Mildura- Life on the Murray River

The Murrray River is the life blood of Mildura. It provides water for irrigation that drives the local economy, tourism and recreation. Without it, this rural city would not exist. We had a rest day from driving today and spent the time pottering around some of the city’s sights and attractions.

The Murray River rises far in the eastern mountains of the high country of Victoria near Mt Pilot. It forms the border of Victoria and NSW as it meanders along a flat flood plain. Its total length of the river is around 2,500 kilometres. 

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One of the locks and weirs on the river (Lock 11) is situated at Mildura. It was constructed in 1927 as part of the Murray River Navigation System, which was designed to improve the river’s navigability and provide irrigation water for agriculture.

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The lock is a concrete structure that is 36 meters long and 6 meters wide, and has a lift of 3.5 meters. It is used to regulate the water level of the river and allow boats to pass by the weir. The weir is located downstream of the lock and is used to maintain a constant water level in the river.

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Murray River paddle steamers have a significant place in Australian folklore and history. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, paddle steamers were the primary means of transportation and commerce along the Murray River, which was a major trading route for goods and produce from the inland regions of Australia. They were also used for passenger transport, and many people traveled on these boats for business or pleasure. The boats were often lavishly decorated and provided a luxurious mode of travel for those who could afford it.

Today, Murray River paddle steamers are still popular tourist attractions, and many of the historic boats have been restored and are used for pleasure cruises. They are a symbol of Australia’s pioneering spirit and the importance of river transport in the country’s development. In addition to their historical significance, Murray River paddle steamers have also been featured in Australian literature, music, and film. They have become an iconic part of Australian folklore, representing a bygone era of travel and commerce along the country’s inland waterways.

The first European explorer to visit the area was Charles Sturt in 1830, but it wasn’t until the 1850s that pastoralists began to settle in the region. The town of Mildura was founded in 1887 by George and William Chaffey, who were American irrigation engineers. They designed a system of irrigation channels and pumps that allowed the arid land to be used for agriculture.

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The Chaffey brothers establishedthe Mildura Irrigation Colony, which attracted settlers from around the world. The town grew rapidly, with a railway line and a port on the Murray River being constructed to transport goods and produce. Mildura became a major centre for fruit growing, particularly citrus fruits, and by the early 1900s, it was one of the largest fruit growing regions in Australia. The Chaffey mansion (Rio Vista) is now a museum.

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During World War II, Mildura was an important military base, with the Royal Australian Air Force operating from the Mildura Airport. After the war, the town continued to grow and diversify, with the establishment of industries such as wine making and tourism.

Things change over time. As a boy, I remember Mildura having acres and acres of orange groves. They were mainly Valencia Oranges that were grown for the production of orange juice. Some still exist but many are gone with imported orange juice and concentrate being less expensive than the product made locally. 

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In addition, there were many acres of grapes grown for dried fruit – Sultanas, Currants and Raisins. Because of reduced demand, the number of these  vineyards is also reducing. Some are being converted into wine grapes but other farmers are just walking off their land or selling their land to developers to be divided up into housing lots.

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Today, Mildura is a thriving city with a population of over 33,000 people. It is a popular tourist destination, known for its sunny climate, natural beauty, and rich history. The city has a vibrant arts and culture scene, with a number of festivals and events held throughout the year.

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Band rotunda and old city hall

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The Grand Hotel is a well known city landmark with the basement serving as a restaurant for the award winning chef  and wine producer Stefano de Pieri

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Every town in Australia of any size has a T&G (Temperance and General) building in its city centre with its distinctive tower. The T&G Mutual Life Assurance Society was founded in Victoria in 1876, providing financial advice, insurance, services and investment products to Australians. During the gold rush of the 1880s, T&G built prominent headquarters in both Melbourne and Sydney, but it was during the interwar period of the 20th century that their reach and visibility began to grow, as they embarked upon a regional building program that was the most extensive of any insurance company in Australasia.

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Passenger trains stopped coming to Mildura around 25 years ago. The station now serves as a long distance bus terminal. In fact, the platform is condemned because of its rotting timber. When I was a kid I came here on the overnight train known as the ‘Vinelander’.

Not far away in the town of Red Cliffs is a significant piece of local history – Big Lizzie. She played an important role in clearing of the land for the establishment of agriculture in the local area.

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Construction of this mammoth road locomotive and trailer began in early 1915 in Melbourne to replace the camel trains which carried wool and other heavy loads in the sandy terrain between Mildura and Broken Hill.. Early in 1916 Big Lizzie left Melbourne expecting to be in Broken Hill a year later. It travelled at around one mile per hour. The route chosen through Victoria was via Kilmore, Heathcote, Elmore and Echuca, where it was proposed to cross the Murray River into NSW. Navigating through the city on hard surface roads was the first problem they faced. All damaged roads & infrastructure had to be repaired. When Lizzie reached the flooded Campaspe River a suitable crossing site was needed. It took 3 weeks of de-snagging and earthworks below the weir near Elmore before Big Lizzie could cross the river.

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She was unable to cross the Murray at Echuca because of floods, so she headed for Swan Hill. After arriving at Kerang in January 1917, five months were spent carrying out modifications and repairs, and it was August that year before Lizzie reached Ouyen. In October 1917 Big Lizzie arrived in Mildura to find the Murray River in flood, so without a bridge to cross the river, completing his journey was out of the question for several months at least. Local work was  sought in the area to avoid running out of funds. 

By August 1920, Big Lizzie had commenced clearing scrub for the proposed 6,000 ha irrigation area of Red Cliffs. This was to provide 700 Soldier Settlement blocks for veterans of World War 1. A gang of up to 16 men was employed to handle the four heavy cables which were attached with loops and hooks to as large a number of trees or stumps as possible. Repairs to damaged cables etc was carried out on the front platform of Big Lizzie, which was equipped with blacksmith’s forge, anvil and toolbox. This clearing work was completed in 1924 and Big Lizzie was driven to Western Victoria to find more work clearing land. But this venture was not a success and Big Lizzie was abandoned on Glendenning Station.

3 thoughts on “Mildura- Life on the Murray River

  1. I always enjoy your trips, the last couple have been unusual in that they have given a feeling of relaxation and having plenty of time to notice things in your splendid photography. Thank you.

  2. Big Lizzie appears to be of dinosaur proportions but with a history of destruction in my opinion. What magnificent blue skies you have captured. Loved the seemingly out of place pines.

  3. What a fascinating piece of our history. Thank you for sharing it, Bruce.

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