Chapter Twenty-six: Swan Hill

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

William Randell gripped the crosscut saw handle and plied it backwards and forwards smoothly over the thick river red gum branch, letting the sharp teeth do their work. Cutting dry wood for the Mary Ann’s firebox was a routine that both his mind and body had become attuned to, for it was all in a day’s work for the captain of a river steamer.

With each pass of the saw the teeth cut deeper, and soon the cord dropped, an exact three-foot length of nature’s perfect fuel. Tom, on the other side of the saw, lifted the implement, chest rising and falling, while William measured the next length. Meanwhile, the Reverend Davies and the two crewmen laboured at filling the holds as quickly as possible.

It was scarcely dawn, and Mary Ann had been steaming or fuelling since not long after two am, with some urgency about the need to take on wood. The previous afternoon they had stopped briefly at a station called Pyangill, where  they were warned that for most of the final seventy miles to Swan Hill, the trees would stop and fuel would become almost impossible to obtain. They had thus been forced to take on wood before they had planned to.

‘Hold almost full sir,’ shouted the stoker.

William stopped sawing to call back. ‘Give us full steam in the boiler then please, and we’ll be on our way.’

 Together, William and Tom finished the cut, then helped gather the last armloads before wading out to the waiting steamer, and hauling in the anchor. They had a race to win.

*****

In the next hour William found that reports on the nature of the river up ahead had been timely. Soon there was scarcely a tree to be seen on either bank. The river itself had spread out across the floodplain, with acres of reed beds like the river Nile, and millions of ducks, geese and avocets taking to flight as the Mary Ann puffed closer.

The river channel itself was as clear and easily navigable as it had been back in the early stages in South Australia, and the current weakened by her greater width. William inched their speed up as far as he dared, keeping to the outside of bends where the current was weaker.

‘If only there was so few snags all along her length,’ Tom said, but William was craning his neck, looking ahead for the Lady Augusta. Soon she indeed came into view, snugged in close to the left hand bank. It took William a moment to work out exactly what was happening, for he could see daylight between the paddle steamer and her barge Eureka for the first time.

‘They’re letting the Eureka go,’ said William. ‘Damn.’

‘Why is that a problem?’ asked the Reverend Davies.

‘Speed. Without the extra drag she’ll make three or four extra knots, and be twice as manoeuvrable.’

These words were prophetic. Before half a mile had passed, the Lady Augusta was riding in the surface foam of the Mary Ann’s wake, looking for an opportunity to come alongside.

William yelled back to the stoker. ‘Take the boiler up to thirty psi.’

‘But sir, that might split her.’

‘If it does we’ll fix her, but I want to get to Swan Hill before that damned Scotsman.’

‘You’re the boss,’ came the call from below, but the Reverend Davies was looking quizzically at William. ‘Is it really that important?’

‘Yes. No.’ William grinned. ‘I don’t know why it is. You think I’m being juvenile, but I would like to win this little contest.’ He didn’t try to explain that this was a struggle between the hard-working Randell brothers with a dream, against a blow-in who had managed to rally most of South Australia’s aristocracy and all of the government to his flag.

‘Even if we blow up the boiler?’ Davies pushed.

‘We’ll try not to, of course,’ said William, but his fingers tapped nervously on the wheel, and he had a strange, panicked feeling in his chest.

Davies turned and looked searchingly down at the rear of the steamer, where the strangely oblong-shaped boiler was venting through every seam and rivet, despite the bullock-chains that they had, weeks earlier, wound and tightened around the casing in order to keep her plates more or less intact, ‘There’s more steam getting out than going into the engine right now.’

‘Bleed off a tad,’ cried William, but in such a wide reach of the river it was becoming difficult for the Mary Ann to hold her own with the much more powerful and now unencumbered Lady Augusta.  The larger steamer edged out until they were side-by-side. Every living soul on deck of the larger steamer was on the promenade deck, cheering and jeering.

For one or two minutes the contest was undecided. Port and starboard paddlewheels on both vessels were churning the river to froth, and the stacks streaming heavy smoke mingled with vented steam in their wake. The vertical beam of the Mary Ann’s engine was rising and falling faster than it had been designed to move.

For one moment it seemed that heart and effort would be enough, that the Mary Ann could hold her own against the twin horizontal engines of the Lady Augusta. A light head wind was favouring the smaller vessel, for the windage of the larger craft was enormous.

Yet, the Mary Ann’s boiler was spraying out steam in all directions, and this was not lost on the crowd of dignitaries and blue-bloods on the other boat. They began to laugh and point, and even Cadell appeared at the port-side rail to observe the near disastrous venting with a grin.

By degrees, agonisingly slowly, the Mary Ann began to fall back, though she struggled on gamely as the Lady Augusta drew ten, fifty, a hundred then two hundred yards ahead. It was only when the bigger vessel had disappeared around a bend that William finally recognised defeat.

‘Vent steam and spread the coals,’ he shouted, ‘we’ll have to stop and fix that damn boiler.’ He thumped the helm with his fist. ‘Damn it all.’

The Reverend Davies touched his shoulder. ‘Don’t fret, William. You’ve lost a little race,’ he said. ‘But you’ll win the river itself in the long run.’

*****

When the Mary Ann limped into Swan Hill at five that afternoon, the Lady Augusta was already receiving full honours on the river bank, having arrived some four hours earlier. Still, William struck his cap at a jaunty angle and affected an uncaring attitude as he displayed fine seamanship in coming alongside the wharf and tying up to the timbers opposite his much larger rival.

From the deck of his steamer William could see a police station, a post office, an inn, a store and a dozen houses. The town had a punt, however, making it an important thoroughfare for diggers on the way to the Victorian goldfields, explaining the  many tents down along the banks and horses on the common.

‘Rotten luck,’ said Cadell to William with a smug grin, as they stepped ashore. ‘You put up a good show,’ he dropped his voice, ‘though you might want to install a proper boiler.’

William was thinking what he would like to do with that boiler, for it involved a certain portion of his rival’s arrogant anatomy, but he merely smiled and agreed.

The patronising applause, he, Tom, the two crewmen and the Reverend Davies received as they approached the tables around which the Lady Augusta’s company were arrayed, rankled more with William than the loss of the race itself. But he did his best and the company from the two ships ate together outdoors, catered for by the Inn’s kitchens.

Governor Young himself  sidled up to William later in the evening, but it was the Reverend Davies he was interested in.

‘Dear Reverend,’ he said. ‘Would it be imposing on you too much to ask if, tomorrow being Sunday, you would celebrate divine service for us all?’

‘Of course, Your Excellency,’ said Davies. ‘It would be my pleasure.’

At this Governor Young made a strange face, leaned forward and lowered his voice. ‘Now I do understand that you are a Baptist minister, but I would count it a favour if you would read the Church of England service on this occasion.’

*****

And the next morning, the full complement from both vessels, along with many of the locals,  arranged themselves on the verandah of the inn just prior to nine am. William amused himself in recognising the various identities of the South Australian ‘royalty.’ The governor of course, but also members of the Legislative Council: Grainger, Davenport and Younghusband. He recognised Kinloch, the clerk of the executive council, and the admittedly very beautiful Anne Finniss, wife of the Colonial Secretary, who shot William a poisonous look, as if to chastise him for being the upstart who had dared to challenge the mighty Cadell in his efforts to tame the Murray River.

The Reverend Davies, perhaps conscious that he would never again read a service for such a collection of dignitaries, celebrated the Church of England Liturgy with aplomb, albeit wearing a blue Jersey shirt instead of a cassock and clerical collar. As part of his sermon he read from Acts XVI, but kept things brief and to the point.

Back on board the Mary Ann, William sat himself in his desk, and there wrote a long letter to Bessie,  enclosing a feather from a parrot he had found. The letter wasn’t much, just a few thoughts that he knew would please her.

‘Tomorrow we will continue upriver, but the day will come soon, when we turn around and head for home. When the day comes that we land at Noa No, I will be on a fast horse and on my way to you with all possible speed.’ He paused and thought carefully about the next sentence he would write. ‘If I have learned one thing on this voyage, it is that living without you is impossible, and your mother’s opposition is no longer enough to contain my growing feelings.’

William sealed the letter in an envelope, ready for posting before he left Swan Hill the following day. The race against Cadell was all but forgotten. He had much more important things on his mind.

Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron

Image is of Paddle steamers Lady Augusta and Mary Ann at Swan Hill 1853. From an engraving by J. Allan, Albury Museum

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