Our Barrages


It’s a sight that rekindles the romance of a simpler life on the River…an armada of historic wooden vessels and paddle steamers, all doing their bit to keep the stories and the memories of the pioneering days of the Murray afloat.

Many of them were there just over 70 years ago when the personality of this part of the river changed forever.

The haggling’s actually been going on for over 130 years and it took a severe drought in for the states to put some of their vested interests aside for the sake of saving the river.

Grant: In 1915 the river level was so low that salt was dragged all the way upstream to Mannum and how’s this? There were reports of a dolphin at Murray Bridge and a shark at Tailem Bend!

But it took until the mid-1930’s for money to arrive for a project that was deemed vital at the time, building the barrages on the Lower Lakes to keep the salt at bay and provide a guaranteed fresh water supply for the city of Adelaide.

It took five years to finish all five of them, they run a combined length of a touch over seven-and-a-half kilometres.

This is the work being done on the barrier that stretches 800 metres between Mundoo and Hindmarsh Islands.

The work gangs lived in small uncomfortable prefabricated fibro houses that were tucked into the dunes, couldn’t have been much fun because they had names like ‘hot-as-Zell’ and ‘windy-as-Zell’…with a zed…and families weren’t welcome.

The Mundoo Barrage was a relatively easy project because it was built on an ancient calcareous sandstone reef and the water was relatively shallow so no heavy foundation pylons were needed.

The Goolwa barrage was another story entirely; it took as long to build that as it did the four others!

That’s because this channel took almost three quarters of the river outflow water, it was much deeper and the river bottom was fine sand and silt…so four thousand seven hundred and seventy wooden piles up to twelve meters long, were driven into the sand to support the structure.

A solid slab of concrete up to a metre thick and twelve metres wide was then poured onto these piles to form a base for the 122 piers that form the gates that make up the barrage.

Also in there, just under seven tonnes of thick reinforcing rod! All up there are 593 independent gates in the five barrages.

This was a massive project for its time with a budget of seven hundred thousand pounds. Bear in mind that the weekly wage at this time was around the equivalent of 10 dollars.

There were steam trains, steam cranes, steam dredges and teams working round the clock and the paddle steamer Captain Sturt was moored alongside the Goolwa Barrage the whole time to generate steam and electricity.

The barrages were finished in early 1940, and around November that year when the Mulloway tried to get into the lakes as they usually did, they came up against these artificial barriers and the locals netted hundreds of tonnes of fish without even trying – a lot of it just rotted on the wharves and river banks.

Grant: And 70 years down the track the arguments continue about their impact on the rivers eco system and whenever I hear politicking about the future of the River Murray I hear the famous of Mathma Ghandi, the one about enough for everybody’s need but not enough for everybody’s greed.

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