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The River of my Life

Geez, I love rivers. There’s just something about how water flows and finds a pathway through the world, regardless of the obstacles in the way. We just have to sit back in awe and watch it make its own way in the world. Rivers are like our lives: they flow through the valleys, but they also shape the valleys as they go, while providing nourishment for all living things along the way.

The Mersey River

The Mersey River on the Northwest Coast of Tasmania is the river of my life, because there’s just so much history I share with it, as I grew up on its banks and in its waters. 

Along the Mersey near Bells Parade

The Mersey River starts high up in the Central Highlands of Tasmania, in between the Cradle Mountain World Heritage Area, where I bushwalked with my mother and sister, and the Central Plateau, where my father helped build the hydroelectric scheme and took my brother and I fishing to catch lots of big trout. 

A typical cold and snowy day at Cradle Mountain with my sister
Catching lots of big trout up the Lakes

It flows past both my grandparents’ farms, through my hometown, and out into Bass Strait where I learned how to sail. But there’s also so much more history to enjoy along the Mersey River’s banks, so I thought I’d explore it more, because it’s helped shape who I’ve become. The Mersey River is one of the longest rivers in Tasmania, flowing 146km from the Central Highlands of Tasmania, to Devonport on the Northwest Coast. Paranaple is the indigenous name of the section of the Mersey River that flows through Devonport.

The Mersey River was named by Edward Curr in 1826, after the Mersey River in Liverpool. My Great Great Great Grandfather James Magee’s last known address in England, before being transported to Tasmania as a convict, was Toxteth Park, Liverpool, on the banks of the Mersey River.

The Mersey River, Toxteth Park, Liverpool by Radarsmum67 under CC2

In Tasmania’s colonial days, the Mersey River was often bypassed because of a sandbar across the mouth of the river. Then in 1826 the Van Dieman’s Land Company investigated closer, which led to Edward Curr settling close to the Mersey River at Frogmore in 1835, which is on the outskirts of Latrobe.

Birth of the Mersey River

But first, let’s explore where the Mersey River is born, high up in the Central Highlands of Tasmania at Lake Meston, in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park, which takes its name because of the similarity of its geological features with the Walls surrounding the city of Jerusalem in Israel. 

The Walls of Jerusalem by Ian Cochrane under CC2
Lake Meston by Andrew Purdam under CC2

We will then follow the flowing waters of the Mersey River down to Bass Strait, while examining all the history along the way.

Soon after the Mersey River leaves Lake Meston, it flows over Hartnett Falls, which is named after Patrick Joseph (Paddy) Hartnett, who helped open up Tasmania’s Alpine country, by assisting Gustav Weindorfer to run guided tours through the beautiful Cradle Valley nearby. Hartnett Falls, Hartnett Rivulet, and Paddy’s Nut were all named after him, because of all he did to make the area more accessible. Thank you, Paddy; Cradle Mountain really is the most beautiful place on Earth and you helped everyone experience that beauty. It is both my mother and my favourite place on Earth. In my youth we walked every single trail of the Cradle Mountain World Heritage Area and I greatly enjoyed basking in nature’s beauty.

Hartnett Falls by brewbooks under CC2

After the Walls of Jerusalem, the Mersey River flows through the Mersey Forest and escapes the Central Highlands over The Great Western Tiers into the Meander Valley, via the Parangana Hydroelectric Power Station, which was commissioned in 2002. Most of the water from Lake Parangana is discharged into the Forth River via the Lemonthyme Power Station, however, some water is discharged into the Mersey River via the Parangana Power Station to ensure there is a healthy flow of water for the ecosystem. The Great Western Tiers are known as the Kooparoona Niara, or Mountains of the Gods, by the Palliatore indigenous traditional owners of the land. It is culturally significant for them as the meeting place of three Aboriginal nations.

The Great Western Tiers from Mole Creek by Cowrrie under CC2

Meander Valley

In the Meander Valley, Mole Creek flows into the Mersey River and there is also a town named after it. It is called Mole Creek, because it irregularly flows underground through caves, including the Marakoopa and King Solomons Cave, before reappearing above ground. 

Mole Creek by Martin Howard under CC2

King Solomons Cave has the most amazing reflective calcite crystals and both caves have reflection pools with underground streams. It was so much fun adventuring through them when I was young.

King Solomons Cave by  fatemeh under CC2

Mole Hill Village

During my youth, the town of Mole Creek had the most amazing miniature Mole Hill Village. Max and Valerie Staines had spent 18 months building a huge miniature Mole Village. It looked like a real village. They had constructed a labyrinth of tunnels, caves, waterfalls, and lakes, all lit by tiny lanterns. 130 moles were handcrafted and carefully clothed with hand-knitted jumpers, scarfs, and shawls. The caves were furnished with beds, tables, chairs, bridges, barrels, and stairways. Simply amazing. Everything was proudly handmade by Max and Valerie. I would spend hours exploring its delights in my youth.

Alum Cliffs

Alum Cliffs are the next destination for the Mersey River, which is close to my Magee Grandparent’s dairy farm at Dairy Plains, which was first explored and settled by Europeans in 1827 when the Van Dieman’s Land Company established a stock route from Launceston to Woolnorth in Tasmania’s far Northwest, to overland sheep. 

My Sister, Mother and Grandmother in front of the Dairy Plains farm 

Alum Cliffs are known as Tulampanga by the Pallittorre, and are an ancient ochre trade route, where three different tribes have met over the last ten millenia. The ochre found at Tulampanga is a prized possession for the indigenous, as it is used as the principal foundation of the indigenous Dreamtime art, which is preferred over carving rocks.

The Mersey River from Alum Cliffs lookout

Kimberley

The Mersey River then winds back toward the Northwest Coast, through the town of Kimberley where my McCormack Grandparents’ farm Mount Melleray was, and where my brother Ashley’s property currently is. 

My McCormack Grandparents’ farm, Mount Melleray 

The Mersey River is well-known as one of the best trout fishing rivers in Tasmania and we caught many where it runs through Bloomfield’s dairy farm in Kimberley, as my dad was really good friends with them. Kimberley was originally established at a fording point on the Mersey River and was the site of a convict Probation Station in 1845. It was called Kimberley after William Kimberley, who drove his sheep from the lower Midlands, then over the Mersey River at Kimberley during the summer of 1849-1850. It was the largest flock of sheep to ever come to the Northwest Coast. Getting thousands of sheep across the Mersey River was quite the feat, hence why the town was named after him. He then purchased many of the river flats between Native Plains and Latrobe.

Catching fish in the Mersey River at my brothers house 

Kimberley also has a hidden secret. The Kimberley Warm Springs would be the least-known tourist attraction in Tasmania. They are a small lake of warm water, surrounded by beautiful trees and bushes, that remains at a constant temperature of between 24–25 degrees Celsius. The springs provided much-needed warm relief for the convicts in the Probation Station back in Colonial days and similar relief for travellers these days. The waters are geothermal heated, surging up from 350 metres down.

Kimberley Warm Springs by Steven Penton under CC2

Railton

Close by to Kimberely is Railton, which was named after the Mersey-to-Deloraine Railway, which was built in the 1860s. It is also home to Goliath Cement, which began as the Tasmanian Cement Company in 1922, due to the huge limestone deposits in the area and its proximity to Devonport to ship the cement. Goliath went on to supply cement to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and cement is the main structural element of the bridge, providing the thoroughfare and approaches to the bridge and the abutments that support the metal arches that the bridge is better known for.

Goliath is such a good name for the company, because everything about it is huge. It was fascinating as a young boy to go into this huge facility, to watch the huge trucks and loaders and diggers gather the limestone from the huge open-cut mine, then deliver it to the production operations, which featured the first fully automatic mill in Australia. They were also the first company to ship bulk cement by sea.

Goliath open cut mine and processing facility by Tasmanian Archive: AA193/1/590

Latrobe

The Mersey River then enters my hometown, Latrobe, alongside Shale Road, which was such a great park to enjoy in my youth: catching trout, skimming rocks, walking along the trails dodging old mineshafts from the abandoned Shale Mine, having a BBQ, and just having fun. It’s also a great place to spot a platypus. Latrobe is known as the Platypus Capital of the World, because there’s just so many around and Shale Road is the best place to find one. It has recently been turned into a mountain bike park, and vehicular traffic is now blocked from entering. The irony that they’ve since upgraded the road, that you can no longer drive along, from a potholed windy track, to a beautifully flat and smooth road, isn’t lost on me.

Down Shale Road trying to spot a platypus

Latrobe Shale and Oil Company

Most of Tasmania’s mining is conducted down the West Coast, however, there was a fascinating little mining venture in my hometown Latrobe. The biggest oil shale deposits in Tasmania were discovered on the banks of the Mersey River in 1851, which resulted in the Tasmanian Oil and Shale Company being formed in 1902, to perform experimentation and determine how lucrative the shale deposits were. Then in 1908/09 several shafts were drilled Southeast of the Great Bend on the Mersey River, which resulted in the Latrobe Shale and Oil Company opening their mining and processing facility along Shale Road in 1912, where the odour from the extraction process was unforgettable. Then in 1920 the Commonwealth Government offered a £10,000 reward for the discovery of a payable oil deposit anywhere in Australia. This included liquid oil (petroleum), oil from coal (pelionite) and oil from shale, which resulted in the Mersey Valley oil boom of the 1920s.
In 1922 when the Tasmanian Cement Company was formed, they proposed using the shale as a fuel and utilising the spent shale as an additive in their cement. They opened a mine on the eastern shore of the Mersey River and established a shale-processing facility at their cement works in Railton.

Latrobe Shale and Oil Company by Tasmanian Archive: LPIC147/6/239

The Creek of my Life

Close to my hometown’s centre, Kings Creek flows into the Mersey River. Kings Creek is the creek of my life, as it flows directly behind my childhood home, where my brother and I had so much fun catching Tiddlies, which are tiny fish around 10cm long, and playing in the water. The creek then flows around Dooley’s Hill, where we built cubby houses in the bush, under Gilbert Street and past the Lucas Hotel where I worked as a waiter and barman. There’s a big bridge over it and I would carry meals over this bridge to the private dining room in an old brick building behind the hotel, which was quite cold on a Tasmanian winter night.

The Creek of my life, Kings Creek

Bells Parade

The Mersey River then curves around and splits in two around Pig Island. One of the splits then flows gracefully through Bells Parade, which was a shipping port and the first place the Mersey River could be safely crossed, which is why the town of Latrobe was built there. It is named after Robert Bell and Henry Bentick, who built a wharf and store there. It’s now a beautiful riverside reserve that hosts Henley-on-Mersey every Australia Day.

Bells Parade 

Henley-on-Mersey is a sports carnival that was started in 1910 as a fundraiser for the Latrobe Improvement Association, who have since worked steadily to improve Bells Parade. It includes ferret races, wood chopping, egg throwing, sheaf tossing, archery, three-legged races, jumping sack races, wheel-a-tire races, and the most amazing beer can derby, where you built a boat by taping beer cans together and then race them down the Mersey River.

Bells Parade has been continuously improved since my youth and now hosts the Axeman’s Hall of Fame, which celebrates that Latrobe held the first World Wood Chopping Championships in 1891. 

The Axeman’s Hall of Fame

They also relocated Thomas Johnson and Dolly Dalrymple’s house, Sherwood Hall, there and turned it into a museum for everyone to enjoy. Sherwood Hall is one of the oldest houses in Latrobe that was built between 1848–50 by pioneering ex-convict Thomas Johnson and his wife Dolly Dalrymple. Dolly was born in the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait, daughter of George Briggs from Bedfordshire in England, and Woretemoeteyenner (also known as Pung or Margaret), daughter of the chief, Mannarlargenna from Van Diemen’s Land. Mannarlargenna was an elder of the Plangermaireena tribe, in what is now the Ben Lomond area just outside of Launceston. 

Thomas Johnson moved to Latrobe in 1845, taking over tenancy of Frogmore House. He then became a large and respected landowner in the area, and opened a mine. They built Sherwood Hall along Railton Road, on the banks of the Mersey River. However, over the proceeding years the Mersey River eroded the riverbank, such that Sherwood Hall was in danger of being swept away, which is why the Latrobe Council relocated it to Bells Parade and saved this wonderfully historic building.

Sherwood Hall 

More recently, Bells Parade has been expanded to include Pig Island. Back when I was a youngster, it was a cow paddock, and we would wade through the cow poo to cast a fishing line into the Mersey River. They have now turned it into the most magical riverside reserve with a lush green oval and a lovely walking track around the outside.

Then from Bells Parade to the Poo factory, they have built the most amazing walking track alongside the Mersey River. Back in my youth, there was a very rough track that had been built for a vehicle, but it wasn’t easy riding a bike on it, let alone driving a vehicle! Now it’s a beautiful, paved path, which continues past the Poo factory to Ambleside along River Road, which is a narrow twisty road right alongside the river. It was dangerous just driving along, as cars coming the other way drive very fast. Back then I’d never even ride a bike along it, let alone walk! But they’ve recently built the most amazing pathway in between the river and road. I never thought in a million years that I’d walk along River Road. But the most amazing part of this path, is that the Latrobe and Devonport councils successfully worked together to build it. LOL!

The Poo Factory 

This stretch of river is part fresh and part salt because of how close it is to the sea. Which means it’s also affected by the tides, and at low tide the river ebbs back and reveals enormous mudflats, leaving the river about a quarter of the width. These are ideal fishing conditions, because as the tide rises and covers the flats, the fish go looking for the worms and bugs that have surfaced for the sunshine but have not yet burrowed down again. We had so much fun catching trout and flathead in dad’s boat along here.

The mighty Mersey River at high tide
The not so mighty Mersey River at low tide

Of course, the mudflats had their own source of fascination, seeing all the different signs of life like the crabs, and the shells, and the beetles, and the bugs, but also playing with all of that was so much fun. That alone would have been enough. But the fishing was the best.

There’s a whole stack of crabs in the mud if you’re eagle eyed enough to spot them

Devonport

The Mersey River then flows into Devonport, which originally comprised of two settlements. Charles Oldaker was the first settler at Torquay on the eastern shore in 1851. Then Formby was settled on the western shore in 1853. Coal was discovered at Tarleton in 1851, which is just up the Mersey River near Latrobe. This attracted additional population and development in Devonport. To cope with this increase in population, the police administration and courts were moved from Port Sorell, which was previously the main port and settlement in the area, to Torquay.

Tarleton

These days Tarleton is a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ town, with just a couple of houses. But back in the 1850s it was a thriving village with 34 houses, four stores, a police station, and three hotels. It’s located just past Frogmore House on the road to Devonport. The coal deposits were found by William Dean and Benjamin Cocker. The mines were established by Welsh miner Zephaniah Williams who had been arrested for high treason in the Chartist riots and transported to Tasmania, where he spent time at Port Arthur working in the coal mines. After he was pardoned, he acquired 2000 acres of land in Tarleton, established a miner’s camp and started Denison Colliery in 1853. The government assisted by constructing an access road to the mine. Zephaniah then constructed a tramway and wharf on the Mersey River, so boats could be loaded with coal. Unfortunately, his business closed in 1859 , however, he is credited with Tarleton’s early prosperity.

Shipping and Port

The Mersey River becomes quite shallow up near the Latrobe Port, so when the boats became bigger it was closed and a port was established closer to the mouth of the river to allow bigger boats to use it. Shipping and trade then began as important industries for Devonport.

The Port of Devonport by eutrophication&hypoxia under CC2

Railway

The railway from Deloraine to Devonport was a key enabler for the port. The Mersey and Deloraine Training Company was formed in 1864 to build it and they opened it for service in 1872. Unfortunately, with only 27.9km of track and a poor uptake in service, it immediately found itself in financial difficulty. After four months of service, it retired its only engine and used horsepower along the tracks for seasonal produce. In 1885 it was absorbed into the Tasmanian Government Railway, who laid new tracks and restored service.

Devonport

Formby, Torquay, Wivenhoe and Appledore amalgamated in 1890 to form Devonport, with a cross-river ferry connecting the two communities. Torquay was the larger settlement with police stations, post offices, magistrates, hotels, shipyards, and shops. The sandbar at the mouth of the river was also dredged to allow bigger ships into the river. The name Devonport was chosen because it was a port in the Tasmanian County of Devon. The Tasmanian County of Devon was named after the County of Devon in Southern England.

Dredge Davenport on the Mersey River by Tasmanian Archive PH30-1-8426

The Victoria bridge was opened in 1901 linking the Devonport communities by road, to reduce the reliance on boats and ferries to get across the Mersey River. 

Victoria Bridge by Tasmanian Archive: AUTAS0016125142737

It partially collapsed due to teredo worms in 1924. Then the concrete bridge was constructed in 1973.

Collapsed Victoria Bridge by Tasmanian Archive: AUTAS0016125142638

Port of Devonport

The Port of Devonport is personally significant for me for several reasons. My dad would take my brother and I fishing on the Devonport wharf in our youth. Here you would sit on the wharf and lower the hook, with bait, down into the water and wait for the fish to bite.

Devonport Harbour under construction by Tasmanian Archives PH30/1/729


We would also accompany him to the wharfs to watch onions being loaded onto the big ships for export to Europe. He played a big role in modifying the containers, so they kept the onions fresher during shipping by putting a fan in the side of the container to blow air through the onions. It was so much fun going into the big warehouses on the wharf to watch the big forklifts pick up the huge containers full of onions and place them on the wharf, so a giant crane could lift them onto a boat.

One of the big container ships by Stephen McGrath under CC2

Doing all these activities as a child drove an interest in how a port worked and what types of businesses operated from them. Two of the most interesting businesses that operated out of the port were Petuna Seafoods and Goliath Cement Works.

Petuna Seafoods

Petuna Seafoods is a thriving seafood business in Devonport, started by Peter and Una Rockliff in 1949 as a fishing venture. Peter had started barracuda fishing in Port Sorell, where his Dad had helped him fit out a small boat and install an engine. He then met Una at Bridport in 1949, they married, and she then played a key role in helping him establish his business. There is a personal connection here, Una’s mother Sarah was a McCormack. Her father John McCormack, was my Great Grandfather Patrick’s brother.

In the early years Peter was catching fish, but giving them away, when Una insisted they sell them. This helped Peter purchase a bigger boat called the Julia Elizabeth, which they used to catch crayfish. The boat could only hold 34 craypots, and to get another two craypots on, they had to use and name the little dinghy on the Julie Elizabeth. They eventually settled on combining their names Peter and Una, to create Petuna, and a great name was born. Although, they have recently changed the name to Peter and Una Seafoods as they edge toward retirement.

In 1964 they started venturing down the West Coast of Tasmania, going down to the treacherous Southern Ocean, living on the boat, with no radio or heating. This then encouraged them to design and build the first trawler in Tasmania, the Petuna Endeavour, which allowed them to fish down to 500–600 metres for Orange Roughy. It then took them four or five years before they found their first aggregation of Orange Roughy, but it was a gold mine and they quickly filled their boat with fish.

They then struggled to find a market for all the fish they were catching. However, Una was really good at marketing, so she started selling the fish off the Petuna Endeavour. But that meant they couldn’t use the boat to catch fish, so they bought a shop that quickly became known as the best seafood shop in Northern Tasmania.

Goliath

The Goliath Cement Works in Railton ship all their product from Devonport. They have a huge silo on the Devonport wharf, and trains would continuously pull in to deposit their loads of cement powder. The carriages they used to cart the cement powder were huge barrels, which were bigger than the train—and there were dozens of carriages being pulled by a single train. 

Cement Train by Michael Greenhill

Then the ship they used to bulk-transport the cement was a sight to see. It is literally a goliath of a ship, the MV Goliath.

Goliath silo & ship by Stephen McGrath under CC2

Mersey Yacht Club

The Mersey Yacht Club by Gary Houston under CC1

I also learned to sail on the Mersey River as a crewman for Thomas Hansen, in a small sailing dinghy with the Mersey Yacht Club. The first yacht race was held on the Mersey River at Sayer’s Point in 1877 and the club was inaugurated in 1893. 

The Mersey Yacht Club opening – built by volunteer labor by Tasmanian Archives LPIC147/2/402

It was so much fun sailing out through the Eye of the Needle, to the Edge of the Shelf—i.e., through the mouth (eye) of the Mersey River—to the edge of the Continental Shelf in Bass Strait, one of the roughest waterways in the world. But it was so much more fun surfing the big waves back in through the eye of the needle. Although you had to be careful as it was quite dangerous. Like the day when we capsized right in front of the rocky breakwater. We were five metres away from the big rocks, with three-metre-high waves. Scary doesn’t even begin to describe that situation. But we didn’t panic. My skipper had capsized on purpose one day in the river, just so I knew exactly what to do in situations like this. So we quickly got in our assigned positions, righted the boat, and swiftly sailed away. Not everyone was as lucky, and the evidence is clear to see. In 1939, the steam-driven dredge, the Agnew, ran aground on the rocky breakwater, as the skipper had missed the river mouth due to dense fog. The remains of the Agnew can still be seen at low tide.

The remains of the Agnew can be seen halfway along the breakwater 
by Tasmanian Archives AUTAS001612514

Bass Strait Ferry

Because we raced on the river, we also became very familiar with the commercial ships that plied the waters. Commercial ships have right of way, so even though we were in a sailboat at the mercy of the winds, we had to keep a sharp eye out for commercial ships. The biggest of all these ships was the Abel Tasman Bass Strait ferry, which was named after the first European to land on Tasmania. It was 150 metres long and 23 metres wide.

The Spirit of Tasmania entering the eye of the needle i.e. the mouth of the Mersey River. We capsized right in front of the breakwater! by Steven Penton under CC2

The first car-carrying ferry to link Tasmania and the mainland was the steam-driven Taroona in 1935; it could hold a small number of cars that needed to be lifted on by a crane. By the 1950s demand had increased for tourists wanting to bring their cars to Tasmania. At about the same time, Europe had started building roll-on/roll-off ferries. The Commonwealth Government then committed to building a roll-on/roll-off vessel for Tasmania, to be operated by the Australian National Line, which the government had formed in 1956. The first vessel to be used on the Devonport-to-Melbourne route was The Princess of Tasmania in 1959 and it was the largest roll-on/roll-off vessel in the world at the time.

The Princess of Tasmania by Tasmanian Archives AUTAS0016125142950

River Tribute

Now that we have flowed down through the Mersey River’s history to the end of the river, I’d like it known that when my life has similarly flowed to an end, I would like my ashes to be spread in the Mersey River at Alum Cliffs, so they can flow down through my memories, past the homes of my ancestors, out into the wide expanses of Bass Strait. From there they could venture anywhere in the world.

Added by: User Dane McCormack
Created on: 2021-10-30 17:19:20
Last Updated: 2021-10-30 17:24:03

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