The Alexandra Canal
Lying still and fetid across the track of motorists using Canal Rd, St Peters, is Sydney’s Alexandra Canal – the sad remnant of a once-grand scheme to link Botany Bay with Port Jackson.
The Alexandra Canal and nearby Muddy Creek are almost all that is left of a scheme that envisaged small ships and port vessels moving between the two waterways by following, broadly, the course of the Cooks River, and joining the Parramatta River at Homebush Bay.
In the later part of the 19thC proponents of such schemes were fascinated by the inland waterways of Europe and North America and hoped they could be copied in Australia.
In 1848 an Act was passed which banned certain noxious trades in the immediate area of Sydney. Proprietors of tanneries and similar establishments were moved away from the city to Sheas Creek, a small tributary of the Cooks River. All the resultant effluent was allowed to run into Botany Bay via Cooks River – a case of out of sight and out of mind!
Around 1891 Sheas Creek had been developed as far as Canal Rd with bank stabilization and constant depth dredging and the proposal was to continue this work as far as Alexandra Park at Buckland St. From the present Canal Rd bridge to the end was intended to be about 3,000m long.
By 1892 the extension had been widened to about 80 metres and ships of up to 200 tonnes were bringing imported timber from New Zealand while others were loading soap for export to Mauritius. Steamers from the NSW south coast were expected to soon use the new waterway, bringing blue metal, firewood, coal and sundry farm produce.
In 1893 the work rate increased with large dredges at work but work stopped for some months, probably because of the depression of the time. In the following year the Muddy Creek canal was extended from Cooks River. It reached a length of about 700m and a width of 30m. For the last 50 years or so the resultant basin was used as a mooring area for small craft, mainly to do with the nearby Cooks River Boat Club.
While Sheas Creek and Muddy Creek were formed, work continued on the extensions of the Cooks River. In 1894 The Professional Engineering Association of New South Wales advocated removal of the then Tempe dam to re-create the flow of the river which had become foul. The association advocated planning to cut a canal from the river to the Parramatta River, entering the Port Jackson via Homebush Bay.
As with many great plans the financial costs originally estimated bore little resemblance to the actual outlay and by about 1908 enthusiasm for the Alexandra Canal was dropping off. The last report of the time that discusses maintenance work was in 1912 when “Drains and floodgates [received] some attention.”
For the next 70 or 80 years the canal, variously now known as Sheas Creek or the Alexandra Canal was largely ignored by authorities and by the marine trade. It was used chiefly as a drain for wool washing and other polluting industries with a variety of industrial buildings massing along the built-up banks.
Meanwhile, the plan to connect the Cooks River to Port Jackson bubbled along. The Professional Engineering Association published an artist’s impression map of the intended inter-port canal in a book published in 1929. Our Ocean to Ocean Opportunity generated enough interest, along with press cartoons, songs, artist’s impressions, slogans and political pressure, for government to outlay 94,000 pounds to dredge the river as far as Burwood Rd. This dredging of the river was not completed until 1947!
Very little seems to have happened since then but in 1975 a six month survey by environmentalists produced a publication Cooks River: Environment, survey and Landscape Design which was published in 1976.
A considerable amount of green space enhancement was the result along the Cooks River banks during the last several decades and the river has started to attract visitors and passive recreation projects.
In 1998 the then government of NSW granted $5,000 to students of the University of NSW to create designs that could improve the amenity of the area around Alexandra Canal. This was followed by a 1999 plan by the South Sydney Development Corporation suggesting that some $300 million should be outlaid to produce housing, cafes, cycle ways and all the usual aspects of such plans. Nothing much has happened from this plan although the famous and obvious old wool sheds that provided such an inflammable area were removed.
Any form of fishing in the canal was banned in 2000 although locals hadn’t fished there for decades and various governments seem to have reached the conclusion that the toxic sediment levels of the bottom might be better left alone rather than encouraged to leach into the main part of Botany Bay.
There is still a vision by groups, such as the Australian Canal Society, to publicise alterations to the general area that could provide a major recreational, ecological and visual green corridor system that would visually enhance an area that has been ignored for more than 100 years but it seems unlikely to attract much effort.
The Hawthorne Canal
There seems never to have been any plan to join the Hawthorne Canal to a larger waterway. It is more likely that the cleaning up of Long Cove Creek at the south end of Iron Cove, owes more to a combination of job creation during the 1890s recession and real estate development, which was almost ubiquitous around Port Jackson’s foreshore during the last two decades of the 19thC.
The original 1890 scheme to widen and ‘tidy up’ the banks of Long Cove Creek may be an excellent example of a plan that ‘seemed to be a good idea at the time.’
The idea, it seems was to allow a navigable ‘spur’ south from Iron Cove towards Parramatta Rd. This involved removing mangroves and widening and straitening the creek, with the development of housing lots being the main driver.
As part of the attraction, a ferry service to Sydney was to be provided by the Drummoyne- Leichhardt ferry company from a wharf situated opposite Barton Street. This started in 1903 and worked for about one year.
Despite a life-long interest in Sydney’s ferries I’m yet to locate the name of any ferry that ran that route.
Several return services per day ran to the Erskine St ferry terminal in Darling Harbour but the small size of the ferries needed and the extension of tram lines to the area soon discouraged the ferry service.
A launching ramp near the entry into Iron Cove was popular for many years but seems not to be there now. It’s many years since I last went up the canal in a small boat but images on the web showing urban renewal work along the banks suggest that Hawthorne Canal has finally found some urban value. Considerable recreation infrastructure can be seen along the way.