Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron
William Randell inspected the near-ruined boiler with a sinking heart. The firebox had been formed with copper sheet, and the searing-hot river red gum fire had scorched and melted its way through, leading to the catastrophic mixing of water and heat inside the boiler. Amazingly, the main body of the unit was still intact.
‘We’re lucky we didn’t blow everyone up,’ said William, taking a frustrated pinch of snuff and turning to sneeze. Recovering his equanimity, he turned to Elliot. ‘Would you ride for home and bring back everything we’ll need – iron plate, bolts and tools. I’ll make a list. If Father will allow you the wagonette that would be quickest – you could be back by tomorrow afternoon at a pinch.’
While he and Tom waited for his younger brother’s return, William could scarcely keep away from the boiler, even after it had been stripped of all the ruined material and cleaned to bright metal with a wire brush. ‘Building the firebox from copper were a blunder,’ he said to Tom, ‘but I’d have thought that quarter inch steel plate would be sufficient for the boiler itself.’
‘It were expanding,’ said Tom. ‘You saw for yourself.’
William said little in reply but at least they had the final fit-out of the paddle-steamer’s cabins to keep them busy. In between tasks they swam in the river and attended to Elliot’s set-lines.
The younger brother returned the following afternoon in a farm wagonette, the springs near inverted with weight, the horses blown and hunting for water. Grinning from cheek to freckled cheek, Elliott climbed to the rear of the vehicle and threw off a canvas tarpaulin. ‘I brought enough steel plate to rebuild the firebox – hand auger, drill bits, files an’ bits ‘n’ bobs.’
William grinned, and reached up to grip his brother’s hand. ‘Well done boy, you’ve got a full machine shop back in there. Let’s get to work then.’
Elliott paused, ‘That’s not all I’m bringing. Father ‘ad news of Captain Cadell. Ee’s done a deal with the governor to be first with a boat on the river, for a two-thousand pound reward, staged payments for getting’ through the bar, up to the Darling then running a freight service for twelve months.’
William whistled, ‘Where’s our two thousand pounds?’
‘It’s all about connections, boys,’ said Tom. ‘Cadell has the right friends.’
‘Not only that,’ Elliot went on, ‘But his new paddle steamer is named after the Governor’s wife – the Lady Augusta, and she’s to be launched in Pyrmont, Sydney in just a few weeks.’
‘The mongrel! Is it ready so soon?’ cried William. ‘Then let’s not waste a minute. We’ll be first on the river, but we need to be first to the Darling too.’
Less than a week later, without an audience this time, and under a cooling sun and a breeze that smelled of autumn, Elliot lit a blaze in the firebox of the rebuilt boiler, beginning with small sticks and scrap timber. They’d done their best with the refurbishment, drilling holes with a brace and bit, and installing bolts instead of rivets.
Yet, Elliot was still wary. As the boiler’s glass showed full water, and the pressure gauge slowly flicked upwards towards a working pressure of thirty pounds-per-square-inch, he jumped overboard and headed for the bank. From a safe distance the three brothers watched as the boiler reached full pressure, beginning to bleed off through the safety valve.
‘It’s holding together,’ said William hopefully, but even from the bank he could see that it was again swelling appreciably.
‘Maybe we should have used half inch plate,’ said Elliot.
William shook his head. ‘If so we’d have had a lot more trouble fixing her – drilling holes in quarter inch steel was bad enough.’ After a long pause he fixed a cautiously pleased expression on his face, ‘Let’s take her for a test run, then let her cool down. I’ve got an idea.’
With the boiler still swelling and beginning to leak at the seams the three brothers leapt aboard and weighed the anchors. It was Elliot’s job now to prepare the engine for its first run, ‘oiling ‘round’ and checking the gauges.
Then, while Tom tidied the lines and stowed the ground-tackle William took the helm. ‘Here we go boys,’ he cried as he opened the regulator. Looking back at the engine he grinned. It was a beam-engine, operating through a process beginning with steam jetting into the single cylinder, which was jacketed with timber for insulation. The piston moved upwards in response, forcing the overhead beam upwards on that side and down on the other. The movement of a slide valve allowed steam into the opposite end of the cylinder, thus forcing the piston to move in the other direction. Down came the beam. This cycle delivered reciprocal motion to a connecting rod at the other end of the beam, which applied rotary force to the crankshaft. It was an old design, even in 1853, but like the boat, it had been constructed there in Hindmarsh, South Australia, by German-born engineer Mr Claus Gehlkin and made to last. With a breathless rush, both port and starboard paddlewheels started to churn, bringing up the smell of river water so it was thick in their nostrils.
William punched one fist into the air and shouted an old school scrimmaging cry, using the wheel to steer the brand-new vessel into the current, facing it mightily. Within a few minutes the little paddle steamer was making five knots upriver, while grey teals and black ducks left staccato patterns on the river surface as they winged away from their path.
‘It works,’ cried William to his brothers, and there was a pricking of tears in his eyes. ‘The first steamer on the River Murray!’ This fact was true for all to see, with smoke streaming from the stack, and steam escaping in puffs with each stroke of the piston.
‘Indeed she is,’ said Tom. ‘But now look, she needs a name. You’ve been cagey about what to call her?’
Elliot took up the cry from his place near the engine astern. ‘A working steam boat needs a name. What will we call her?’
‘I would’ve thought that obvious,’ said William. ‘There’s only one fitting name that I can think of.’
Tom grinned, ‘I’m guessing you want to name her after Ma? The Mary Ann?’
‘That’s it,’ said William. ‘Just what I was thinking.’
‘The Mary Ann it is,’ agreed Elliot, ‘and you’re right, there’s no better name.’
It was a special day for William, as he continued to steer this wonderful creation of theirs, for he was learning that their creation now had a life and personality of its own – and the river by boat was always interesting – a shepherd on the bank with his flock taking water on a shallow spit; a couple of travellers camped on the eastern bank, and the beauty of the river stretching dreamily into the distance, gilded with the realisation that the adventure was only just beginning.
Over the next three hours the engine gained and lost power as Elliot walked a tightrope between threatening to blow the boiler apart with too much heat, or to underfeed it through cautiousness. Tom divided his time between running repairs and sounding the channel with a lead line. William was already marking depths on a sketch-chart, as well as listing issues that would need attention when they returned to their makeshift boathouse.
It was an important first journey, and on their return to Noa No, William put his plan for improving the boiler into action. The three brothers dragged heavy bullock-chains aboard, then wrapped them tightly around the boiler, using shackles. As a finishing touch, they used a sledgehammer to pound heavy timber wedges in between chain and boilerplate to make it tighter still.
When it was done, the three brothers lounged on the deck, while William produced a single bottle of ale, brewed in Oakbank in the Adelaide Hills, the brewer’s name, Johnston, stamped on the brown glass bottle. It was a rare treat for the boys, for whom alcohol was rarely, if ever, consumed, their father and Baptist church both being opposed to its consumption.
‘Beer? Father would kill us,’ said Elliot.
‘Ar there boy. What he don’t know won’t hurt him, and it’s just a small mug each – something special after what we’ve been through.’
Jar in hand Elliot stood back and regarded the newly-wrapped boiler. ‘Looks jerry-built, but I can’t deny that it will be stronger.’
Tom turned to William, ‘What’s next?’
‘If that great goob Captain Cadell can extort money out of the South Australian government, so can we. I’ll write a letter to Governor Young meself and see what we can get.’
Continued next week …
©2021 Greg Barron