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Building the Cobdogla Levee during the 1956 Flood

Submitted by Ruth Roberts
on February 22, 2015

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My father Ian Gambling was born in 1935 and had just turned 21 when he heard the call for volunteers to help build levees to save towns along the Murray River during the winter of 1956. He was still completing his National Service obligation and engaged to my mother at the time while working in the Public Buildings Department in Adelaide. The radio and newspapers were full of stories about the water rising to dangerous levels and increasingly desperate calls for volunteers to come out to the Riverland and help build levees against the rapidly rising river.

Ian, employed as a draftsman, took all his annual leave for the year – 14 days – even though his decision was much disapproved by his boss and the head architect. He contacted the Engineering and Water Supply Department and they referred him to Barmera.
With his limited funds, he bought a pair of gumboots and a bus ticket to Morgan. From there he was directed to the Shell Service Station where he hitched a ride to Barmera with a stock agent. He reported to the Barmera Council who arranged free accommodation at the Barmera Community Hotel and allocated him to the Cobdogla levee. Each day he travelled by truck with the other workers to and from the site.

Arriving at the site, Ian reported to the man in charge and was shown the job of helping to load and unload brush which was being cut and delivered to the top of the new levee bank by two other teams.

Meanwhile other gangs with bulldozers were placing dirt on top but only inches above the water level.

A little Ferguson tractor towed a long chain over which one team threw brush at 90 degrees. The chain then drew the brush up into a bunch behind the tractor and towed it to the levee. The tractor would take off up the levee wall and just at the top, the driver had to hit the right hand brake to spin the tractor around 90 degrees to prevent driving straight into the flood waters. The tractor drove along the top of the levee dragging the brush up to the next team. These men were driving pegs into the river-side of the wall. They uncoupled the chain and dispersed the brush between the to reduce erosion by the fast flowing waters.

Not long after Ian started work on the detail, the chap driving the tractor had a close call on top of the levee and refused to continue with the job. They were looking for a replacement and as no-one wanted to do it because of the danger, Ian volunteered.
It wasn’t until he took his first load, mounted the levee and hit the brake that he realised how very little room for error there was. The top of the levee wouldn’t have been more that a metre wider than the tractor’s rear wheels. He took a deep breath and carried on that task for another ten days.

The 1956 floodwater peaked at Cobdogla where it was 21 feet above normal pool level. The teams worked until last light then the truck took all the workers home to their farms or billets. Ian met a marvellous bunch of men much older than himself who appreciated what he was doing and took him home for occasional meals or shouted him a beer at the pub. He stayed in touch with one man for a while – a council worker who told him a story about a man responsible for driving a grader up to the side of the levee to provide soil. The pressure got to him: the men were barely keeping ahead of the rising waters, keeping only inches above the water. He drove his grader straight at the levee with the intention of breaching it to put them out of the agony of anticipation of doom. In his opinion the water was going to beat them. Someone saw what he was going to do, jumped onto the grader, hit him out of the way and stopped the grader in time. They replaced the distraught man with another driver.

Ian hitched a ride home and says he would hesitate to volunteer to do the tractor-driving job now because of the risk but at the time there were no other men volunteering and he was too inexperienced to realise the risk involved.

He thought it had been a very worthwhile time. He had spent his precious Annual Leave in a very rewarding fashion.




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