History of the Lower Yarra River

The Yarra - a natural history

The headwaters of the Yarra River flow from the pristine flanks of Mt Baw Baw in Victoria's West Gippsland region. For 242 kilometres the main water course – and 24 tributaries – drain an area of 4060 m2, about half the area of metropolitan Melbourne. On its journey through Melbourne and to Port Phillip, it supplies 9 catchment dams and provides drinking water to about 2.6 million households. The much maligned muddy colour of the Yarra is caused by the easily eroded clay soils of the water catchment. The water was clear at the time of European settlement, but intensive land clearing and development since the mid 1800s has resulted in the presence of microscopic clay particles. The particles are kept suspended by the turbulence in some parts of the middle and lower sections of the river. When the river water combines with marine salts as it enters Port Phillip, the suspended particles clump together and sink. The muddy appearance does not indicate an unclean waterway. In fact, the Yarra is probably one of the cleanest capital city rivers in the world. Since the major clean-up campaigns of the late 1970s and 1980s, the river has again become home to several species of fish and even the occasional dolphin. The Yarra has a tidal range of 2.2 metres. Water craft are able to navigate the river from its mouth, at Williamstown, to the Collingwood Children's Farm – a distance of about 10 kms. More information Melbourne Water

The Wurundjeri & European discovery

The Yarra has played a pivotal role in the pre-European history and the modern development of Melbourne. To the original Wurundjeri people, the river was “birrarung" – 'river of mists and shadows'. They camped on both banks of the river, especially near present day Government House and the Melbourne Cricket Ground. They caught eels in the swamps and lagoons of the river and fished using funnel-shaped fish pots. The first European eyes to appreciate the pristine beauty of the meandering waterway was Charles Grimes, Acting Surveyor General of New South Wales. During his exploration in 1803 he named it 'Freshwater River'. He declared it to be the “the most eligible place for a settlement that I have seen", although he also noted flood debris as high as 13 metres above river level. The name 'Yarra' is attributed to surveyor John Wedge, who in the 'Rebecca' accompanied John Batman on the 1835 party of exploration on behalf of the Launceston-based Port Phillip Association. Wedge asked local aborigines what they called the cascading waters on the lower section of the river. They replied 'Yarro Yarro', meaning 'it flows'. Wedge's mishearing of the word determined its enduring name. On the banks of the Yarra on 8 June, 1835 John Batman enacted his now infamous purchase of 600,000 acres of land with a group of local aborigines. Three months later, George Evans in the 'Enterprize' made landfall on the Yarra on 30 August, 1835, near the site of the present day Immigration Museum in Flinders Street. He constructed huts on the south bank.

Development along the Yarra

The discovery of the Yarra, and its fresh water, was crucial to the founding and subsequent development of Melbourne. During early years of settlement, ships travelled upstream as far as Queensbridge Street, where a rock barrier and water cascades blocked them. The falls separated the salt water of the bay from the fresh river water used by early Melburnians for drinking, bathing, irrigation and fishing. Enterprize Park and The Turning Basin, on the east side of today's Melbourne Aquarium, is where ships could be turned around in the river. Early commercial and housing development clustered near where the ships berthed. The ancient delta of the Yarra meant that the land between Williamstown and St Kilda was mostly swamp. Early Melbourne, therefore, was built on the higher northern banks, relegating the south bank to light industrial development until the 1990s. The river's southern bank became an overnight 'tent city' during the early 1850s when tens of thousands of hopefuls from around the world descended on Melbourne as a result of the Victorian gold rush. As industry spread upstream, suburbs such as Collingwood and Richmond grew out from the centre. Fashionable homes were built on the south side, such as Como House in South Yarra. Before bridges spanned the Yarra, ferries and punts carried people and their animals from bank to bank. The first bridge at the main Swanston St-St Kilda Road crossing was a timber structure built in 1845. The current Princes Bridge, resembling London's Blackfriars Bridge, opened in 1888. Development caused problems of sewage and industrial waste contamination of the lower Yarra. Only 20 years after settlement, the river was declared undrinkable. By the 1890s a Scottish visitor recorded that the river was “the filthiest piece of water I have ever had the misfortune to be afloat on"

Modern development

A succession of new low-profile bridges built during the early 20th century increasingly cut-off the traditional port areas. The sight of tall masted vessels berthed alongside the city centre became a rarer sight. Moreover, as ships grew in size, it became more feasible and economic for them to operate downstream where there was more water and cargo handling space. The Melbourne Maritime Museum on Southbank chronicles the development of Melbourne and its port area. With the removal of shipping activity from their immediate gaze, Melburnians took less and less notice of their waterway, including its cleanliness. Apart from the annual Henley on Yarra regatta, (link to Henly on Yarra) the river dropped out of the public consciousness. A major awareness campaign led by The Age newspaper during the early 1980s focussed attention back on the city's greatest asset. The re-emergence of the lower Yarra became complete during the 1990s when the light industrial area of the south bank rapid transformed into one of Australia's most exciting tourism and recreation hubs. Melbourne Convention Centre – 1990 Southgate Arts & Leisure Complex – 1992 Crown Entertainment Complex – 1996 Melbourne Exhibition Centre – 1996 Melbourne Aquarium – 2001 Birrarung Marr – 2002 Federation Square – 2002 The transformation of the Lower Yarra River continues unabated, as the State Government and City Council plan the sensitive development of the river's north bank, especially during the lead-up to the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

Realignment of the river

The Lower Yarra's course was significantly altered from 1879 onwards, in order to alleviate the regular devastating floods. The original wide loop in the river, west of today's Docklands, was eliminated in 1886 through the construction of the Coode Canal. The visionary feat of engineering, under the direction of British engineering expert Sir John Coode, involved 2,000 workers for 20 years. It not only significantly shortened travel time up the river for ships, but also created Victoria Harbour and Victoria Dock. The City Council made improvements to the Yarra's northern bank upstream of Princes Bridge from the 1880s. The 1896 Yarra Improvement Act enabled the Board of Works to carry out major realignment works between the city and Richmond, including removal of the billabongs north of Princes Bridge, near the Botanic Gardens. In the 1930s a new river channel was cut at Burnley, which created Herring Island in the process. During the 1960s the construction of the Eastern Freeway further altered the course of the river.

Floods on the Yarra

Melbourne's quietly flowing Yarra River was not always so. Severe flooding was a regular feature of the narrow, twisting original watercourse. The first flood was recorded in 1839. The biggest recorded flood – in 1891- saw the water rise 14 metres higher than normal. It destroyed 200 houses in Collingwood and Richmond. A bar of rock, located opposite today's Crown Casino, banked-up water, which regularly flooded South Melbourne and kept much of the land south of the Yarra as permanent swamp. A lengthy program of works was carried out from the late 1880s to help alleviate the flooding. The rock bar was blasted and the river was widened and straightened, including construction of the 1.5 km Coode Canal at Fishermen Bend. The removal of a major bend and lagoons upstream of Princes Bridge helped the river to flow more directly to the sea. The new retaining walls and boulevards of trees planted between the bridge and the Botanic Gardens created the classic vistas of the city skyline that we still enjoy. Between 1924 and 1929, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works removed 24,400 items of natural debris from the river to improve flood control and navigation. In 1929 a severe loop in the river at Burnley was eliminated by cutting a canal to make a straight, wide section. Herring Island was created in the process. The Yarra's last great flood was in 1934.

Henley on Yarra

Melbourne's high points of colour and activity from 1904 until after World War 2 were the annual Henley-on-Yarra regattas. They were held each year during spring, between the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups. Melburnians flocked to the Yarra for one day and night to celebrate their river. Attendances peaked at over 300,000 in 1925. Those with social aspirations claimed the south bank between Princes and Morel Bridges, while the working classes preferred the north bank as their vantage point. It was a major competition for rowing clubs from across the city. Lining the banks were the so called 'houseboats'; temporary structures elaborately decorated with flowers, flags and pennants. They were built on pontoons to accommodate spectators from the leading families and institutions of the then national capital. Over the years, Henley-on-Yarra became as much about fashion as it did rowing. Young women used the occasion to display new spring dresses and hats. After the races the river would become a sea of slowly drifting, beautifully festooned craft: motor launches, ferries, pleasure boats and canoes. Canada canoes quickly became synonymous with Henley. Their brightly coloured fabrics and cushions usually encapsulated a 'canoe girl'. The celebrations continued into the night, when each 'houseboat' would have a band for dancing, and the river was illuminated by fireworks, tree and garden lights. The regattas rarely made a profit after the Depression years and quickly waned after 1945. From 1955 to 1962 the Henley regatta formed the opening day of Melbourne's new river festival 'Moomba'. The regatta is still held on the river and organisers are preparing for the 100th Henley-on-Yarra regatta in 2015.

Take a Walk into History

A series of 7 illustrated interpretative panels which detail the social and natural history of the Lower Yarra are located on the river's north and south banks between the Swan Street and Spencer Street bridges.

South Wharf's Maritime Heritage

Perhaps the best place in the Yarra River Precinct to appreciate the maritime heritage of the area is South Wharf, at the far western end of the river.

Today, it marries 19th century maritime heritage with modern hospitality and entertainment. Across the river on northbank, via the Seafarers Bridge, the new Seafarers Rest Park is in development, which will integrate with the 1917 Mission to Seafarers (open to the public) and the redevelopment of the North Wharf

Read more at South Wharf Melbourne