May 19, 2019

Relive Riverboat History on the Murray River aboard a paddle wheeler

Words: Roderick Eime

Australia’s riverboat history is a colourful one. What began as a challenge between two entrepreneurial merchants in the infant colonies, turned into a thriving industry for over half a century.

19th-century paddlesteamer 'Queen' loading cargo (Port Adelaide Railway Museum)

Spurred on by a prize of 4000 pounds offered in 1851 by the governor of South Australia, Sir Henry Fox Young, William Randell and Francis Cadell started the romantic and hectic era of paddlesteamers along the Murray River with their own modest vessels. Within a few years, around 250 vessels were plying the river, carrying general goods, wheat, wine and other produce to market.

But the river, like any other, was fickle and prone to periods of high and low water. Boats were often stranded for weeks on end with perishable cargo on their decks, and before a series of planned locks could be completed, the river trade was overtaken by road and rail. Many boats were abandoned where they lay, left to rot in the mud.

Even though the river trade may have almost died out, the tourist demand kept the big paddlewheelers afloat. Taking a few days for a leisurely cruise along the Murray River has been a tradition for the best part of a century - with comfort and refinement gradually increasing to its peak with the PS Murray Princess, the largest and grandest vessel yet.

For example, two of the busiest ports from the heady days of 19th Century paddlesteamers, Mannum (SA) and Echuca (VIC), keep the tradition alive with both restored and replica vessels taking part in regular re-enactments’ and tourist cruises. Here is a quick summary of the ways and where’s you can relive the glory days of Murray River paddle steamers.

South Australia

Mannum, founded by William Randell around 1850 expressly to service his paddle boat empire, is still the home of the famous 110-year-old PS Marion. This delightful historic vessel still operates cruises.

The century-old PS Marion (supplied)

For information, see or telephone +61 8 8563 2720 or +61 407 937 487

Also based at Mannum is the impressive sternwheeler, PS Murray Princess, the biggest paddlewheeler ever to operate on the Murray and claimed to be the second largest in the southern hemisphere. Carrying 120 passengers at a leisurely 6 knots, the PS Murray Princess operates 3-, 4- and 7-night itineraries between Mannum and Blanchetown, depending on river levels. Excursions include wine tasting, history and museums, a sheep station and Aboriginal heritage.

For information, see or telephone +61 2 9206 1100

PS Murray Princess,  the largest paddlewheeler ever to operate on the Murray River and the largest paddlewheeler in the Southern Hemisphere (SeaLink) 

Murray Bridge in South Australia is another historic river port where you can take a short day cruise aboard the modern Captain Proud or a 2- or 5-night cruise aboard the 1982-built, 40-passenger Murray Expedition (formerly MV Proud Mary)

See or

The Riverina port town of Renmark is known as the oldest irrigated township in Australia and was also a major player in the river trade. Today the paddlesteamer, PS Industry (1910) calls Renmark home.


At the mouth of the great river is the town of Goolwa, home port to the century-old PS Oscar W. Formerly work barge C24, Oscar W was restored as a paddlewheeler and after a colourful career on the Murray it now serves exclusively as a day-cruiser. Goolwa offers a double treat for history buffs because it is also the terminus for the ‘Cockle Train’, a steam locomotive operating between the wharf and Victor Harbour.

See and


The twin towns of Echuca Moama boast the largest fleet of paddlewheelers in the world including the oldest wooden-hulled paddleboat, the 1866-built PS Adelaide and the TV star, PS Pevensey (1910). Other vessels have included PS Alexander Arbuthnot (1923), PS Emmylou (1980 replica with a 1906 engine), PS Hero (1874) PS Canberra (1912) and PS Pride of the Murray (1924).

Port of Echuca (VisitNSW)

While one or more of these vessels may be under maintenance or restoration by their volunteer staff, there will be still a choice of several vessels on which to cruise. A good time to visit Echuca Moama is during one of their annual festivals like the Celtic Festival (March), Winter Blues (July) or the American Iron Heritage Truck Display (September).

For a full listing of events, activities and cruises, see

Trivia: In 1984, a 6-part television miniseries, All the Rivers Run, based on a historical novel by the Australian author, Nancy Cato, was filmed in and around Echuca. It starred veteran Australian actors John Waters, Sigrid Thornton, Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell and Gus Mercurio. The starring vessel was the century-old PS Pevensey renamed ‘Philadelphia’ for the series.

Mildura is one of the largest cities on the Murray River and today is a bustling rural centre with modern, sophisticated accommodation and dining. Paddlesteamers Melbourne (1912) and Rothbury (1881) operate regularly from the wharf with Melbourne departing twice each day as it has done continuously for the past 40 years. The Mildura fleet also includes the modern replica Mundoo.

For further information on the Mildura fleet, see

Swan Hill Pioneer Settlement is a recreated 19th century river township that includes the genuine historic river vessel, PS Pyap (1896) as part of its activities.


New South Wales
As the Murray River forms the border between New South Wales and Victoria, it was natural that the northern state (or colony as it was before 1900) be part of the busy river trade. The town of Wentworth is the home port for the PS Ruby (1907) after it was presented to the community following restoration in 1996. One of the last remaining vessels purpose-built for passengers, Ruby is operated by volunteers on a cruise schedule based on demand and does not have onboard overnight facilities.

PS Ruby (Visit NSW)

See for scheduled cruises

The many surviving and restored Murray River paddlesteamers are operated and lovingly maintained by squads of volunteers, reflecting the great affection held for the vessels themselves and the history they represent. Cruise aboard one of these magnificent antique vessels and share in the romance of Australia’s greatest river.

For a summary of all cruising and activities along the Murray River, see

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