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February 27, 2014

A Corinna Legend: The Lone Ferryman of the Pieman River


JOHNNY AHRBURG

'Yarns - they fell from his lips like ripe
mulberries from a shaken tree …'
Born in 1839 in Stockholm, Sweden, Ahrburg took to the seas early and his stories of racing tea clippers from China, of cargoes of fossilised bones from South America to Europe for ‘fertiliser’ purposes, of ships frozen in the Baltic Sea when crews subsisted for weeks on seagulls and other birds, lost nothing of their dramatic force or graphic description in the telling.

With flashing eyes and expressive phrases Ahrburg tells of one of his earliest deep sea voyages when as a lad he incurred the displeasure of a brutish captain, and for eighteen months was not allowed to set foot on land, while life on board was one of long and misery and bullying and ill-treatment. He told how when the steward, as a result of the same hard conditions, hanged himself in the hold, and none of the crew would venture down to the hatchway, but to him was assigned the gruesome task of cutting down the body and sending it up for burial.

Ahrburg though was particularly pleased to relate the sequel to that voyage when in later years he and the captain met in a back street in Stockholm. His description of the brawl which ensued and his feelings of deep satisfaction as he finally ground the old skipper’s nose into the cobblestones of the roadway was Ahrburg at his most passionate.

In 1880 Ahrburg left home altogether and after roaming the world for a number of years he gave up the sea in 1892 when he settled in Tasmania, and engaged in various occupations on the early West Coast mining fields. Seven years later he accepted the post of Government ferryman at the mouth of the Pieman River on an allowance £1 a week. He was to continue this lonely vigil up until a few months before his death, “a useful cog in the machinery in the country’s progress”.

During this period of activity, Corinna ‘14 miles up the river’, a thriving community of over a thousand men with their families exploited the alluvial gold-fields of the district. Consequently a fair amount of traffic would pass up and down the coast, but when the gold ran out the (Pieman) Heads reverted to their primeval state of solitude. Few again would break the monotony of (Ahrburg’s) existence.

“Well it is one of life’s privilege’s to know men like this and I know there are very many who will join me in wishing smooth sailing across the larger ocean on which he has now embarked, to the simple-hearted Swedish sailor man, who held down his job for 38 long years, in one of the wildest and loneliest out-posts of the Empire.”

The Ahrburg Bar at Corinna is named after this stalwart of the Heads.

- adapted from the Launceston Examiner, Saturday 7 August 1937 article by Frederick Smithies
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