Australia’s transport heritage

By Ian Kenins December 12, 2014
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The rusting rail bridges spanning the mighty Murray recall the vigour of a boom era long past.

BOASTING LITTLE MORE than a general store and a pub, Murrabit bears no resemblance to the thriving hub it was once envisioned to become. More than a century ago, the fledgling Riverina settlement was filled with promise. Situated on the banks of the Murray River in northern Victoria, it was surrounded by flat, grazing land that railway officials declared would “ultimately become studded with towns”. At the time, river and rail transport were flourishing and agricultural trade was booming. It was the heyday of the steam era.

Today, although Murrabit isn’t the bustling trade centre that civic planners hoped for, it is one of a number of towns in the Riverina that recall the age of rail. An all-steel rail bridge spans the Murray at Murrabit, one of many built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to link regional centres in southern NSW with those in Victoria, and it is a reminder of a time long past.

In the early 1870s, Echuca was Australia’s busiest inland port. The Victorian town, situated on the banks of the Murray River, about 110km downstream of Murrabit, was the hub of Australia’s paddle-steamer trade. Freight was transported along the river to Echuca’s busy wharf, where it was unloaded and railed to Melbourne’s markets.

At the time, farmers in southern NSW were campaigning for a bridge over the Murray so they could transport their goods to market by rail over Echuca’s lines. In 1879, a 12m-high, all steelgirder rail crossing at Echuca linked the lines between the states and set off a flurry of bridge-funding bids by nearby shires. Tocumwal, NSW, was the next Riverina town to receive government funding. Its cast-iron bridge opened in April 1895, but at a cost of £19,635 (about $3.3 million today), cheaper designs and materials were sought for subsequent projects.  

In 1887 the Victoria and NSW Public Works ministers met to discuss which towns along the Murray would benefit from a rail bridge. Swan Hill, Victoria, was next in line. The contract was awarded to civil engineer Percy Allan, who designed more than 550 NSW bridges during his distinguished career.

By the late 1870s, local businessmen claimed the Victorian township of Koondrook could eventually rival, or even surpass, Swan Hill. Their campaign for a bridge over the Murray to Barham was ignored until June 1900 when the punt collapsed, with the loss of a tractor belonging to farmer John Hackett’s. A delegation from the Victoria and NSW Public Works departments arrived the following week and approved a £10,345 ($xx) construction incorporating Percy Allan’s lift mechanism.

The citizens of Koondrook, and those of nearby Barham and Kerang, were granted a holiday on 10 April 1903 to witness the commencement of the bridge’s construction, and another for the official opening 19 months later. Although Swan Hill’s population numbers almost 10,000 today, and Koondrook’s is little more than 800, the town still takes pride in the bridge, which celebrated its centenary in October 2004.

Tooleybuc, in NSW, was connected to its Victorian neighbour Piangil in 1925. According to Richard Ball, Tooleybuc’s MP, it placed the town on the map. Murrabit experienced a similar boost. Early in the 20th century, the town was a small agricultural settlement known as Gonn Crossing.

In 1911 local farmers began petitioning for a bridge over the river so they could transport their produce to Kerang and so on to Melbourne. The Railway League projected the area would prosper and envisioned towns popping up all over the region. Their optimistic projections swayed the Border Railways Commission, and on 19 December 1925 the opening of an all-steel bridge at Gonn Crossing was celebrated with a gala ball.

The area soon became known as Murrabit and a railway station, post office, general store, butcher’s shop and church were soon built. But little more than a decade later, rail freight was superseded by road transport. One by one, Murrabit’s businesses closed. The rail line was shut down in 1961, and despite the Rail League’s optimistic projections, the grazing land surrounding Murrabit never found itself studded with towns.

Without the bridge, however, Murrabit wouldn’t be the place it is today, says local Jill Sutherland in her published history of the town: “The legacy the line left us in the form of the bridge is enormous. A cohesiveness of people, who live a stone’s throw away from each other, but with the river between, becomes possible.”

The full story can be found in Australian Geographic #111.