Station owners, lock masters and wharf labourers from yesteryear used to pride themselves on knowing which paddlesteamer was only a river bend or two away by the unique sound of each boat’s whistle.
Those blasts from the past were re-created in Mildura on the weekend of September 8-9 with a cacophony of sound and pageantry as the most historic boats in Australian river history gathered to pay homage to one of their own, as the paddlesteamer PS Melbourne celebrated her 100th birthday.
The Murray River and the riverfront was a moving sea of colour as around 15,000 people – including an estimated 1500 on various river craft – gathered for a birthday celebration that is unprecedented in Australian inland maritime history, and unlikely to be repeated in the future.
Some of the old boats hadn’t been seen together for the better part of a century. Others, like the PS Adelaide, the oldest wooden-hulled working paddlesteamer in the world, hadn’t left their home base for 50 years or so.
Lifelong Murray River dwellers the Pointon family, owners of the PS Melbourne as well as sister vessels the PV Rothbury and PV Mundoo, were overwhelmed by the big turnout.
“My father would have been very proud,” Lyn Pointon said. Captain Alby Pointon was in his 91st year when he passed away late last year.
Thanking the huge crowd for their show of support for the centenary celebrations, Lyn said boats had been her father’s lifelong passion, and the Pointon family would continue its involvement in Mildura’s rich river history into the future.
Boats from almost the length of the Murray River, including Goolwa, Mannum and Renmark in SA, and Echuca in Victoria, had spent a week or more battling either a strong current or strong winds to get to Sunraysia for the celebrations – a ‘Jewels of the Junction’ night-time display at Wentworth, where the Murray meets the Darling, on the Friday, and at Mildura on the Sunday to honour the PS Melbourne.
Some skippers and volunteer crews on the oldest of the flotilla of 40 boats experienced minor problems. The giant three-deck PS Marion had to be helped through one of the lock and weir systems after facing an ‘uphill’ battle against the current despite being at full steam; the PS Adelaide underwent emergency repairs after part of its old boiler collapsed near Swan Hill; and the poor old PS Ruby, based at Wentworth, didn’t even make it to the start line because of mechanical failure.
The latter’s new skipper, Echuca-based Captain Neil Hutchinson, made the decision not to take a chance with the boat until the problem was fixed. People who had been booked on the PS Ruby for the planned Saturday trip upstream to Mildura were transferred to other boats, including the PS Industry, although some passengers were left stranded when the rest of the skippers decided to leave earlier than planned because of the strong winds and current.
Vantage points on riverbanks in both Victoria and NSW, including sandbars, Coomealla boat ramp and golf club access road and moorings, the Merbein cliffs, Apex Park beach and Buronga Caravan Park were crowded with well-wishers as they welcomed the upstream flotilla.
Hundreds more crowded onto another ideal vantage point – the Abbotsford Bridge at Curlwaa – after it was closed to traffic and the centre span raised for an hour so the flotilla from Wentworth could continue its downstream voyage.
Along the wide expanse of Mildura’s river frontage, parking was at a premium between 9am and 4pm as a crowd estimated at 15,000 enjoyed farmers’ market stalls near the Ornamental Lakes, displays of vintage vehicles and old steam-driven farm machinery and dozens of food, drink and produce stalls. Many stalls ran out of food and had to re-stock two or three times during the day.
The fantastic response to the well-publicised birthday celebrations for the PS Melbourne delighted local tourism authorities and Mildura Rural City Council.
Mildura Tourism CEO, Rod Trowbridge described the event as “sensational and memorable”. He said it not only showcased the many aspects of Mildura’s rich river heritage and attractions, but also provided a host of visual and participatory experiences that would have been a first for many locals as well as visitors.
Trowbridge said many locals had used the unique and novelty aspects of the weekend to invite friends and relatives to the region.
“It was a great tourism event for Mildura,” he said. “People from all around Australia planned their trips here specifically to be part of the celebrations. Understandably, the event also proved a huge magnet for heritage vessel and paddlesteamer buffs.”
Trowbridge said it was an event that would be broadcast to the world, relaying images of thousands of people enjoying the centenary, and the region.
“The big weekend may have passed, but Mildura’s tourism reputation has become even stronger as being an idyllic river setting where people can enjoy the bygone era of paddlesteamer cruising every day of the year,” he said.
Mildura Mayor Cr John Arnold described the PS Melbourne celebrations as a unique opportunity for people of all ages to remember the rich heritage of our great river system in the Murray Darling Basin.
“In our early history, paddlesteamers were the primary means of transport, bringing necessary merchandise and delivering horticultural products to service our growing settlement,” he said.
“Riverboat Captains and engineers met the difficult navigational challenges of the rivers in the days when there were no locks and weirs to control water levels.
“The 100th birthday of the PS Melbourne allows us to reflect on the importance of these heritage paddlesteamers, and I congratulate the Pointon family for its ongoing vision. It is a fitting way to celebrate the PS Melbourne’s centenary birthday,” he said.
The celebrations also struck a chord with visitors, who travelled from as far away as Queensland to attend. Hundreds of people travelled from towns on downstream sections of the Murray, including Goolwa, Murray Bridge and Mannum.
Among them were Kathryn Carruthers and Margaret Duggin from Renmark, who dressed in period costume for the occasion.
“It was a magnificent day in perfect Mildura spring weather,” Kathryn said. “The picturesque setting overlooking the river was brimming with life… Mildura certainly did this in style. Many people will have many treasured memories of a great spectacle, and a bygone era,” she added.
Commentator and paddleboat enthusiast Peter Gubbins, 81, of Goolwa, made sure the huge crowd knew the finer details of every boat in the flotilla, and had some interesting anecdotes to tell about most of them, both commercial and private. At least seven of the boats were 100 years old or older, with the PS Melbourne joining an elite ‘club’ on reaching its centenary.
In the heyday of river travel, several hundred paddlesteamers would ply the 6500km of water on the Murray, Darling, Murrumbidgee and Lachlan river systems. The 2500km Murray was the main ‘highway’, with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of cargo, produce, livestock and people moved each year between SA, Victoria, NSW and eventually on to Queensland.
They had colourful names – Adelaide, Amphibious, Avoca, Coonawarra, Etona, Gem, Industry, Marion, Oscar W, Rothbury, William Randall – named after explorers, wives, girlfriends or paddleboat skippers. Each has a character all its own, and each with a distinctive sound.
The PS Adelaide is by far the most historic, restored to the original condition in which she came off the Echuca slipway in 1866, only a little over 30 years after the legendary explorer Captain Charles Sturt discovered much of Australia’s inland waterways.
FINE OLD DAME
The ‘birthday girl’, the PS Melbourne, came off the slipway at Koondrook in late 1912. Originally built for the purpose of de-snagging the river she was restored in 1965 and converted by the late Captain Alby Pointon into a passenger paddlesteamer capable of carrying up to 300 people.
Now, a century after she first tasted the Murray’s waters, she stands as a testament to a bygone era, a mighty vessel which continues to face the future with the optimism of the inland pioneers of decades past.
For an extended pictorial coverage go to the Club Marine website: www.clubmarine.com.au.