A Coode time on the Yarra
By Ashley Smith
The Yarra means many things to many people. It has been a home for wildlife, a valuable resource for both the Wurundjeri people and European settlers, a gateway to the city for cargo ships, a leisurely ride for tourists, and a safety mattress for Birdman Rally contestants. However, no one would dare think of the Yarra as the site of a temporary railway.
But the photo above, taken near the docks area in the mid-1880s, shows it happened when a specific portion of the river didn’t yet exist.
Up until the 1880s the city end of the Yarra was narrow, and wound into a difficult bend west of the swamp, known as Humbug Reach (or Fishermans Bend) before reaching the bay. For smaller ships, this winding, shallow river would be difficult and time-consuming to navigate, and all but impossible for larger ships. For shipowners, the alternatives were to dump their cargo at Port Melbourne and Williamstown or let a lighter haul it up the Yarra. On top of this, the Yarra had major floods in 1863 and 1878 causing major damage and distress for civilians.
Despite public outcry to improve the ports, the government did little to solve the problem. A breakthrough finally happened in 1877 when the Melbourne Harbour Trust – an organisation supported by the Chamber of Commerce to control the ports – was established. The Trust used its new-found authority to invite an experienced engineer to solve the problem.
Enter British-born engineer Sir John Coode. Having supervised the Portland Harbour works in England, he arrived in Melbourne in 1878 on a fee of £5000 and, after surveying the area (during which the city was flooded in March), released his final report in February 1879. His solution was to cut a curved canal from the gas works west of Spencer St to Hobsons Bay,
bypassing the bend altogether. He also recom- mended widening and deepening the river, the construction of three docks (including one near the gas works) and removing The Falls, a rocky reef at Market St that had divided the Yarra’s freshwater from the tidal saltwater. He wasn’t the first to suggest a canal; others had suggested a direct canal that would cut through South Melbourne to Port Melbourne. However, Coode stood by his decision, feeling access to the smaller rivers would be improved and that the alternative proposed canal would not solve the flooding issues.
The government accepted the proposals and work began during the autumn of 1880. As a way of using the unemployed in the city, the government solicited the Trust to hire 100 men to start wheelbarrow work. According to an 1883 edition of The Argus (March 13), the Public Works Department would supply locomotive and stock to carry the dirt for reclamation projects around the Yarra’s banks, and the Trust would buy a steam navvy (or steam shovel) to help with the dredging.
The Trust’s activities were restricted due to legislation issues and work was suspended multiple times. The pace picked up after 1883 when the Melbourne Harbour Trust Act was amended, extending the Trust’s power over the ports. By then around 400,000 (out of a predicted 1.2 million) cubic yards of dirt had been dug up,
forcing the Trust to pay back the government £8581 (or around $1.9 million today). The Trust’s tender was eventually accepted by Mark Gardiner and Co. for £65,059 (over $14 million today), that contract guaranteed that the work would be done in 18 months. Work recom- menced in February 1884 as hundreds of men dug through the sand and clay. Horse-drawn trucks and locomotives would haul much of the dirt out of the canal to then build up low-lying lands. With a lot of the work being near swamp land, a centrifugal pump was used to pump out any water that remained inside and the banks were lined with bluestone. All the while, with Coode often away on other business, the work was supervised by the Trust’s engineer, Irish- born Joseph Brady.
The contract deadlines were not met. When a ceremony to fill the Yarra was performed by Governor Henry Brougham Loch on August 11, 1886 there were still some banks left to demolish. It wasn’t until July 1887 that the canal was officially opened to all boats by Harbour Trust chairman, Alderman O’Grady, with 80 other guests on the paddle steamer Gannet as it sailed down the channel. By then over 1,325,000 million cubic yards (or around 1,013,035 cubic metres) of dirt had been removed, and accord- ing to the Leader (July 30, 1887) the canal was 2000 yards (1829 metres) in length, 90 yards (82 metres) wide and 18 feet (5.4 metres) deep
at low water. It removed over a mile from the original route of the Yarra and saved anywhere from 11 to 17 minutes travel time. The cherry on top was that it was less expensive than initially planned. Coode’s estimate for the main canal excavation was £476,200 (or around $107 million) with extra for deepening to 27 feet; instead it cost around £96,000 (or around $23 million).
The canal has since become a staple of Melbourne’s waterways, with only some extra widening works in the 1910s being the biggest change. As for Humbug Reach, it created the border for Coode Island, later known as a quarantine site and industrial area.
Ironically, while no other wheeled vehicles have driven along the canal floor, the opposite would happen to the old river; gradual city expansion saw the old river course all but consumed by the 1960s, where the Swanson Dock now stands.