Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron
For William and his brothers, hard days and hard weeks followed. They installed lateral stringers to support the hull, then fixed the remaining boards to the frame with brass screws; laying the timbers edge-to-edge in a manner known as carvel planking. The seams needed to be caulked with oakum to help make them watertight, though William had been warned that leaking was as natural to wooden boats as floating.
The deck also had to be laid and caulked, hatches made to access the holds, then the boiler and engine installed, along with a helm station and bunkhouse constructed. Elliott and Tom went back to Gumeracha for more light timbers several times: the ‘finishing off’ was using far more material and taking more time than they had anticipated. William hired casual labourers when he could, and family farm hands were also expected to pick up the tools when not working with livestock.
The three brothers made a strong team. William was the unquestioned boss, with good instincts and a natural sense of fair play. Tom was great with his hands and always reliable, able to stick at a task until was done and done well. Elliott was quick with a joke, the perpetual helper, responding to shouted commands of ‘A minute over here please Elliott,’ or ‘Has anyone got a free hand?’ The younger brother’s occasional absences to check his fishing lines or to chase a goanna were as forgivable as his immense appetite for treacle pudding. Above all, the three brothers had a work ethic that drove them from dawn to nightfall, and progress was steady if not remarkable.
Right through the process, however, the three brothers were still expected to play their part in the family business. Tom managed, on behalf of his father, a block of fruit trees, and Elliott was constantly coming and going with cattle. William, too, had responsibilities with the mill and sale of timbers from the saw pit.
By late December of 1852, with the infamous South Australian summer beginning to bite, William fell ill from overwork and obsessive sleeplessness, He returned to Gumeracha to recuperate, worn out and somewhat disillusioned with the size of his undertaking.
Still, the work continued. The absence of one brother was compensated for with the arrival of another – the recently married John, or young Ebenezer arriving to lend a hand. William recovered and went back more determined than ever, and the riverside structure was now starting to look like a real boat. By then it was the talk of the river for miles around.
Finally, with half the population of Mannum watching, helping, or hollering useless advice, Tom drove a bullock team, hitched by heavy chain to the hull, into the shallows until the water frothed at their chests. The bullocks bellowed with the effort, while the paddle steamer slid on sapling rollers into the water.
‘Gee Rogue; up Sergeant; stead-ee, stead-ee,’ cried Tom, and the crack of his whip sounded above the shouts and slip of the hull. Meanwhile, his heeler dashed through the shallows nipping at fetlocks and yapping excitedly.
At last, with the boat near to floating free, the team was led ashore, glossy from the water. Now, the brothers began to load their creation up, starting with three tons of three-foot-long dry river red-gum logs for the hold, all carried by hand through the shallows and passed up on board. Twice they had to call on the bystanders to help push the craft into deeper water as her draft increased. At this point they deployed anchors bow and stern to hold her length-wise to the current.
Finally, they carried on their personal effects; bedding and tools, while Elliot stoked the firebox. The stack streamed grey smoke into a cloudless sky.
William was back on shore, surrounded by several young female admirers when Elliot gave a loud shriek, then caused a mighty splash as he jumped overboard and headed for dry land at a run.
‘What on earth is wrong?’ William shouted.
‘It’s the boiler,’ Elliott shouted. ‘It’s swellin’.’
‘Badly?’ William asked. The group of young ladies were already beginning to back away.
‘Damn you William. What CAN’T be bad about it?’
‘Is it going to blow?’
‘I reckon so. Get everyone away from the damn thing.’
William, however, needed to see the situation with his own eyes. He walked towards the boat, the water almost to his thighs now. ‘By God you’re right,’ he called back to Elliott, who was now standing with Tom on the shore. William cursed under his breath, not only had the boiler swollen, but steam and boiling water was leaking through the seams.
‘Get away from there,’ cried Tom, and William reluctantly began sloshing towards the bank, his dungarees wrapping wetly around his legs.
He was only halfway there when there was a terrible popping sound then a hiss of steam: a cloud that rose to the skies like a thunderhead.
William did not hesitate. He galloped for the bank like a racehorse, accompanied by a howl of laughter from the spectators, who were all now at a safe distance. He didn’t stop until he was out of the water, at which point he turned to watch as a jet of steam shot from the boiler to the oohs and aahs of the assembled spectators.
The three brothers hurried on into the safety of the trees, where they finally turned to see a plume rising into the heavens.
‘Well at least she bloody floats,’ said Elliott.
William shot his younger brother a look that would have wilted a lesser man. ‘Glad you think it’s funny,’ he said. ‘I don’t.’ And he crossed his arms and stared at their beautiful boat, enveloped in a shroud of steam and smoke like a warship.
Continued next Sunday!
© 2021 Greg Barron
Photo: William Randell in later life, pictured with the boiler that first brought steam power to the Murray River.