Anne here. On the weekend I headed north to give a talk in a country library — in Echuca (eh-choo-ka), which is a small town on the Murray River, which marks the border between the states of New South Wales and Victoria. It's about three hours drive from Melbourne — my home town.
In the two years since I'd last visited, they'd built a brand new library — and what a gorgeous library it was. Overlooking a billabong (oxbow lake) next to the river, people inside have the most beautiful, serene view of gum trees and water. With views like this it's a wonder any reading or writing gets done. I could've sat and dreamed all day here.
Here's the view of the library from the outside.
Echuca has an interesting history — it was once a big inland port. Australia doesn't have the kind of huge riverways that the USA has — we have a few long rivers —the Murray is Australia's longest river at 2,508 kilometres (1,558 miles) long)— but they're not all that wide and they're subject to drought and flood — mainly drought.
But in the 1860s and beyond, Echuca became the largest inland port in Australia, second only to the international port of Melbourne. Paddle steamers plied their trade up and down the river — they were generally much smaller than the ones on the big US rivers, because our rivers are smaller. (I fell in love with this tiny paddle steamer below — isn't it a little charmer?)
Echuca became a central gathering place for agricultural products like wheat, and wool (which was one of Australia's biggest exports at the time) trading for hundreds of miles up and down the country, from Queensland to South Australia and opened up the country for further settlement.
The town was typical of any busy port at the time, with thriving hotels, breweries and brothels, fashionable shops and bare-knuckle fight tents, as well as churches and schools and the usual town facilities. But the railway, along with a depression in the 1890's, signalled the beginning of the end for the riverboat era.
It's had a few revivals — in the 1980's a TV mini-series was filmed here — All the Rivers Run, starring a young Sigrid Thornton and John Waters— based on a book of the same name by Nancy Cato, and I think it revived interest in the history of the riverboats. Certainly it fired my imagination. Not to mention that old TV series set on a riverboat with Darren McGavin — anyone remember that?
These days history and tourism keep the Port of Echuca alive. With the biggest collection of paddle steamers in the world, including the world's oldest operating paddle steamer, the PS Adelaide, built in 1866, it's a lovely place to explore a bygone age.
I've always loved paddle steamers and it's long been my aim to take a trip on a riverboat down the Missippi to New Orleans. Maybe with a posse of word wenches and readers — wouldn't that be fun?
In the meantime, I have Echuca.
What about you —do you have any favorite books or TV series or movies based on riverboats? Have you ever ridden on a paddle steamer or river boat? Ever wanted to? If you could, where would you travel? And with whom?