National Heritage List inscription date 26 April 2007
Echuca Wharf is an outstanding survivor of the Murray River trade of the late 1800s, attesting to the critical role that the river trade played in the pastoral boom and in the rapid economic growth and development of the colonies during this time.
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The Mighty Murray
Spanning three colonies, South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria (forming the border of the latter two) the Murray River was recognised as an easy route for transporting produce from pastoral areas to markets as the road network was poorly developed in the area. Following the establishment of the colony of South Australia in 1836, navigation of the Murray River seemed to offer the new colony favourable economic prospects. Between 1855 and 1859 various voyages along the Murray River established the practical limits of river trade and the distances that could be travelled. By 1870 the Murray River was the main channel for taking the wealth of agricultural production inland to the coast.
Echuca is ideally located as the nearest point on the Murray River to Melbourne,and a river crossing point to New South Wales. This geography ensured its early development and cemented its place in history as a thriving river port city following its founding in 1854.
The building of the original wharf commenced in 1864 and was completed in 1867. As the trade grew, so did the wharf, being extended in 1877, 1879, with final extensions in 1884 ultimately reaching 332 metres in length.
The town of Echuca became Australia’s largest inland port and Victoria's second largest port overall up until the 1880s.
The transformation of an economy
The development of the Echuca Wharf and the railway established a major trade route to Melbourne that contributed to the shift of colonial economic power out of Sydney for the first time in Australia’s history. The establishment of the river trade also transformed inland pastoral industries. Station owners began to change from cattle, a good option when the only transport to market was overland, to sheep, because river transport of wool made sheep farming a better economic option. At its peak, 200 steam-driven paddleboats would arrive at the wharf each week and unload their cargo for transportation to Melbourne by rail. Wool, wheat and other grains, livestock and timber were the most common cargoes. The growth in trade was matched by the growth in population and at one stage more than 15,000 people lived in Echuca (alongside, over one hundred pubs).
River trade in the Murray-Darling Basin reshaped Australia’s pastoral industries and greatly encouraged the rapid economic growth and development of the colonies during this time. The wharf and the railway meant that goods could be moved through Echuca from points throughout the entire Murray-Darling catchment area.
The arrival of river steamers meant that wool from sheep was much easier to export and the number of sheep in the Riverina and western pastoral districts grew rapidly. The direct access to markets led to the rapid expansion in the scale and value of the pastoral holdings, which in turn increased the demand for river trade.
Echuca becomes an important centre
Echuca remained the entry point for much of the interior of the continent and 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, and the extension of the railway network in New South Wales and Victoria took away valuable trade.
During World War II, Victorian Railways demolished much of the wharf to provide firewood for Melbourne, reducing it to its current length of 75.5 metres.
The giant red-gum timber structure towers above the river and the surrounding landscape, the wharf is three stories high, allowing for the possible 10 metre variation in river height between summer and winter, and enabling the wharf to operate year round. The longest extent of the wharf (332 metres), is evidenced by some remnant pylons which are visible at low water. 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 the ‘Age of the Paddle-steamers’.