Goolwa Barrages 1940

Goolwa goes to war again 1939-1945 - and Completion of the Goolwa Barrages

February 1940

The war in Europe is still in what is being called the “phoney war” stage in the lowland nations, France and England. No one has doubts about what is happening in Poland and Finland as Germany and the Soviets overruns these countries, knowing that we have not seen the end of their expansionism.

In the United States, President Roosevelt plans to send envoys to neutral European countries to sound them out on how they plan to handle their positions with the Axis powers. Around the British empire, countries begin to respond to Westminster’s call to arms by offering trained forces, food and supplies to the mother country. Australia potentially can now offer air crews, naval, and large trained army units as its contribution to the call.

Under the Defence Act of 1903, members of the part-time Militia or the permanent military force could not serve outside Australia or its territories, unless they volunteered. To make provision for volunteer army service, in September 1939 the Menzies government moved to form the Second AIF, a planned expeditionary force of 20,000. Then in November last year, the federal government announced reintroduction of conscription for a home defence force which came into effect last month. All fit unmarried men turning 21 would be drafted into the militia.

The new local unit which now incorporates the former volunteer militia, has already set up its headquarters in the old Australasian Hotel in Goolwa. In a few weeks this building will be vacated by the River Murray Commission officers as they wind up of their barrage construction affairs in the town.

Although the numbers of men who were engaged in the barrage construction works had fallen dramatically this year, a few are being retained for the post-construction clean-up work which will last for a few more weeks yet. Of those who were paid off, many have been found jobs elsewhere, taking their families with them. Some have moved to Whyalla for positions at the BHP blast furnaces and harbour construction works while others took jobs at the Imperial Chemical Industries salt fields at Osbourne. Others are being assisted in obtaining work wherever those opportunities arise.

25year-old Walter Ingelram (Wal or Wally) Balfour-Ogilvy, who as a young fireman came down-river from his birthplace in Renmark to take on a position at the beginning of the Goolwa barrage works in 1935. Wal had seen the works finish and the world was now at war, so he decided he would join up. He had developed personal interests at Goolwa which would develop into a life-long attachment, but on this day Tuesday February 13, 1940 he is enlisting to become the third man from Goolwa to join the RAAF.

Goolwa, over the past five years of the great barrage construction work has been as busy as it has ever been since the 1880’s at the height of the Murray Darling river trade. But this year began in sharp decline of business and social activity as barrage construction work has been completed and a mass exodus of workers and their families are leaving the town. One recently arrived newcomer, a retired former head waiter at the South Australia Hotel, commented to a journalist that the town was “dead as a door nail” now barrage construction had ended and that “last Friday five dogs were asleep in the main street”.

While the barrage building boom had come to an end, there would be three permanent pillars of Goolwa’s economy, centred around agriculture, tourism and fishing, that the town would need to sustain it. Of these, agriculture is significant and stable, tourism is small and growing, although may fall off subject to war impositions. Fishing presently is vitally important as it approaches its yearly season when mulloway begin their run through the Murray Mouth and down through the long Coorong stretches.

The fishing fleet now passes through the new barrage lock chamber into the seawater side of the Goolwa channel and the Coorong waters. Some of the fishing boats carry a spotter who sits in a boson’s chair perched high on the masthead signalling the helm towards the catch. The boat’s dinghy with its long hauling net piled high on a net board near its stern then quickly circles the catch and the fishermen set to work in the net trap to throw their catch into the dinghy. As each outfit has its catch loaded it heads for the Goolwa wharf where the fish are landed, processed and dispatched to the city market, either by road transport or by the nearby railway.

The huge catches are constant with all fishermen shuttling backwards and forward between hauling grounds and wharf. At this time, mid-February, so many tons of fish have been sent to the metro market from Goolwa that the city market was suffering a glut. The professional fishermen have been making such big hauls here that they have now exceeded demand and have been notified that no further consignments will be accepted by their agents at the city market until further notice.

People on both sides of the river have lost the services of ferry operator Dan Merritt, who this month has given up the contract of running the service. They will miss his cheery and courteous manner and his willingness to oblige after being served by him since 1935. Dan had taken the service over from his father George, a former river skipper who had retired after overseeing the ferry from 1903. Change has come also for the ferry after five years of heavy wear and tear, carrying heavy vehicles and equipment for barrage construction across the islands. The P.S. WILLIAM RANDELL arrived here from Morgan a few days ago towing a temporary ferry which will replace the existing craft for a time when it will be towed upstream for a complete refit and returned.

Locals also have noticed the presence of the SA Government’s steamer P.S. INDUSTRY which arrived recently and has just departed from the wharf where it was moored for several days. After taking on a barge loaded with dredging gear now surplus to the completed barrage works at Goolwa, it has sailed for Blanchetown where the dredging equipment will be used for excavation work to improve approaches for the ferry service there.

Water salinity testing being carried out on water quality levels around the extensive area behind the newly closed barrages and upstream toward Murray Bridge, during the month to reveal salinity changes in that freshwater body. Tests made this time last year before closure, measured up to 1,200 grains of salt to the gallon. After just three weeks of barrage operation, tests made at the same points as last year shows the salt content has fallen dramatically to just 20 grains per gallon. Other environmental changes have been observed were of the rapid and healthy regrowth of reeds and rushes along the river banks which engineers and environmentalists agree is necessary for protection against erosion while returning a benefit for cattle grazing, restoring both property values and breeding grounds for fish, aquatic fauna and birds.

As February 1940 comes to an end, the present cycle of hot weather continues but we are certainly thankful for those mostly regular late afternoon sea breezes to give relief from the heat. Locals enjoy the pleasure of a late afternoon dip in the surf and family evening meals on the beach to have a break and put aside for a couple of hours the concerns of the world at war.

AROUND THE TOWN - Feb 2020 - by Frank Tuckwell