I acknowledge the Traditional Owners on whose land I walk, I work and I live. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and future.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

“A miserable, low-lying dead-and-alive place"*

The recent headline in the ‘Herbert River Express’ “Marina ‘timebomb’" in reference to Port Hinchinbrook Marina, shallow water and an inaccessible channel is not a new lament in regard to our sea water access from Port Hinchinbrook. Readers may not realize Port Hinchinbrook had once been predicted to become the main port servicing the hinterland and that Cardwell would become "the capital of a new and separate colony."

However the port's own physical shortcomings, together with the fact that the major ports of Cairns and Townsville, together with Dungeness and then Lucinda, took the business away from Port Hinchinbrook, means that Cardwell and its port never reached the dizzy heights predicted.

Rather for a brief period our own Dungeness, and then Lucinda became busy ports of call for the coastal steamers that plied the eastern coast.   Readers possibly cannot imagine that a scene such as this one which pictures a steamer plying its business on the Herbert River between the mills and Dungeness and then the Lucinda was common place once. The Herbert River provided the main means of access around the Valley.  Small boats travelled up and down the river carrying passengers and cargo and everyone used their own boats for crossing the river or making short journeys to visit friends or access the various small communities that had sprung up along the river. Each sugar mill had its wharf on the banks of the Herbert River for loading and offloading goods and passengers which were coming from, or going to, the port at Dungeness.

Macknade Plantation and Mill view of Herbert River with steamer. Source: Hinchinbrook Shire Library Local History Collection
Dungeness was the first port serving the district’s needs. In 1878 a Customs Officer was appointed and the new Customs House then opened in 1881 with a ship’s pilot appointed in the following year. This allowed ships to stop at Dungeness, rather than having to go on to Cardwell to load and unload goods which then had to be transported overland. The need for these services at Dungeness had become patently clear by the amount of trade that had been going in and out of Dungeness compared to Cardwell. However there were signs from the earliest days that Dungeness was going to prove problematic as a port. Initially at the mouth of the Herbert River, a wide stretch of deep navigable water extended back to the entrance to Dungeness Creek. Over the years shifting sand created a spit and eventually Dungeness was rendered useless as a port. 
Dungeness and facilities circa 1881. Source: Hinchinbrook Shire Library Local History Collection

As early as 1880, planters observed that the wharf at Dungeness was having trouble withstanding the rush of water during flood times and visitors rarely described the port in favourable terms. In 1882 it was commented that Dungeness was “not at all an attractive place consisting of about half-a-dozen houses built on the low sandy point on the southern side of the river mouth. The site is not a very secure one, as each wet season brings a heavy fresh down the river sometimes cutting off a portion of the point; already a wharf has been washed away, and it has been found advisable to shift one of the houses back to prevent its falling a prey to the waters.” Another visitor described Dungeness as “a miserable, low-lying dead-and-alive place; and here we sat and broiled in the sun for five hours, waiting for the tide to take us up in the tender.” The Marine Hotel started trading at Dungeness in 1884, no doubt hoping to prosper on trade from passengers and crews. While it was described by one later writer as “large and commodious” a traveller of the time described it as “so unprepossessing, and the people about looked such rough customers, that I preferred to keep as far away from it and them as possible, and sat melting slowly under a scorching sun until we were ready to start.” In 1894 the hotel burnt down and was not rebuilt.
It would be Cyclone Zeta of April 1894 that would spell Dungeness's final death knell as an official port. The writing had been on the wall. Earlier in the year on January 20 the Customs Officer at Dungeness telegraphed the Collector of Customs in panic to tell him that the “boatshed and gear suddenly disappeared…having been washed away by the heavy flood in the river.” Others were evacuated from the remaining buildings for safety. Then the rush of water down the river resulting from Cyclone Zeta further eroded the Dungeness spit and more buildings were destroyed. A fortnight afterwards another flood caused further damage and more erosion. It was clear at this point that the remaining buildings had to be removed and relocated with some urgency to Point Lucinda (later Lucinda Point). The moved buildings included the post and telegraph office, boatsmen’s cottages and boatshed. A new customs-house and quarters were built. At that point the days of Dungeness as a port were over. Even though Lucinda was an improved location the port was still inadequate, limited to approach by the smaller steamers which were the only type anyway that could navigate the inside route up the coast.

Halifax Wharf circa 1885 Source: State Library of Queeensland

The river serviced by a port at Dungeness was always recognized as going to be unsustainable. When John Ewen Davidson sailed up the Herbert River in 1867 he claimed that the river was only navigable in wet weather. In 1884 it was observed that “The great drawback to the district is undoubtedly the want of a navigable river as the Herbert is useless except for small boats.” Hazards such as sandbars, submerged logs and snags caused river travel to be dangerous. A semi-official River Trust group endeavoured to keep the river clear by blasting submerged logs and snags but their efforts were ongoing and frustrating because each flood deposited debris in different places, sandbars shifted and sand was deposited elsewhere to make new ones. By the 1880s river vessels could only go as far as Gairloch due to silting of the river. In 1884 the Government was thinking about constructing a tramline from Dungeness along the southern bank of the Herbert River to Ingham.

It was not until the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) extended its tramway on to Ingham and down to Lucinda that the river wharves became obsolete. The port at Lucinda too became redundant once the North Coast Railway line was laid and the steamers ceased to ply the eastern coast line.

Paddle Steamer 'Kent' at Halifax Wharf Source: Hinchinbrook Shire Library Local History Collection

Lucinda - Pilot's Office 1910 Source: Hinchinbrook Shire Library Local History Collection

Arthur Scott to Walter Scott, March 21, 1866. (Scott MS) as quoted in G.C. Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away: A History of North Queensland to 1920, (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1972).
“North with the Minister for Works,” The Brisbane Courier, April 10, 1882, 3.
M.E. Rowan, A Flower Hunter in Queensland and New Zealand  (London: John Murray, 1898), 23 and 24. *(Also title of this blog page quoted from Rowan, ibid., 23).
“Boom Days,” Herbert River Express, January 21, 1992, 6.
The Brisbane Courier,  January 24, 1894, 5.
“A Trip to the Lower Herbert,” The Brisbane Courier, February 7, 1884, 6.
Bianka Vidonja Balanzategui, The Herbert River Story (Ingham: Hinchinbrook Shire Council, 2011).

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