Discover the rich history of paddlesteamers on the Murray River

June 18, 2024

Ever wondered what it was like to travel in the 1800s? Picture yourself cruising down the majestic Murray River on a steam-powered paddlesteamer. Back then, The Murray was Australia’s busiest river trade route, connecting towns and driving economic growth.

Stretching 2,508km, this ever-flowing river was the super highway of the 19th century, linking four states: Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria. The paddlesteamer era is a story of grit, innovation, and beauty, showcasing how this mighty river shaped Australia’s history.

When were the paddlesteamers first launched on The Murray?

The first paddlesteamer voyage along the Murray River occurred in 1853. From then on numerous paddlesteamers began travelling inland with stores and passengers, returning with goods from inland Australia. Built in 1865 by the Victorian Railways, The Port of Echuca Wharf was crucial to Echuca’s development. Established to connect Melbourne’s rail system to a variety of inland regions, the port became a hub for river trade and paddlesteamer manufacturing. Utilising the ever-abundant supply of river redgums, a buoyant and durable material, the towering wharf and a fleet of over 300 paddlesteamers were constructed. By 1875, Echuca was home to eight sawmills that employed 400 men to fulfil the demand for redgum.

Why Echuca was chosen for this hub?

Shifting the economic power away from Sydney for the first time in Australian history, Echuca was the closest point along the Murray River to Melbourne, opening trade and transport opportunities throughout the region. Additionally, as Australia was pre-federation, Victoria didn’t mind stealing some of the limelight from Sydney.

What were the paddlesteamers carrying?

If you were to hop aboard a paddlesteamer in the 1870s, you would find it stacked with wool, timber and many other agricultural products, along with towing barges full of goods. In a region with rich soils, grain has always been plentiful, but before the increase of river trade, cattle farming was the most profitable agricultural venture. However, with the speed of transport increasing and the need for light items to be carried on the paddlesteamers, the export of wool became the go-to business.

What economic growth did the paddlesteamers generate?

Within the port precinct, you would see a bustling town of commerce and growth in the 1880s, home to the record-breaking timber, used to fuel the steamers. The town grew to an unprecedented population of more than 5,000 at the time, along with a not-to-be-forgotten 80 pubs. Echuca’s population remains around 15,000 today, however, the town now welcomes over 784,000 visitors a year.

When was the paddlesteamer peak and decline?

Reaching its busiest in the 1870s and 1880s, the Port of Echuca stretched for over 332 metres. Imagine four soccer fields placed end to end – this is how long the port reached. The Port of Echuca became Australia’s busiest inland port turning over 240 paddlesteamers to the wharf a year in its busiest period.

Having risen with the demand for extending trade to regional towns, the extension of the railway system become the port’s downfall. In the 1900s, the railway systems could now connect the whole of Australia, no longer requiring the peaceful chugging of paddlesteamers along the Murray River.

Resorting to desperate measures during World War II, Victorian Railways demolished the majority of the wharf to provide firewood for Melbourne. Reduced to 75.5 metres, the port has remained at this length ever since.

Today’s paddlesteamers

Past its heyday of chaotic port trading, the precinct has been lovingly preserved, along with its remaining paddlesteamers. Standing the test of time, the PS Adelaide is lucky to call the Port of Echuca home, remaining the world’s oldest working wooden-hulled paddlesteamer, constructed in 1866.

Today, people from across the world travel to the Murray River to enjoy its natural beauty. Welcoming travellers, the Port of Echuca is a must-do in the region, hosting a variety of precinct tours and paddlesteamer rides. Step aboard an authentic paddlesteamer and float along The Murray as you see for yourself the system of engineered brilliance used to power the steamers.

Perfect for a family day out or for history buffs, a precinct experience will transport you back to the days of the river trade. Learn how the optimisation of Australia’s longest river, led to the rapid growth of the small river town of Echuca that boomed for over four decades.

How can you experience the paddlesteamers at the Port of Echuca?

There are now many ways for you to enjoy the beauty of the Murray River aboard a historic paddlesteamer. Running daily tours, experience the paddlesteamers during the day and on seasonal sunset cruises throughout the year. Able to be booked for events, the Port of Echuca paddlesteamers host weddings, functions, and even bands during the Echuca Winter Blues Festival. Alternatively, simply enjoy an afternoon drink aboard the static paddlesteamer Pevensey on occasional afternoons. There is no better way to enjoy the Murray River than aboard history itself, book a tour today.

Port of Echuca