May 26, 2024

How the Yarra Changed Its Course

The Yarra River is an intrinsic part of Melbourne;  but did you know its current course is a man-made construct, very different to how it flowed out to sea originally?

Cityscape of Melbourne with Yarra river, Victoria, Australia

The Yarra has always been the gateway to Melbourne.

When John Batman arrived in 1835, looking to start a farming colony, he found the coastline a swampy, inhospitable place. He made no effort to settle on the coast, instead making his way up river and inland, until he was halted by a small waterfall (roughly where Elizabeth Street is today).

One of the earliest pictures of Melbourne, from 1838. Note the name of the river, 'Yarra Yarra'.

Here his party found a lush, shallow valley between two low hills; exactly, in other words, what they had been looking for.

The local Indigenous population knew the significance of the river to the local environment.

They used it for transport and fishing, and called it 'Birrarung', the place of mist and shadows. However, a member of Batman's crew, surveyor John Wedge, would supply the name we know the river by today.

Trying to communicate with members of the local Wurundjeri tribe, Wedge asked them what they called the river. Not understanding English, the tribesman replied 'Yarro Yarro', meaning 'It flows'. Wedge took this to be the river's name, and it has been called the 'Yarra' ever since.

An aerial map from 1864; note the convoluted course of the Yarra.

But while the Yarra linked the new settlement to the sea, it came with its own set of problems.

It was a shallow river, and prone to flood. And its final stretch out to sea was narrow, and winding, and difficult for large ships to navigate. Once Melbourne began to flourish - as it did rapidly, on the back of the gold rush, and an agricultural boom - the local authorities turned their attention to solving these problems.

Enter John Coode.

Engineer, John Coode.
Engineer, John Coode.

Born in Cornwall in 1816, Coode studied civil engineering at Plymouth University, before starting a career in the public service. Specialising in harbour design, Coode established his reputation in the Colonial service, overseeing major overhauls of the ports at Colombo (Sri Lanka) and Table Bay (South Africa).

Diligent and hard-working, and undaunted by large projects, he was considered to be one of the foremost engineers of his day.

In 1878, the Melbourne Harbour Trust retained Coode to review Melbourne's port facilities, and their integration with the Yarra. Thorough as ever, Coode spent a year researching a voluminous report that contained a raft of recommendations.

Chief among them; that the Yarra should be dredged, and widened, and its erratic path to the sea straightened. Coode proposed the construction of an artificial channel, cutting off the corner at Fisherman's Bend, and changing the course of the river so it would now flow directly from the city to the  bay.

While the proposal was ambitious, and expensive, the benefits would be significant. The deeper, wider river would be easier to navigate, and the more direct route would save shipping time.

Construction underway on the canal, circa 1880.

In 1880 the State Government accepted Coode's proposals, along with another recommendation to build a new wharf at the west end of the city (what would become Victoria Harbour).

Huge earth embankments were built to buttress the existing banks of the river, so a channel could be dug behind them. An army of unemployed labourers, supplied by the economic downturn of the 1880s, was assembled and set to work, manually carving out the 4km long channel.

This mammoth project, one of Melbourne's largest, would take six years to complete.

A view of 'Coode's Canal', shortly after completion.

Finally, in 1886, the walls holding the river back were removed, and the newly dug channel was flooded. Officially known as 'Coode's Canal', all of the promised benefits were shortly realised and the project hailed as a great success.

There was also an unintended consequence.

While the bulk of the Yarra followed its new, artificial channel, a small volume of water continued to flow down the original course. This effectively created a new island, of the land that stood between the new and old river course.

A graphic showing the old and new courses of the Yarra.

It was dubbed 'Coodes' Island', after its unwitting creator. And the island would enjoy a short, colourful history.

After its creation, it sat vacant for two decades, before being put to use as a quarantine station for animals arriving from overseas.

A vacant Coode Island, visible at the top of the photo.

By 1915 it was also in use as a sanitorium, providing care for people suffering from contagious diseases, including plague and tuberculosis.

It also served as home for the homeless; some of Melbourne's itinerant population erected huts and shanties on disused parts of the island.

Larkin test aircraft on Coode Island.

In 1927 the Larkin Aircraft Company took over the lease, and erected a large complex that included a factory and an airstrip. Plane design and test flights were conducted there from the 1920s, through to World War II (a location featured in the Peter Carey novel, 'Illywacker').

After the war, Larkin closed the airstrip and the island was taken over by several petrochemical companies. Major industrial plant was constructed, and petroleum products manufactured, refined and stored.

By this time, the old Yarra had disappeared for good.

The Yarra River today; Coode Island and the old river course have disappeared.

The flow of water down the original riverbed had slowly diminished over the years, and much of the river had either evaporated, or been covered over by construction. By the 1960s it was gone altogether.

The former island is now an industrial park on the northern riverbank, one of many operated by the Port Authority. The name Coode Island still appears on some maps though, including Google Maps, and so serves as a final reminder of the time the Yarra changed its course.


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