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Remembering the Once Mighty Murray

by John Noack

The River Murray forms the border between Victoria and New South Wales and then flows west and south through South Australia to the ocean near Goolwa. It has in general been a reliable source of water in southern Australia for irrigation and for domestic use, especially now in Adelaide.

Unfortunately, the Murray has also been affected both by severe floods and severe droughts. In 1956, it had to carry too much water during the very high and destructive flood, and its 50th anniversary was remembered in 2006. Sadly the continuing drought has left it with very little water flow.
However, back in the 1800s, it attracted many of the early settlers who came to Australia from Germany. Most River Murray towns reveal plenty of germanic and wendish names in their cemeteries and Lutheran churches usually appear somewhere in the town. A good example is the information in the book “Loxton”, which is in our library.

I grew up at Swan Reach in SA and spent much time exploring the Murray swamps, cliffs and caves there. Families in this area included the surnames Graetz, Grieger, Kroehn, Marks, Nagel, Pese, Stoeckel, Zadow and Zimmerman. I also regularly visited Murray Bridge (birthplace of my mother Clair Matthias), Mannum, Murbko (home of Nolls, Frosts, Schillers, Schutzes and a very well kept cemetery) and Blanchetown, named after “Blanche”, the wife of Governor McDonnell, in 1855.

During my return trip in October 2006 from Peters Hill in S.A. to Melbourne in Victoria, I travelled along the Murray from Morgan to Echuca and recalled the great flood over 50 years ago (1956) and the pioneering work of early European settlers. The river was opened up for trade after Captain Francis Cadell initiated steam navigation in 1853. He is famous for his race with William Rendell up the river to Swan Hill. Wharves at most towns, including very substantial ones at Morgan and Echuca, are now slowly collapsing but they recall the very busy river trade by paddle steamers, which reached its peak in the 1870s. In fact, Morgan, named after the South Australian Premier Sir William Morgan, was Australia’s busiest inland port and helped to transport much wheat and wool.

The River Murray is over 2,500 kms long and has been divided into five sections.

  1. The headwaters from its source in the Snowy Mountains to Corowa.
  2. The Riverine Plain from Corowa to Wakool Junction west of Swan Hill, where the river flows in
    branching channels.
  3. The Mallee Trench from Wakool Junction to Overland Corner, where the river
    follows a single, well defined channel through wide plains of marine origin.
  4. The Mallee Gorge from Overland Corner to Mannum, formed when the river moved
    through hard limestone rock during periods of low sea levels.
  5. The terminal lakes including the Coorong from Mannum to the Southern Ocean.

The 1956 flood has been the biggest recorded flood along the Murray but the present lengthy drought has reduced the Murray to record low flows.

Most river towns have local history societies whose members help to preserve the area’s heritage. At Renmark, Heather Everingham (PO Box 219, Paringa, 5340) is conducting Riverland Research and has material collected on the Kubank, Kuhlmann, Peperkorn, Rosenthal, Soderberg, Stoeckel, Teschner and Ullrich families.

Swan Hill has two very well equipped rooms for family and local history, located in its town library in Campbell Street. Its Pioneer Settlement Museum attracts many visitors and has a useful bookshop with many local and river-related publications.

Echuca also has a heritage area along the river, recalling its glory days and preserving its high wharf and a few paddleboats.

The present drought has led to less water being available for irrigation along the river and in both 2006 and 2007 the crops of wheat and barley did not grow high enough to make harvesting worthwhile.
During June 2007, heavy rain and floods occurred in the Gippsland area of Victoria but inland areas of Victoria and New South Wales as well as South Australia need more rainfall. Despite the current damaging drought, the Mighty Murray has been very important in maintaining the livelihoods of many early settlers and their descendants and it has provided its share of many happy memories.