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Growing up in Echuca, a trip to the Barmah Forest

Submitted by Terry Kennedy
on November 08, 2010

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There were two sawmills, ‘Evans Brothers’ and the ‘Murray River Sawmill’; they exploited the red gum forest resources along the river. Many of the roads and bridges in those times were six ton limit and did not allow road transport to the same extent as today; the logs were often transported to the mills by river from landings along the river adjacent to the forest leases the mills were working. Before each season when the river levels were low, the paddle steamers cruised the river routes, they used their steam winches to removed snags, other obstructions and navigation hazards from the river, at various points along the river woodcutters set up stockpiles of wood to refuel the boats. When spring came and the river levels rose the logging season got underway.

On Sunday nights the paddle steamer Adelaide under the command of Captain Freeman set off up the river with the barges in tow, making her way to the loading sites. Because the steamers were voracious wood burners they needed to stop to take on fuel at depots on the way. After about twelve hours the steamer reached her destination and preparations were made to load the logs. Bill worked for the ‘Murray River Sawmill’ and this is the story of my trip to ’Evan’s landing’ in the ‘Barmah Forest’.

I went to work with Bill many times before I started school, I loved the various adventures, such as helping with the ice deliveries before people had refrigerators, grooming the draught horses and driving the road grader, but this story is about the best adventure I ever had with Bill. On Sunday afternoon after our family Sunday roast lunch. Bill and I made our way down to the barge; the barges were moored to trees on the riverbank near the bridge that connected Echuca on the Victorian side with Moama on the NSW side of the river ‘The Iron Bridge’. The crew of each barge consisted of two members; on our barge the other crewmember was Jacky Boyd. Jacky and Bill loaded the supplies onto the barge and checked the chains and other gear needed to secure the logs for the trip back to Echuca. The crew accommodation on these barges was very primitive, at the stern of the barge below deck a part of the hold was partitioned off, it contained two beds, cooking was done in the open hold on a brazier made from an old oil drum that was on a base of bricks to prevent fire damaging the bottom of the barge. Each barge had a dinghy that was used to row ashore or to row ahead to warn punt-men or bridge operators that the barge was coming through; it required a lot of skill to row the dinghy. Bill was a very skillful river man, and an excellent oarsman; he could make the little dinghy glide over the water at a great rate.

After the preparations were complete the steamer took up the towline and barges were allowed to drift into mid-stream, we were on our way. Darkness was falling the brazier was burning Uncle Bill was preparing our evening meal of barbequed chops and sausages, the crews of the other barges had joined us and we sat down to a great feast.

The paddle steamer thumped her way upstream the river darkness penetrated by a large light on top of the wheelhouse, the relentless beat of the paddles soon lulled me off to sleep, snug in my camp bed in the barge cabin I saw no more of our trip up stream. By dawn we had arrived at the loading site; the barges were positioned to receive their cargo of logs, soon the loading began.

Red gum logs do not float; they need to be supported before they can be loaded onto the barges. Because the return journey to Echuca was downstream the logs were not loaded into the holds of the barges but were attached by chains to great outriggers consisting of large logs lashed across the barge. Loading was achieved by positioning and mooring the paddle steamer in such a way the steam winch coupled to blocks and tackle could haul the logs from their stockpile then lift them into position where the crew secured the logs with large chains. Because of the weight of the great logs the barges were turned several times so that the logs could be loaded evenly. After each barge was loaded they were shifted and moored, then the next barge was loaded, the loading operations took all day.

When the barges were ready to leave each vessel was positioned in the middle of the river, this maneuver was achieved by fixing a rope to the stern of the barge then rowing the rope to the opposite bank and anchoring it to a tree, the barge was then allowed to drift out from the bank, until the limit of the rope was reached, the barge moved by the river current and held by the rope would drift toward the opposite bank, when the barge was mid-stream the rope was cast off from the bank and a large chain dropped off the stern to drag along the river bottom behind the barge, this chain kept the barge from turning and in mid-stream as she drifted along with the current. The only way of maneuvering the barges once adrift was by the use of the ropes and windlasses on-board, they had no rudder or tiller to control them and they were at the mercy of the river current. We drifted along with the current through the red gum forest, the river birds were amazing I have never seen such diversity of water birds; there were cranes, herons, egrets, ibis, spoonbills, water-hens, kingfishers, and a vast array of other forest birds.

After a few hours we entered the Barmah and Moira lakes, the river course ran through the middle of these lakes, the lakes formed one large body of water due to the high river level, the river course was defined by the rows of river red gums standing on what would have normally been the riverbanks. When we were passing through, the Moira Lake was wind blown and choppy, the Barmah Lake was glassy smooth like a millpond, it was quite a contrast, The Moira Lake being on the windward side of the Barmah forest probably caused this phenomenon. The Barmah Lake is a shallow lake and is a great breeding ground for native river fish; as a consequence it was well stocked with Murray cod and golden perch. The local aborigines had fish traps in the lake that dated back to ancient times and represented a long tradition of fishing in these waters. In those days the local aboriginal people lived at Cumerajunga mission station, the mission was situated on the banks of the river near Barmah.

Large ants known as bulldog ants were rife in the red gum forests and roamed freely around the logs on the barges the bites these ants inflicted were painful in the extreme and were avoided at all costs by the timber workers, I did not know of their fearsome reputation and would happily stand on them and kill them with my bare feet when the men found out about me doing this they were totally amazed, they had found them hard to kill with the back of an axe, or so they said. We had spent so much time running around barefoot our feet must have been as hard as iron.

Murray Story Comments

1 Comment

#1 - Shane Strudwick
What a great story Terry. I can really imagine those times and the way you've described the Murray. I'm sure you've got some great photos too?   2010-11-08 11:40:58 UTC

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