The development of Echuca Wharf and its connection to the railway facilitated the movement of goods through Echuca from points throughout the entire Murray Darling catchment area. This resulted in the Port of Echuca becoming the pre-eminent port for Murray River trade and Victoria's second largest port up until the 1880s.
Transformation of an economy
Echuca Wharf and railway established a major trade route that contributed to the transformation of pastoral activity and the shift of colonial economic power out of Sydney for the first time in the nation's history.
River trade in the Murray Darling Basin reshaped pastoral industries. Station owners had favoured cattle because they could be transported to market overland more easily than sheep and wool. However the arrival of river steamers provided a solution to the problem of exporting wool. Sheep numbers grew rapidly in the Riverina and western pastoral districts. The wharf and railway at Echuca provided direct access to markets and this led to the rapid expansion in the scale and value of the pastoral holdings, which in turn increased the demand for river trade.
The Port of Echuca quickly became the key centre for this burgeoning trade and by 1864, was Australia's largest inland port. It enjoyed a number of strategic advantages. Echuca is the point where the Murray River is closest to Melbourne and it is also the head of year round navigation of the river. Echuca had a direct rail link to Melbourne and, for the Riverina and western pastoral districts of NSW, Melbourne was a closer market than Sydney. Consequently it was more economical both in terms of costs and time for these pastoralists to ship their wool clip to Echuca and thence by rail to Melbourne than to send it by bullock dray overland to Sydney. The link of wharf and rail at Echuca created for Melbourne a vast commercial empire stretching to the south west of New South Wales.
Echuca becomes an important centre
Between 1855 and 1859, various voyages tested the practical limits of river trade on the Murray, the Murrumbidgee and the Darling rivers. It was soon recognised that in drought most of the Darling and the Murrumbidgee waters became isolated and were rarely able to be accessed. It became apparent the only reliable waters that could be safely navigated were from Echuca downstream.
By 1864, two essential factors in the growth of Echuca were in place: the port of Echuca and the railway linking to Melbourne. The wharf was erected by the Public Works Department between 1865-7 to accommodate this increasing trade. As the trade grew, so did the wharf, being extended in 1877 and 1879, reaching a maximum length of 332 metres. At its peak, two hundred vessels a week entered the Port of Echuca.
The roughly simultaneous construction of the wharf and railway saw Echuca become the entry point for much of the interior of the continent and it remained unchallenged as a major trading centre for nearly 20 years until the opening of the railway from Junee to Hay in 1882.
The river trade began to decline as the financial crisis of the 1890s hit the national economy hard, and the extension of the railway network in New South Wales and Victoria took away valuable trade.
During World War II, Victorian Railways began to demolish the wharf to provide firewood for Melbourne, reducing it to its current length of 75.5 metres, one quarter of its maximum length.
A magnificent structure
Echuca Wharf was constructed entirely of river red gum timber, which was felled and milled locally.
Towering three storeys high, the wharf's height allowed for a 10 metre variation in the winter and summer levels of the Murray and enabled a year round unloading of goods. Cranes, wool press and bond stores were accommodated on the uppermost level.
Today the remaining structure is part of the central section of the original wharf. The wharf has been renewed and repaired over the years. Remnant timber pylons (visible only at low water) at either end of the current wharf indicate its extent.
The cargo shed, cranes, jib, fence and railway track, although not original, contribute to an understanding of the functioning of the port as does the remaining connection between the port and the railhead.
Echuca Wharf today
Since the 1960s, the wharf and paddle-steamers have found a new life, servicing the ever increasing tourist trade, attracted to the romance of the river and this traditional mode of travel.
Echuca is regarded as the home of the largest number of paddleboats in the world. Today the wharf is still operational, open to the public 364 days of the year, with three tourist cruising paddle-steamers, P.S. Adelaide, P.S. Alexander Arbuthnot and P.S. Pevensey, leaving from the wharf daily.
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