The long story of the old Wisemans Ferry punt by Graeme Andrews

The cable ferry crossing at Wisemans Ferry on the Hawkesbury River has long been touted as Australia’s longest-established public transport service.
Briefly, a cable crossing has been in use at this narrow part of the river since at least 1829. In those days it was the only means of crossing the river dry-shod for those with wheeled traffic or with livestock. On the southern side the road led back to Sydney. On the northern side the meandering track eventually reached Newcastle. This was then the Great Northern Road.
Solomon Wiseman was the instigator and operator, initially responsible for the crossing but soon adding various stores and a pub for the benefit of weary travellers. The hamlet of Wisemans Ferry still offers services for much the same reasons.
From 1966 until 2007 the ferry service was run, mainly, by the much-loved steel punt No8. She was supported by a newer and smaller punt which was used to help cope with holiday traffic. She was replaced by the larger, faster and much noisier, Punt No. 58 in 2007.
It’s possible that good old Punt Number 8 could claim various titles. Perhaps she could claim the title of having carried the greatest number of passengers of any Australian passenger vessel! Perhaps she could claim that she has travelled a greater distance than any other Australian passenger ferry? It’s impossible to substantiate any such claims but contemplate this.
Punt No. 8 was built at the Walsh Island dockyard, Newcastle, originally for use across the Hunter River at Raymond Terrace in 1926. She was built of riveted steel and was powered by a steam engine. She seems only to have been on this run for a short time because she was taken to the Clarence River at Grafton in 1926 as the existing punt was becoming too small.
At this time the big double-decked Grafton road-rail bridge of today had not been built and vehicles crossed the river by cable ferry while railway trains used one of two large train ferries.
In 1932 the bridge was completed and Punt No. 8 was looking for another position.
Steam powered No. 8 at Harwood.Downstream from Grafton, the Clarence River was much wider (c. 800m) at Harwood and it was here that the Pacific Highway reached a bottleneck that grew worse every year.
A punt had worked at this site since about 1885 but by 1932 the increase in motor vehicles was making the necessity for a bridge glaringly obvious. Until the financial and political will developed, Punt No. 8 had found a new role. With her capacity for 28 vehicles she was able to cope reasonably well. Along the way her steam plant was replaced with a diesel engine and she gained some speed.
When I first used her services in 1958 I waited for about 30 minutes on the south side. It was a forced rest during which time I bought some lunch and an ice cream from an enterprising bloke with a tray who walked along the cars selling goodies. Not far from the ramp was a public toilet.
No. 8 nears the south bank, 1985.While awaiting one’s turn it was possible to watch a variety of commercial vessels coming and going. The PWD (Public Works Department) maintained several steam dredges along the northern rivers, while cane tugs could often be seen with perhaps a dozen cane barges, heading for the big cane mill on the northern shore downstream of the cable crossing. The mill itself would often have a sea-going ship alongside loading cane.
When safely on No 8 there was another 10 minutes in which to look at the river from other angles before the travellers re-mounted their vehicles for the next leg north.
Today one crosses the road bridge at Harwood in about 60 seconds and there must be many who don’t actually see the river at all.
In 1966 the present road bridge was opened for traffic and No 8 was ‘between jobs’ once again. Not for long.
At Wisemans Ferry on the Hawkesbury River the existing punts were having trouble coping, particularly of a weekend as Sydneysiders had ‘discovered’ the river and water skiing was the coming Big Thing.
Punt No. 8 was towed south and set about another 41 years of reliable work. Her biggest excitement probably came in the big 1978 Hawkesbury Flood. Another one like that will cause some anguish among later newcomers who have built homes rather closer to the river than some older residents might think prudent.
The flood took the ferries with it. Despite various combinations of lashings, the punts headed downstream. There was real danger. If the floating mass should smash into one of the pylons of the road bridge at Peats ferry, great damage might ensue.
My Goggomobil on No. 8, northbound in 1959.The battle by several small tugs to take charge of the mass – travelling at five or six knots – makes thrilling reading and in full can be read in When the ferries got away, written and published by Bill Bottomley in 1998. The ferries were finally stopped and secured just a few hundred metres upstream of the present highway road bridge.
Plans have been announced from time to time for a bridge over the river at Wisemans Ferry but the technical problems and location aspects of the project have, hopefully, postponed the idea indefinitely.
No. 58’s ‘saloon’, 2010.In the meantime, in 2007, a new, bigger, faster and noisier punt, Punt No 58 came into service. All welded in comparison with the riveted plate construction of No. 8, she represents the state-of-the-art, new world of Occupational Safety and the Nanny State.
When, once upon a time, car passengers got out and took pix of the punt and its surroundings, these passengers are now required to stay in their vehicles. Foot passengers must stay in the fenced off ‘sheep race’ on the side but there is a small saloon with a wooden bench.
Two inscribed plates on the punt’s superstructure tell the story of the punt and of the crossing, but those in cars will never read them.
New Punt No. 58 reaches south bank with a goodly load, March 2010.Crossing rivers by cable punt is always an interesting event. There are several along the Murray River and four smaller punt crossings in the Hawkesbury system. There are still several on NSW northern rivers but none on the main highway. There’s even one crossing the Parramatta River at Putney. Cable punts can still provide an excuse to stop, take a break and enjoy the scenery – long may they survive.
Early in 2010 No 8, stripped of most of its fittings, was moored in a bay on the Parramatta River, Sydney. Perhaps she has a few years work left as a work pontoon or lighter?