Mildura Weekly : Friday May 22 2015 Vol 9 No 28
08 NEWS MILDURA WEEKLY FRIDAY, MAY 22, 2015 By ALAN ERSKINE FRIDAY, June 5, 2015 will be a big day in the history of the Murray Riv- er lock and weir system, celebrating 100 years since the foundation stone for the first of the locks - at Blanche- town, was laid. The centenary will have extra special significance for Mildura his- torian Helen Stagg, who has a strong family connection to the locks and weirs, and whose book, ‘Harnessing the River Murray,’ will be launched as part of the celebrations. The Mildura Weekly has been fol- lowing the progress of Helen’s book, which tells the story of the construc- tion of the locks and weirs by the SA Engineering and Water Supply De- partment between 1915 and 1935, with a focus on the lives of the men who built the massive structures, and the hundreds of wives and children who lived in the temporary town- ships that sprang up as each lock was started. The book has been a labour of love over a long period of time for Helen, with all things historical uppermost in her mind when she undertook an arts degree majoring in history at the University of Mel- bourne, continued as an educator in Hamilton and then Mildura, and later in 2010 when the River’s lock and weir history was the basis dur- ing studies for her Master of History degree at the University of New Eng- land in NSW. Her love for, and appreciation of, all things Murray River - plus a family connection with the locks and weirs that dates back to building the first of the locks at Blanchetown, made a book the natural progression for her insatiable appetite about the background of the families whose very existence depended on harness- ing the magnificent waterway that flows for 2500 kilometres through three states. With the final proofing now done, and the book in the hands of the publisher, Helen barely has time to draw breath before her book launch at the Blanchetown centenary celebrations on June 5. It’s some- thing she is justifiably proud of, and the commemoration, and book launch, is something she is looking forward to immensely. Helen has dedicated her book to the memory of her mother Evelyn Smith, Evelyn’s parents Arthur and Florence Rains, “and all the unsung men, women and children who took part in harnessing the mighty Mur- ray.” A measure of the historical sig- nificance of the book, and the thor- ough research of the author, is evi- denced by the foreword, written by the prominent Australian historian, academic, philanthropist and in- ternational commentator Professor Geoffrey Blainey, the author of 35 books himself. He describes the lock and weir system as an exciting national proj- ect, as significant as the Sydney Har- bour Bridge. He commends Helen for her research on the riverbank communities and their residents, commenting on the hundreds of “come-and-go” towns that sprang up in conjunction with major road, rail, bridge and river projects that helped grow a nation.The book, he says, is “an engaging history.” The significance of the Murray River Lock and Weir system to strug- gling river communities in three states is obvious from Page One. The country’s leaders has been talking up the importance of river trade al- most since Federation in 1901, but as Helen’s book clearly states, that’s all it was - talk! Paddlesteamers were operating on the Murray and Darling River system, but only during a high river, and by 1905 everyone was in agree- ment that locks and weirs were need- ed to regulate the river. It was 1910, during a river tour by various State leaders - from all sides of politics - that someone commented; “Why the hesitation? Legislators are in fa- vour...successive Governments are in favour...yet year after year, noth- ing is done.” That same year, the Murray Works Act of SA was passed, and Government officials went to the UK and the United States to get experi- enced engineers on board. Major Ed- ward Johnston, assistant to the Chief Engineer to the USA, got the nod, but it was 2013 before he presented his extensive feasibility study to the SA Parliament. It was two years before the first sod was turned for the first of the locks and weirs, at Blanchetown, and a further eight years - in 1922 - before the work was completed. It was a triumph, and other locks and weirs followed in quick succession, although not necessarily in numeri- cal order. In all, 14 locks were built between Blanchetown and Torrum- barry, although 26 had been initially planned. The mainly post-war project came at the right time. It was the height of the Depression, and the projects created long-time employ- ment over many years for hundreds of workers. They included many from Broken Hill, which was being torn apart as a result of mine indus- trial action. Temporary tent cities later became vibrant river-side com- munities, on both sides of the Mur- ray, and river trade flourished. Helen’s grandfather Arthur Rains worked on several of the locks, start- ing with the first at Blanchetown. She recalls her mother Evelyn tell- ing stories of growing up in various river communities, with many of the adventures documented in her memoirs. There are few who would argue that completing the lock and weir system along the Murray River was arguably the most significant devel- opment of inland Australian settle- ment. And Helen has absolutely nailed this amazing part of inland Australian history in her book, thanks in no small way to the recol- lections of her mother Evelyn, who spent her childhood at Locks One, Five, Six and Seven between 1919 and 1934. Evelyn died in 2001, but not before she had passed on many exciting, interesting and intriguing stories of early lock life. One tale documents working shifts that start- ed at four in the morning, and which sometimes ended at midnight. Helen’s research included the many lock accidents and river drownings, (more than 500), and documents them at the tail end of the book. Much of her research came just in time, as several of the elderly river residents she interviewed for the book have since died. Some of the photographs are ex- traordinary. Children playing in the dry river bed, shanty towns, floods, huge concrete pours at the locks, sporting contests, parties, road and river transport, health scares, food shortages, huge fish and many other exciting and interesting stories. Mildura Weekly readers are in- vited to the Blanchetown 100-year commemoration and book launch at 11am on June 5. Helen can be contacted through http://historyby- helen.com.au and pre-orders for the book, at $44.95 plus $17.50 postage, are now being taken. This is the story as it has never been told before...the history of Murray River locks and weirs, a 258-page account of early river life, backed by 160 historical photos of the era. And who better to tell the story than Mildura teacher and historian Helen Stagg, who has strong family ties to the lock-builders of the early 1900’s. Helen’s book is about... Harnessing the River Murray • FINISHED! It has been a real labour of love, but Helen Stagg’s book, Harnessing the River Murray, is ready for a June 5 launch, in conjunction with celebrations to mark the centenary of Lock One at Blanchetown, SA. The book is dedicated to Helen’s Mum Evelyn Smith, RIGHT, who grew up in river shanty towns like the one BELOW.
Friday May 15 2015 Vol 9 No 27
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