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The story of Yarra River

Yarrra at Melbourne CBD
Yarra river at Melbourne CBD

The story of Yarra river is the story of Melbourne. The river is the lifeline of the city and its inhabitants. What Ganges is to India and Nile is to Egypt, Yarra is Melbourne’s sacred river. For the aborigines, the land did not belong to them instead they belonged to the land and this purity of thought kept the river pristine until the Europeans arrived. The Wurundjeri people have been connected to the Yarra for at least 30,000 years. They called it Birrarung, meaning “a place of mists and shadows. Yarra begins its course in the foothills of Mt Baw Baw in the Yarra Ranges National Park and when it enters its mouth at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay at Newport, it covers a distance of approximately 242 km. Referred to as “the river that runs upside down” due to its muddy coloured water, Yarra is still one of the cleanest capital city rivers in the world.

Yarra Valley
Yarra Valley

The first Europeans who explored the river

The first white men to see the Yarra were Charles Grimes, Charles Robbins, Mccallum, and James Fleming, the members of the expedition above the schooner Cumberland, which visited Port Phillip in 1803.

In their Journal of the Exploration, kept by James Flemming, Charles Grime mentions Yarra as the large river instead of giving it any name.

Brisbane Bridge across Yarra at Waburton
Brisbane Bridge across Yarra at Waburton

“The land appears to be covered with water in wet seasons. Came to a salt lagoon about a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide; had not entrance to the sea. Soon afterwards came to a large river; went up it about a mile when we turned back and waited for the boat to take us on board. The ground is a swamp on one side and high on the other. Saw many swans, pelicans, and ducks. Were obliged to go up to our middle to get to the boat and got on board between five and six o’clock.”

Grime explored Yarra as far as Dight’s falls. Yarra is also mentioned as Fresh water river or the Great river in his journal. Flemming also described, the most eligible place for a settlement he has seen is on the Freshwater River (Yarra).  But Grimes reported adversely against settling in Port Phillip when he returned to Sydney in March 1803.

Yarrra at Melbourne CBD
Yarra river at Melbourne CBD

John Batman saw the river from the deck of ‘Rebecca’. The placid beauty of the river, availability of fresh water and the surrounding grasslands made the land suitable for a village in his mind. Batman’s surveyor John Helder Wedge, wanting to know the native name of the river asked an aboriginal boy pointing at the river and the boy shouted, Yanna  Yanna , which only means, it is flowing, it is flowing. Wedge took it for name Yarra Yarra and named it Yarra Yarra.

Yarra, the source of Melbourne’s drinking water

Yarra river was almost everything to the early settlers of Melbourne. The survival of the settlement of Melbourne depended on it.  It was the source of freshwater until Yan Yean reservoir was opened. Melbourne was a town with no sewerage or Waste management system and Yarra became the dumping ground for Melbourne in its early settlement days. It was where Melbourne’s tanneries and abattoirs were located for availability of free water. Wool washing, soaking animal hides in the river, using it as a garbage dump and sewer in the early days of settlement degraded the water quality. Industries used the river as a dumping ground for their waste which increased the presence of heavy metals and chemicals in the river water. In just 15 years of white settlement, the ‘bright and sparkling’ waters of the Yarra were turned into a ‘foetid, festering sewer’. In the 1890’s some attempts were made to keep the river clean. 100,000 hectares of land around the headwaters of Yarra were protected to ensure water quality near the source. The Western treatment plant at Werribee became operational in 1897 along with the sewage system. A series of dams were built to ensure drinking water supply.

Yarra at Warrandyte
Yarra at Warrandyte

Yarra river provides 70% of Melbourne’s drinking water needs. Yarra river between Warburton and Warrandyte are considered as Victoria’s heritage river. The Upper Yarra River contains the section of Yarra River above Warrandyte, including several major tributaries. The headwaters of many tributaries begin in protected forests and are in excellent condition. As a result, Melbourne residents receive   high quality drinking water.

Yarra’s history of flooding

Flooding was a regular feature of the Yarra with its original watercourse of narrow and twisting curves. The first floods at Yarra after the European settlement was recorded in 1839. 1891 had a rather big flood where water rose 14m higher than normal which destroyed 200 houses in Collingwood and Richmond.

This photograph was taken of flash flooding in Elizabeth St on December 8- 1862Herald Sun
Courtesy: Heraldsun

In December 1856, the river swept away much that had been built rising 50 feet In two days, it swept In one tide over the south of the city to the sea, drowning many people and causing a quarter of a million pounds damage. It took entire houses to sea and wasted the farms of Collingwood and Kew. Even the shipping in the river had to wait till that level sank, the flood being so great that the course of the river could not be followed.‘ (reference: The Herald, 15th October 1934)

To eliminate the risk of flooding it was necessary to make changes to its course. Over the years mouth of the Yarra had been completely transformed by widening, deepening and realigning. It was widened and straightened in 1891 to eliminate the risk of flooding.   The work of improving Yarra has been going on since 1836. Lower Yarra is almost three times the width of what it originally used to be.

Yarra at Waburton
Yarra at Waburton

 The construction of Coode Canal was one of the first big engineering feats accomplished in Melbourne on those days. In 1879, Sir John Coode, an English harbour engineer began the work of Coode Canal to cut a particularly torturous bend out of Yarra to facilitate ship movements. Victoria dock was also constructed by John Coode, which was previously a swamp land.

Herring Island was created from dredging spoil when a new river channel was cut at Burnley to prevent flooding of Yarra River in the 1920’s. It is situated just 3km from CBD and is accessible only by boat.

How we crossed Yarra

After the European settlement the first public method of crossing the Yarra was by using a punt.

In June 1838, a man named Thomas Watt, sent a petition to NSW Governor Sir George Gipps for a permission to operate the punt to cross Yarra, signed by 65 Melbournians including John Batman.  Another man named John Hodgson also applied for permit around this time.

First punt Yarra River
First Punt across Yarra River. Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

The first punt across Yarra was built by Scottish born carpenter, Joseph Stevenson using old ship timbers. The punt was christened “The Melbourne” and was launched on Easter Sunday in 1838.

This punt was used by Thomas Watt to transport stock across Yarra. Thomas Watt’s punt looked like two bullock drays tied together. The Yarra crossing place was somewhere between Today’s Russel and Swanston Streets. It was a rope hauled punt.

But Watt’s punt license was cancelled by Captain Lonsdale siting the reason, he occasioned a “great deal of irregularity in assembling a number of disorderly characters about his punt and making them drunk”.  But Watts version of events appeared in a letter written to the editor of the Port Phillip Gazette, a few weeks later. “Having served the needs of the colonists by keeping the punt open for twelve months, he was concerned to see a rival punt established by a competitor. In a spirit of pardonable rivalry and to attract custom he ordered his men to offer beer to any who crossed in his punt. Without his knowledge then, late at night brickmakers on the other side of the road availed themselves and had crossed and recrossed till they were drunk”.

Yarra River
Yarra River, Looking across Government House. 1890. Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

On Sunday’s the punt charged 4 pence each way for a foot passenger that was at a time when the average yearly pay was around 30 pounds a year.”

Chapel Street Bridge
An old photo of Chapel Street Bridge over Yarra. Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

Instead of Watt, John Welsh got permission to place a punt in a similar place.  A Government ferry was established in March 1840.  Other punts followed at different locations along Yarra, Sir James Palmer’s Punt on the river near the present Burwood road bridge at the foot of Denham street and John Hodgson’s crossing to Studley Park at the foot of Clarke street, Abbotsford.

Steam ferries commenced service from the Yarra to Williamstown before the building of the railway, and another ran upstream from Princes Bridge to Cremorne Gardens. The Fire Fly ran the first ferry service on the Yarra on 28 October 1838. Ferries met the Geelong trains at Greenwich Point for two years before the completion of the line to Spencer Street.

Then came the Princes Bridge. The present bridge is the third on the site. The first bridge was built on 1840, five years after founding the city of Melbourne. The Bridge was built by a private company as a toll bridge. In 1844, a wooden trestle bridge was built across the river. The first permanent bridge built of sandstone and incorporating only a single 46m arch span was completed in 1851. This bridge was designed by David Lennox and was at the time the longest single span bridge in the world. It became necessary to replace the bridge with a new one due to heavy traffic and flooding. John Grainger designed the bridge and was built by David Munro. Construction on the new bridge began in 1886 and it was opened on 4 October 1888, in time for the second International Exhibition to be held in Melbourne.

There are around 60 bridges small and big that cross the Yarra for pedestrians and vehicles from near its source to the mouth. Small historical bridges from Warburton to Warrandyte and after, may hide many stories of early settlers fight against the nature.  Johnson Street Bridge (1858), Princes Bridge (1888) , Sandridge Bridge(1888) Queens Bridge (1889), Morell Bridge (1899), Warrandyte Bridge(1952), West Gate Bridge(1978), Bolte Bridge(1999) and the City Link Tunnels(1997) are some of the engineering marvels that helped us cross the river.

Yarra – Its tributaries and parklands

Yarra’s named tributaries includes, 42 creeks, 6 rivers and 2 gullies. Major tributaries are; Plenty River, Merri Creek, Darebin Creek, Diamond Creek, Gardiners Creek, Mullum Mullum Creek and the Moonee Ponds Creek.

Studley Park Boat House
Studley Park Boat House

The Melbourne City’s vision of the 1929 Metropolitan Town Planning Commission  planned  to  create  a  network  of  parklands,  green  spaces  and  water  spaces  that  connect  the  people  of  Melbourne  to  their  rivers, creeks and bay . In the late 1920’s the world was in the grip of depression, so it took a while for this vision to be realised.

Along the path of Yarra river, many public spaces and parklands were planned and established as part of the vision. For this purpose, many reserves were set aside the river, mostly managed by Parks Victoria. The largest and most notable of these parklands include: The Royal Botanic Gardens, Birrarung Marr, Yarra Bend Park, Westerfolds Park, Warrandyte State Park and the Yarra Ranges National Park.

Royal Botanic Gardens were laid out and planted between 1873 -90.

In 1877 Yarra Bend park was reserved. In 1929, Yarra Bend park joined with studley park to create 260ha reserve. The Yarra Valley Parklands extend north-east along the Yarra River for about 16 km from Burke Road in Ivanhoe to Glynns Road in Warrandyte.

The Yarra Ranges National Park was created in December 1995, and spans 76,003 hectares within Victoria’s Central Highlands, around 105 kilometres northeast of Melbourne and managed by Parks Victoria.

Upper Yarra Reservoir at Reefton was constructed in the 1950’s.

In the 1980 and 90’s South Bank was transformed to include more park lands around Yarra River for public recreation.

Yarra during whitenight
Yarra during Whitenight

Yarra in News

In the early years of settlement Yarra remained in front pages of Major newspaper for drownings, floods, mysterious deaths and with stories of rather weird characters settled around it.

Yarra over the years have seen some of the strangest characters. We will leave our readers with this news report appeared on 6th January 1941 on ‘News’ published from Adelaide

Last of Yarra River-Dwellers Sails on Final Voyage

The last of the Yarra river-dwellers, has died.

Known to hundreds as Old Doc, he called himself the Father of the Yarra. According to his mood, his age was 77, 86, and 89, and many strange stories of his life-not ‘necessarily verified-included these:

He ran away to sea from Melbourne when he was eight.

He was born alternatively in Scotland and Australia.

He travelled the globe, found mystery, excitement, adventure in outlandish places.

He studied medicine at Heidelberg University, and practised at Brisbane.

Told he had only a few months to live, he came to Melbourne and spent all his money providing freemeals for the poor. He sailed his 20-ft.’houseboat, the Lily (made of pure Indian teak), out from Ship named Calcutta. And they respected him for his cleverness with his hands. He built cabins for launches moored near his own, repaired them, guarded them. In his spare time, he made rich silk cloths on looms in his boat. He read much. Everyone enjoyed the Doc’s tales just as much as he did himself. He lived on the Lily for years above Princes Bridge. Nine years ago, he moved her down to Queen’s Bridge. She is lying there now, full of his few belongings, dilapidated and ownerless.

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