After Captain Sturt's discovery of the river mouth in 1830, Governor Darling of New South Wales asked Captain Collet Barker to find out the possibility of navigating through the Murray mouth for commercial development. In 1837 it was concluded that the sandbars would make commercial navigation impossible. However the first successful navigation of the mouth was made on 22 June 1838 by Captain Gill in the Fenny.

In 1840, part of the Currency Creek Special Survey was subdivided and named Town on the Goolwa. The town itself, originally known as Port Pullen, was surveyed 1853 by Richard Brooking and proclaimed in March of that year. On 28 April twenty blocks were sold at auction with further sales later that same year. By 1857 all town blocks were sold.

Goolwa, from an Aboriginal word probably meaning elbow, came into being to facilitate the River Murray transport. In 1850 Governor Young suggested that the Murray trade could be assisted by building a railway from Goolwa to Port Elliot. There was even a plan submitted to build a canal between the two places.

Not everyone agreed with him though. A committee sent a memorial to the Governor explaining that a railway was not needed. It also disputed the safety of a harbour at Encounter Bay. There had been no scientific survey made of the Murray River, it said, and there was insufficient population and traffic to warrant the expense. The whole scheme was premature and inexpedient. One newspaper called it the 'Monstrosity of the Goolwa Bubble'. That same paper also found that one single bullock dray, once a month, was enough to bring all the exports to Adelaide. To them it was just insane to build a railway 'from some place which nobody ever came from to some other place which nobody ever went to'. The scheme was officially abandoned in September 1851.

Although abandoned, it was not forgotten and with the increased traffic during the goldrushes people changed their mind. Work on the railway started in 1852 and the line, consisting of a horse-drown car, began operating in 1854. Although it was the first in Australia it never became the great line it was hoped to be. Nor was the line connecting Strathalbyn to Goolwa in 1869. The horse tramway remained in service until 1884 when it finally was updated to a steam engine. Port Elliot soon lost its importance and was replaced by Victor Harbour.

Goolwa Map

Many of the early colonists hoped that the river would develop as the road into the interior and lead to further inland settlement. Young soon offered a reward to the first two steamers to travel the Murray from Goolwa to the Darling River. In 1853 two steamers, the Mary Ann, built at Mannum by William Randell and the Lady Augusta, built in Sydney for Francis Cadell made a run for it. It did prove that the river was suitable for navigation and Randell sold his cargo of flour and Cadell brought 4,000 bales of wool back on his return journey. By 1859 there were four river companies established all trying to cash in on the early trade. The railway ran at right angles to the wharf and trucks had to be swivelled 90 degrees on a turntable to run alongside the steamers.

In an attempt to establish a regular service from Adelaide to Goolwa in 1857, the government installed a system of semaphore signals and a pilot service. Edward Cremer was appointed as the first signalman. The successful pioneering trials, and later journeys, were the start of a vigorous river trade and brought many inland river towns into being, especially Goolwa and Mannum. As many as twenty-seven paddle steamers and twenty-two barges were constructed at the Goolwa shipyards, the majority by Abraham Graham. Many of the early steamers built at Goolwa were of English design. The Albury and the Gundagai in 1855 and the Melbourne were prefabricated in England and assembled in Adelaide and at Goolwa.

Some of the steamers and barges built at Goolwa were the Eureka in 1853, Kennedy in 1857, Avoca, 1858, the barge Goolwa in 1857 and the steamer the Goolwa in 1866. Others built were the Murray in 1866, Ariel in 1868, Napier in 1874, the Shannon, in 1877, the Pilot in 1883, Industry in 1911 and the Canberra in 1912. Captain Barber built two steamers, the Queen and the Victory and was later appointed by the South Australian government to superintend sheetpiling and clearing of the river.

One of the best known Captains was George Johnstone who had arrived in 1852 and joined Cadell. Having worked with him on the Lady Augusta he took command of the Albury and was the first skipper to reach Albury. Johnstone later bought the Murray, the Cadell, and the Queen of the South and built the stern-wheeler Maranoa in 1864. Johnstone also had a ship built in Scotland, especially for crossing the sandbars of the mouth. On 11 March 1878 he brought her into Goolwa without any trouble. When she berthed, Goolwa Major, Thomas Goode, proposed a toast to the ship and her crew. Johnstone was a very good swimmer and during his time on the rivers rescued fourteen people from drowning. He was awarded the Royal Humane Society's Bronze Medal. Johnstone died in May 1882.

Great things were also expected of the new town and very soon it was called the New Orleans of Australia. Once the line was working more people settled in the town and the surrounding area was cleared for farming. The first white children born were Amelia Shetliffe on 6 March 1854 and Richard Ballard on 31 December 1854. A water supply was installed by 1856 and a year later a post office was completed with Thomas Goode securing the job of first postmaster. An important date for the young town was 10 September 1857 when it was officially proclaimed a port, the first on the river. A Customs House was completed in 1859 and expanded in 1864.

Increasing trade brought many more people to Goolwa as well as several businesses to provide additional employment. Some of the main employers were John Dantz' saw mill, Abraham Graham's Goolwa foundry, producing among other things castings, wheels and blocks for the Strathalbyn tramway, Barton's wheelwright and Coach building works and Clark's brewery. Several men also found work in the fishing industry, catching as much as two tons daily.

Some work was also provided at the Goolwa Steam Flour Mill. When this was offered for sale by the Crawford Brothers in the Chronicle of 11 December 1858, it was stated that, 'with plenty of wheat in the district, the Strathalbyn and Goolwa railway, and the Bendigo diggings render it one of the best paying concerns in the colony for a person with a little capital, the flour always commanding a preference on the Murray'.

Without delay a school was started and by 1860, Lucy Marshall, born 30 May 1811, was educating 12 boys and 18 girls. A Wesleyan Chapel was built and the first land allocated on Hindmarsh Island. This in turn gave rise for the need to operate a ferry between the town and the island. With three hotels and a brewery in town the need for a police station was soon evident. When in 1879 the Goolwa Marine Cricket club was established more than sixty men, engaged in the river trade joined up.

Further employment was secured with the trans-shipment of wool from the wharf, which had been extended to nearly two hundred metres in 1878, to the railway for Victor Harbour. Before that time steamers often had to stand off in busy times until it was their turn to be unloaded. During 1882 well over 32,000 bales of wool were received at Goolwa.

Goolwa, the prosperous river town, declined after the 1880s when the railway had reached Echuca and Morgan. However the decline was slow and not noticeable at first. River companies still built new offices and stores and major alteration were made to the Goolwa Hotel. A new school was opened by Governor Jervois and a new railway goods shed completed that same year. By the turn of the century Goolwa's shipbuilding had al but ceased and most of the work consisted of maintenance. By 1912 most of the river trade had finished ending a great era of history for Goolwa and the Murray.

But Goolwa survived, changing from a major river port to a popular tourist resort. The old blacksmith has been converted to a museum. The police station and court house, built in the 1860s and the railway superintendent's house have all been preserved.


Goolwa Cemetery


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