Thursday, July 18, 2013

Clippers and paddle steamers

As the Victorian era began the wheels of the industrial revolution were already well under way. Merchants with big whiskers and top hats were heading out into what were the colonies hunting for raw materials.

But there was a long long way from the wide open expenses of Australia where the wool grows (if that's the technical term) to the spinning jennys of the grim up t'north mills.

The solution was an "integrated transportation network" to use modern day lingo and I was to go on-board two of the key components while in Australia.

The first leg was by river. The Murray and Darling rivers comprise one of the longest navigable waterways in the world, comprising up to 5,500 km when the rivers were full, a lot less in the dry months.

The wool was packed into bales and then transported by paddle steamer driven barges to Echuca where the three level wharf could handle hundreds of dockings per season and thousands upon thousands of bales of wool.

And why Echuca? Well, this was the closest point of the river system to Melbourne and it was here that the railway was built, to connect the river system to the great port.

So the wool bales made their way to the sea where they were stuffed aboard the great clipper ships of their day, like the Polly Woodside (above).

Polly and her friends would then fly across the bottom of the world, around Cape Horn, up the long Atlantic, to the great ports of Glasgow and Liverpool, fuelling the economy on which the sun would never set.

It was a great system but that middle leg was to be the downfall of the other two. For if you could build one railway you could build a dozen, and if you put a steam engine in a boat you didn't need sails.

But the paddle steamers and clipper boats did their job with grace and life, and while it might be sad they are no longer needed for transport, at least these two fine examples have survived and are well looked after.

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