions or day trips promoted in association with the railways. These usually coincided with the holiday period of Christmas and New Year and operated between Goolwa, the Murray Mouth and Lake Alexandrina. 

The Marion was another steamer, along with the Gem that became a popular passenger vessel.  George Fowler planned the vessel in 1896, as a general trading vessel, but one that could be adapted as a cruise vessel for his own leisure.  With refrigeration, electric lights and comfortable cabins, the Marion would be a modern and commodious vessel.  Unfortunately Fowler died the same year and the Marion after several years mouldering at Milang became a general trade vessel.  Then after a refit in 1908, it became along with the Gem, the most popular of the passenger boats.  Serving five meals a day, with hot and cold water baths, two berth cabins, a smoking room and a piano in the dining room, the Marion offered seven day cruises from Murray Bridge to Renmark and return for £6.00.

After World War I an amalgamation of a number of shipping lines occurred and Murray Shipping Ltd was formed. This continued to operate the Gem and Marion in the passenger trade and the Victorian Government Tourist Bureau, the South Australian Intelligence and Tourist Bureau and Murray Shipping Ltd offices in Adelaide managed the organisation of its "weekly circular trips". Passengers could plan their own trips and could leave the boats at several points, making rail connections at Paringa, Murray Bridge, Mildura and Swan Hill.

Passenger trade had become an important component of the River Murray steamship business.

During the 1930s some Murray Valley towns even began small tourist centres.  Coaches began to replace rail travel and the state tourist bureaux began to actively support coach-steamer transfers. Bonds Scenic Motor Tours also ran bus tours and extolled the scenic beauty of the Riverland in their glossy brochures. The Gem and Marion were upgraded again to meet the demand.

Then in 1947 Murray Valley Coaches added the Murrumbidgee to their business and began day trips and charter trips. Several years later they added the Coonawarra. The future of River Murray tourism seemed assured.

 The last voyage of the Marion

Adapted from Riverboats and rivermen by William Drage and Michael Page; Adelaide, Rigby, 1976.

In 1963 the South Australian National Trust bought the Marion that had been laid up at Morgan in April 1941. Apart from a few brief trips in the intervening years the old paddle-steamer built in 1897 had been mostly idle. A private consortium that had hoped to restore her and begin regular trips had bought the boat, but when this became impossible, the Marion was sold to the Trust, who planned to install her as a floating museum at Mannum.

They engaged William Drage, who had captained the Marion for many years during the 1930s, to take her from Berri to Mannum. There was no shortage of willing volunteers to serve as firemen and deckhands, but another experienced riverman, Ron Pickering, served as mate.

The voyage was arranged for 6-10 June 1963, and a special representational cargo was organised: dried fruit, cases of oranges, a bale of wool, a barrel of wine, cases of wine and brandy.

The Murray River flag was hoisted - the same flag, so it was believed that had been hoisted on the barge Eureka at its launching in 1853. (The flag was a Union Jack with a red cross with five white stars on top half and four horizontal blue bars on a white background below).

The Marion was cheered off from the Berri wharf and began her last voyage to Mannum 237 miles down river. As she negotiated Lock 4 some damage was done to the port bow - the inexperienced crew had not known to have a fender in place. Minor damage, it was quickly repaired, just as throughout the voyage volunteers continued to apply paint to the superstructure.

Eager crowds awaited the Marion all along the river, congregating whenever she put into a town. The volunteer firemen struggled to maintain pressure on the boiler, but everyone was too excited by the history taking place to be much bothered by this. Quickly enough this was remedied. The whistle blew, no doubt startling the birds in the trees. Past Moorook Cobdogla, Overland Corner, Woolpunda, Yarra Glen to Waikerie, where an old pile in the river tried its best to wreck the voyage.

At Morgan the crowd was huge - the Railway Historical Society had put on a special train - a further reminder of the great days on the river. At Blanchetown Bridge there were a few problems as eager amateurs confused the passage.

At Swan Reach they were swamped again with visitors, old timers recalling the river trades of glory days, and young people sharing the taste of the past. At Bow Hill, a number of distinguished passengers boarded the Marion, including the Premier of South Australia, Sir Thomas Playford, and the President of the National Trust Mr H.C. Morphett.

The Post Office at Mannum was franking special post cards "Last trip of P.S. Marion, 6th to 10th June 1963". From Swan Reach to Mannum hundreds of people lined the riverbanks.

At 2pm on the 10th June the Marion pulled into Mannum to the music of the Police Band and a gathering of thousands. The token cargo was unloaded onto an old dray and carted to the depot. The gallery and the dining saloon were cleaned, the fires put out and the engine wiped over. The last voyage of the Marion was over.

Today she stands at Mannum, a museum to the great days of the paddle-steamer trade on the Murray-Darling River system.

 Further reading

Allen, James. Journal of an experimental trip by the 'Lady Augusta', on the River Murray, Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1976 

Bean, CEW. The dreadnought of the Darling, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1956

Drage, William and Page, Michael. Riverboats and rivermen, Adelaide: Rigby, 1976

Godson, Harry. The Marion story, Leabrook, S.A.: Investigator Press, 1973

Kinloch, Arthur. The Murray River: being a journal of the voyage of the "Lady Augusta" steamer from the Goolwa, in South Australia, to Gannewarra, above Swan Hill, Victoria; a distance from the sea mouth of 1400 miles, Adelaide: Friends of the State Library of South Australia, 1997

Painter, Gwen. A different river: river trade and development along the Murray Valley network, South Melbourne: Hyland House, 1993

Painter, Gwen. The river trade: wool and steamers,Wahroonga, N.S.W.: Turton & Armstrong with Pioneer Settlement Press, 1979

Parsons, RH. Ships of the Inland Rivers, Gumeracha, SA, Gould Books, 1996. 

Phillips, Peter J. Redgum & paddlewheels: Australia's inland river trade, Collingwood, Vic.: Greenhouse, 1980

A trip up the Murray
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Canoe trip down the Murray
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Clearing the River Murray
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Improvements at Port Elliot, the Goolwa and navigation
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Intercolonial imports and exports
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Interview with Jessie Merle Hall
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'Lady Augusta' and 'Mary Ann' at Swan Hill
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Last voyage of the 'Marion'
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Murray River customs receipts payable
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Navigation of and irrigation from River Murray
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Nile of Australia
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P.S. Albury
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