The "Emperor of Wahgunyah" opens the river for business

The Port of Wahgunyah

In 1860, gold was discovered to the east of Wahgunyah and the "Wahgunyah rush" began.  Out of this rush the township of Rutherglen was born and the area flourished.  The Port of Wahgunyah had its greatest decade in the 1860s, but decline was inevitable as the railway network across regional Victoria expanded.  The final blow for the port and the river trade came with the arrival of the railway in Rutherglen at the end of December 1878.

The Victorian Gold Rushes provided the stimulus to the development of the river trade on the River Murray.  In an era before widespread railway networks, the rivers offered a means of getting supplies to far-flung and substantial goldfields populations, and the river was pioneered by merchants in Adelaide.

The first steamboats reached Swan Hill in 1853.  Captain Francis Cadell aboard the Lady Augusta reached Howlong in 1854, but had to turn back because of low water and snags.  Cadell formed the Murray River Navigation Company.

An early local squatter, John Foord of Wahgunyah Station, whose influence in local affairs led to him later being dubbed the Emperor of Wahgunyah, set about building a wharf and storehouse at Wahgunyah. These were nearing completion when the steamboat Melbourne arrived in September 1856. Foord also purchased a punt and operated a river crossing.

Wahgunyah operated as the port for the Indigo (Barnawartha) and Chiltern goldfields, and Beechworth beyond. In 1856 Foord commissioned a township survey on his Pre-Emptive purchase land and blocks were put up for sale.

Wahgunyah grew - hotels and stores were built and a Post Office was opened in 1858. With high prices being paid for Adelaide flour, John Foord built a steam flour mill which started operating in 1859.

John Foord purchased land on the north side of the river and engaged a surveyor to lay out a town there. This was the beginning of Corowa. A bridge crossing was opened in 1862. When the railway link from Melbourne to Echuca was completed in 1864, Echuca became the focus of a booming river trade and the reliance on Adelaide imports became a thing of the past.

Wahgunyah was an important link in the river trade and it became the busiest port in the upper reaches of the River Murray.


Images courtesy of the Godson collection held by the State Library of South Australia.