Eden from the earliest days of European occupation has been regarded as a port with potential. In reality, Eden is one of only two regional ports controlled by NSW Maritime.
The other is Yamba.
Shipping at Eden commenced with small vessels owned by the original pioneers using their own small vessels. The Imlays, Walkers and Boyd conducted most of the shipping until the 1840s. There was, from early times, an anchorage in Snug Bay and a wharf there from 1860. At nearby Cattle Bay, cattle were loaded onto waiting ships by swimming them out and slinging them on board. This lasted until 1896.
However, shipping from Eden required goods to come by road from the surrounding districts and this became more problematical as the volume of trade increased.
Eventually, this led to the development of many regional ‘ports’ at Merimbula (wharf opened 1855), Tathra (wharf opened in 1862 and restored and re-opened in 1988) and Bermagui (wharf for coastal steamers opened in1888). Exports included dairy products, pigs, cattle, whale oil, timber and railway sleepers, potatoes, fish and other seafoods, tan bark and, in limited quantities, sheep and grain.
In 1858, the Illawarra Steam Navigation Company was incorporated through a merger of the Kiama Steam Navigation Company, the Twofold Bay Pastoral Association and a small fleet owned by Sydney entrepreneur, Edye Manning. Originally, sailing ships provided the service. The first steamer was William IV, known as ‘Puffin Billy’.
An unusual event led the newly established company to order SS Kembla, a fast, paddlewheel steamer, launched on 18 August 1860 in Scotland.
That unusual event was the discovery of gold in 1859 in the mountains at Kiandra. Buoyed by Bathurst, Ballarat and Bendigo, thousands of miners made their way to this new El Dorado.
The most convenient way to reach Kiandra was to take a ship to Eden or Merimbula, travel to Pambula and from there proceed on foot. Eden and Pambula experienced a phenomenal growth of stores specializing in prospector’s needs.
However, the diggings only proved valuable to a very few. Many diggers, especially with the onset of the freezing alpine weather, gave up their golden dream and struggled back to Eden, hoping for an outwards berth or a passage to other, more promising, diggings.
Gold was found and mines established at other towns in the district. Mines at Wolumla still operated as late as 1950. But there was never another Kiandra goldrush.
With the advent of steam-driven vessels and the opening up of the surrounding countryside because of the Free Selection Act of 1861, shipping became the only reasonable way in which goods and passengers could be brought to or taken from the district.
The railway only reached Bomaderry in 1893 and the Princes Highway was not a reality until the 1920s.
The early days of the Illawarra Steam Navigation Company saw passengers and livestock as close travelling companions. There was also a tradition of ships sounding a siren as they approached a wharf… a signal for readying the wharf handlers. As a result, the line was often referred to as the ‘Pig and Whistle Line’.
The company had a name change in 1904 when the Illawarra & South Coast Steam Navigation Company was incorporated.1
Passenger comforts were greatly enhanced with the commissioning of the SS Merimbula in 1909; a ship of 1,112 tonnes providing a fast (13 knots) service to and from Sydney. She was wrecked on Beecroft Head in 1928 and this saw the end of a service that had spanned nearly ninety years. The availability of road transport in the 1920s meant that the ship would never be replaced.
The bow of the SS Merimbula can still be found on the rock platform at Beecroft Head, walking distance from Currarong. In addition to Merimbula, in 1914, the company took delivery of two cargo vessels designed to for the transportation of timber. They were SS Benandra and SS Bodalla. This indicates the growing importance of the south coast hardwood timber industry around Eden. By 1941, because of WWII there were only two vessels, the SS Bergalia and the SS Cobago left working the south coast.
The SS Cobargo’s last voyage was from Tathra in 1954 and SS Bergalia’s from the same port in 1955. Eden nearly made it as the site of the nation’s capital. In 1902, Sir John Lyne suggested several sites, one of which was Bombala-Eden. The final decision to choose Canberra- Jervis Bay was not made until 25 February 1909.
After the closure of Davidson’s whaling station in the 1930s, commercial fishing became an important industry for Eden and fish were transported to Orbost in Victoria via the Princes Highway. From there, fish were sent to Melbourne by rail. Tuna in large numbers were observed in the area as early as 1936 but they were thought to have no commercial value.
Fishing took a backward step during WWII. However, in 1945, with the return of several boats, the fishing industry accelerated and the Eden Fishermen’s Co-operative was registered in 1945.
In 1947, work began on the construction of the Green Products Cannery at Cattle Bay.
The cannery started production c.1949 and the industry rapidly expanded. The Green family sold to Kraft Foods in 1961 when spotter planes were used to locate and track the schools of tuna. In 1974 Kraft sold to the Heinz Company.
Re-development and expansion followed. However on 4 May 1999 the Greenseas Tuna Cannery closed. Many former cannery workers ultimately found employment at the Bega Cheese Factory.
Trawling also produced many species of fish and, by 1972, Eden was the largest supplier of fish to the Sydney Fish Markets and a major supplier to the Melbourne Fish Markets. However, the fishery was over-fished so in 1982, it was placed under management with restrictions on many fish species and abalone. Consequently, the number of commercial fishermen declined.
On my visit, I spoke with local fishermen who told me there were only about six large trawlers now working from Eden with some sailing as far as South Australian waters to drop their nets. There were also only two smaller fishing boats, the rest having re-located to Mallacoota in Victoria.
Timber has always been an important industry for Eden.
Hardwood from local forests was readily used in the building industry. It was also the source of wooden railway sleepers and telegraph poles. Both have now been replaced with other materials.
Today, the port of Eden is a principal export point for timber and timber products. Each year, around 800,000 tonnes of woodchips are exported to south-east Asia as well as more than 60,000 tonnes of softwood timber being sent mainly to Japan and Korea.
Harris Daishowa constructed woodchip storage and packaging facilities in 1971.
In 2003, a multi-purpose wharf and munitions facility were constructed to expand naval repair and refit operations and increase the port’s timber export capacity. It is at this wharf, on the southern shores of Twofold Bay, where the very occasional cruise ship berths and passengers are ferried to Eden either by coach or by the ship’s boats.
It is true that tourism has recently played a more important part in the commercial activities of Eden. Being located at the southern end of the Sapphire Coast, the marketing of the region’s desirable qualities is well underway. There is also a major horse racing facility called the Sapphire Coast Turf Club located near Bega.
Thoroughbred racing also takes place at other smaller centres. There is whale watching at Eden and tourist destinations at Boyd Town and Kiah Inlet. There is also the excellent Eden Killer Whale Museum.
However, on my visit to Eden, I was conscious of what I might call a ‘cargo cult’ mentality. Eden was waiting for something to happen; something that would suddenly enliven the town and bring prosperity and recognition to its residents. The expansion of oil exploration in Bass Strait is the present ‘white hope’. The page-one article from the Magnet of 24 July 2008 titled ‘Good oil for Eden’ by Stan Gorton reinforces the message that Eden would like to hear. The article begins: The future of Eden as a supply port to the expanding Bass Strait oil fields is looking bright with regular oil transfer and logistic operations likely in the future.
There is no doubting the earnestness of the plea for a pivotal role for Eden in this new and exciting enterprise. But those acquainted with Eden’s history will be aware that such enthusiasm has been present in the past but has withered on the vine.
My guess is that even these new enterprises will not revive Eden. I put the chances between Buckley’s and nil for Eden achieving a significant commercial turnaround.
The Eden Killer Whale Museum, 2008.
1 The ships in the Illawarra and South Coast Steam Navigation Company’s fleet can be accessed at:
*Gregory Blaxell is an historian and author. He has been boating offshore and in the harbour for more than 25 years. His latest book is The River: Sydney Cove to Parramatta.