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The first paddle steamers race between Cadell and Randell

Sketches by Walter Cunningham -
Hand coloured by Design TrainThe Great Race

Lieutenant-Governor of South Australia, Sir Henry Young was convinced that the Murray River was Australia’s Mississippi, and that one day it would act as the trade route for New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. To encourage the river transport, the South Australian Government offered a prize of £2,000 for each of the first two iron boats of over 40 horse-power and drawing less than 2 feet of water to sail from Goolwa to the Darling River junction.

One contender was a deep-sea sailor Captain Francis Cadell. He ordered his steamer, the Lady Augusta, from a New South Wales shipyard at Pyrmont. The steamer was 105’ long, had a 12’ beam, 21’ at the cross-guards and had holds 5’6” deep. She was powered by two 20 horse-power engines, had two funnels and 16 fore cabins. By 1853 the Lady Augusta lay at her moorings at Goolwa after her trip from Sydney.

The other contender was William Randell and his Mary Ann. The son of a wealthy land-owner and merchant, William was in his early 20s when he planned and built his steamer at their station downstream from Moorindee. The Mary Ann was 55’ long and was powered by a 7 horse-power engine which had a rectangular boiler. The boiler was strapped with chains to give it extra strength as it expanded dangerously when the steam pressure was high. She was an inelegant flat-bottomed craft of rather rough construction and could carry about 15 to 20 tones.

By April 1853 Randell had already steamed across Lake Alexandrina and up the Murray to Lake Bonney. A low river forced him back to Mannum. Randell at this time was unaware of Cadell’s plans.

Cadell was ready to sail by August 1853. His passengers had arrived on August 22 and enjoyed a festive evening with the Governor and other distinguished guests. By mid-day the Lady Augusta slipped her moorings and was away, with her barge Eureka in tow. On the first night she steamed well into the night with the aid of huge reflector headlamps.

She made 6 miles per hour and within a week (September 1) had reached New South Wales’ waters. At 11pm on the September 6 she reached the Darling River junction. Cadell made stops along the river, stocking firewood at sheep stations and also took a male prisoner on board. By September 10 they passed the location of Mildura, and by the 13th they had tied up at Euston. It was here that they heard the news of the other steamer, the Mary Ann which had passed there the previous day.

The accidental race was on

On September 14 the Lady Augusta took on wood at Ross Station, and by 10.30 pm had caught and surged past the Mary Ann. To the half-awake crew of the Mary Ann the brightly-lit Lady Augusta must have come as a great surprise. Next morning the smaller Mary Ann, belching black smoke, went sailing pass the moored Lady Augusta, but by late that night were they overtaken. In their haste both steamers sailed up the Wakool for several miles by mistake and had mishaps with overhanging trees and snags.

On September 16 the Lady Augusta had finally left the Mary Ann in its wake. On the morning of September 17 they reached Swan Hill and tied up to enjoy the celebration. In the early afternoon the Mary Ann steamed into town. A grand ball was quickly organised for the crews.

Soon afterwards both steamers left Swan Hill. Cadell set off downstream with the woolclip of the Campbell’s Station on board and Randell continued further upstream and on September 24 1853 reached Moama. After a lavish ball and entertainment he also turned around and headed to Goolwa with a cargo of wool.

Randell had lost the £2000 prize to Captain Francis Cadell, the ‘Hero of the Hour’, but was not dismayed or disappointed.

Both men developed their commercial interest in the river and for many years were involved with the new river trade they had helped to develop.

Ride on a Murray River paddle steamer

Building of the Mary Ann | The Mary Ann Boiler
History of Murray-Darling Paddle steamers


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