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Shipwrecked at Brewarrina: Drought reveals historic Wandering Jew paddle steamer

Jessie Davies, Monday April 22, 2019 - 07:53 EST
ABC image
The paddle steamer was named by its second owner: businessman and migrant Daniel Berger. - ABC

Extreme drought conditions have all but dried up the Barwon River at Brewarrina in western New South Wales, and now the unprecedented dry has exposed an extraordinary piece of maritime history.



For the first time since 1930, the wrecked remains of an iconic paddle steamer called the Wandering Jew are clearly visible.

In previous dry seasons only a portion of the vessel's iron boiler could be spotted.

Now, its rusted iron body lies for all to see in the river's muddy waters just above the town's iconic Aboriginal fish traps.

Australian National Maritime Museum curator David Payne said the vessel was a rare find.

He said it was one of the few remaining clues that Brewarrina had once served as a busy maritime port at the height of the wool boom.

"To find any evidence of the maritime past in the upper reaches of the system is really exciting and to have that paddle steamer revealed again is exciting," Mr Payne said.

"Most people think that trading ports exist only around the coastline but Australia had some of its busiest ports around the Murray-Darling system and it was that way for many years."



Blink and you will miss it

Brewarrina's Mayor Philip O'Connor said locals had been abuzz with the reappearance of the historic vessel.

"It's a magnificent bit of our history. Most of Brewarrina has been down to have a look at it," he said.

"It looks like the rib bones of a whale that's been beached there for the past 100 years."

But the historic site will not be there for long.



This month 35 gigalitres of water will be released from Copeton and Glenlyon dams to relieve the drought-affected communities on the Barwon and Darling Rivers.

The water is expected to reach Brewarrina by May and when it arrives the Wandering Jew will once again be submerged.

"The water has got to rise 1.2 metres up to our weir crest but when it does it will be gone again," Mr O'Connor said.

"It will be a blessing for us. The country up here is as dry as a chip."

Pulling its weight out west

Once used to transport wool, grains and fruit, the Wandering Jew had a colourful past.

Built by J. Duncan and Partner in Echuca in 1866, the iron vessel was first named the paddle steamer Riverina.



After suffering fire damage in 1883, in 1890 the vessel was rebuilt, re-registered and renamed Wandering Jew by its new owner, Jewish migrant Daniel Berger.

Archived newspaper advertisements show Mr Berger, an entrepreneur with business interests in Forbes, ran the paddle boat between Bourke and Wilcannia every fortnight selling drapery, groceries, boots, and clothing.

Mr Payne said it was not uncommon for hawker boats to travel up the Murray-Darling river system.

"Paddle steamers selling goods were the equivalent of today's supermarkets," he said.

"They had everything that people would require and they could stop anywhere along the river and exchange goods."

Archive records show in 1903 George White took over ownership of the Wandering Jew and sailed it to Walgett in 1912.

In doing so he made history as the last paddle steamer to ever reach Walgett.

A fiery past

As was common with paddle steamers, the Wandering Jew caught alight on multiple occasions.



The vessel was burnt three times: once in 1883, a second time in 1898, and on its third and last time in 1914, where it found its final resting place.

Mr Payne said the remains of the Wandering Jew served as a stark reminder of the dangers of paddle steaming.

"Of course when you have a steam engine you have a wood fire so it's not surprising it eventually catches fire," he said.

"We know they rebuilt the superstructure of the Wandering Jew both times it burnt to the waterline, but obviously when it came to the third fire it was one time too many."

At the time of its ruin, Mr Payne said the Barwon River was flowing steadily and Brewarrina's port had a regular schedule of visiting paddle steamers, albeit not as many as the ports of Wentworth, Mildura and Echuca.

However during the decade that followed the Barwon and Darling Rivers began to silt up and so began the demise of the era's paddle steamers.


- ABC

© ABC 2019

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