The golden era of the riverboats lives on in the Murray River town of Mannum.

It could have been burning ambition that saw a 28-year-old flour miller from Devon launch the first steamboat on the Murray River. It might have been a spirit of adventure. Either way, it was certainly audacious. William Randell, who immigrated to South Australia with his family in 1837, hadn’t even set foot on a steamboat until he built one himself.

“A pugnacious little bastard,” is how Dick Bromhead, also a river captain, affectionately describes the pioneer today. What Randell wanted to do was master the Murray. He built the Mary Ann on the banks of the river with red-gum timber hauled 48 kilometres by bullock dray from Gumeracha in the Adelaide Hills.

It wasn’t all smooth steaming. The boiler needed improvised repairs after it threatened to blow. “It wasn’t the best of boilers,” says Bromhead, “but the boat made it all the way to Moama over 1000 miles upriver so it obviously worked.”

Randell was quick to capitalise on the success of that August 1853 voyage. Within a year he’d built a wharf and woolshed on the site that would become Mannum. His steamers sent supplies upriver to the goldfields and returned loaded with wool, and a thriving town grew around his operations.

Today, in the place of hundreds of steamers carrying cargo on the Murray, it’s jet skis, boats towing wakeboarders, and houseboats with holiday-makers that have the run of the river. 

But the golden age of the riverboats lives on – and not just through modern-day paddleboats, such as the Murray Princess and Proud Mary, that cruise out of Mannum.

In this small town of about 2500, more than 130 people give their time at the volunteer-run Mannum Dock Museum. Heritage paddle-steamer the Marion has long been the museum’s star attraction. Built in 1897, it’s one of the only steam-driven, wood-fired side paddle-steamers with overnight accommodation that still operates.

“The Marion has been called the ‘grand old lady of the river’ and has an important place in the history of the region and our hearts,” says Deb Alexander, executive officer of the museum. “And now we have the Mayflower expanding our fleet to help revive the glory days of the Murray.” 

The Mayflower, built in Moama in 1884, was recommissioned last November. About 30 volunteers worked for two-and-a-half years restoring the paddle-steamer to its 1913 incarnation, albeit with the addition of a diesel engine.

“The volunteers are very committed out of a sense of history,” says Bromhead, who has captained both the Marion and Mayflower. “I guess there’s a bit of myth and romance, though I can tell you that on a bloody hard day there’s not too much myth and romance. It can be hard yakka, just as it was in the old days.” 

For Bromhead, who has worked the river since the 1970s, the old days before speedboats, riverside mansions and reduced water flows were the good ones.

“Being a riverman, you have a different way of looking at things,” he says. “We’re all a bit backward – we’d like to keep the river how it was.”

If you’ve ever drifted on the Murray in the stillness of dawn, the rising sun piercing the mist and birdsong filling the sky, you’ll know that Bromhead doesn’t seem backward at all. 

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