The long, long story of the Tathra sea wharf 1862-2010 by Graeme Andrews

Many years ago, in another place and time, I would sometimes see a small black dot, trailing a feather of black smoke, way, way out to sea.
From my home at Tathra I could see approaching one or other of the two small steamers that served the sea port of Tathra. If time allowed I would run down the street, across Tathra Beach and around the rocks to watch the ship arrive.
The local wharfies would be there, along with various farmers and traders, preparing to load cargo or receive consignments and soon the wharf would be a mass of movement, all of this as the little ship rose and fell alongside the massive wooden structure that was, and is, the Tathra sea wharf.
The wharf looked old and tired, one stormy day in 1978.
The Tathra sea wharf still exists but its very existence depends on the good will of a generation of people who have never seen it in action and upon a council that has shown little real interest in the heritage of the local area, all of this against the background of a recent sad accident that has cast something of a shadow over the great wharf.
The Tathra wharf is sited on a headland at Tathra on the NSW south coast. It clings to the northern side of the point which provides some shelter against the great storms that blast the south coast – but not always enough.
The wharf was first constructed as long ago as 1862. Some of the original turpentine piles are still in use deep within the structure. A cargo shed was erected on the deck in 1866 and since then the wharf has variously been extended in depth and width.
Cattle yards were built in 1903 and the present two story shed erected in 1907. By 1911 so much cargo was being accepted that a type of mezzanine deck was constructed under the upper deck and soon after a jib crane was added.
When the great wharf was in active use it provided cargo and passenger facilities, as the main means of transport between Tathra, outlet for the Bega Valley, and Sydney. Roads were poor. Rail came no nearer than Bombala on the southern slopes.
The little ships of the Illawarra and South Coast Steam Navigation Co – the ‘Pig and Whistle Line’ – provided most of the necessities of life to the population extending a hundred or so square miles around the sea wharves of Tathra and the more exposed smaller wharf at Merimbula, a few hours steaming south.
Locals unload a truck at the wharf during the 1930s.  / The museum closed and few visitors in October 2010. Does the wharf still have a future?
The sometimes heavy seas along the coast took their toll of the wharf and it was often damaged. How the locals managed to create and maintain such a structure in the conditions has long intrigued me. It would probably be impossible to create such a structure today. It may, in fact, be impossible to maintain it for many more years as it has no practical use now other than as a tourist site and a fishing platform.
The tragic loss of a young father and his children, fallen from the wharf during a fishing trip in 2008, added to the PR problems of those who try to create public interest in repair and retention of the Last Remaining NSW Sea Wharf.
If the wharf was liable to take a battering, so too where the ships. Many were lost at sea, often with some loss of life. Many of the south coast ports involved crossing the bar at the mouth of a river and many ships came to grief this way. Some had very long lives, others such as SS Bodalla, completed in 1924, wrecked in March 1924 did not.
Better roads after the Second World War, greater use of the private motor car and the increasing age and maintenance of the little ships, meant that the 1950s brought the end of the trade. Earnings were too little to justify a new or even better ship. Wage demands and industrial action did little to prolong the service.
In 1927 the last of the coastal passenger ships SS Merimbula was wrecked, just north of Jervis Bay. She was the biggest ship ever to work the run and she was almost the same length, mass and speed of one of today’s Manly ferries!
The last ship to work cargo at the Tathra Wharf was SS Cobargo (1929; 860 tons gross) in 1954. She worked for another decade or so elsewhere. The older SS Bergalia became the last steamer to visit the wharf when she arrived later that year to remove various valuable items of wharf equipment.
Cobargo, seen here in the 1930s, became the last ship to work cargo at the wharf when she left in 1954. GKA Collection.The wharf went to sleep.
By 1973 the NSW Public Works Department was calling the wharf ‘unsafe’ and recommending demolition. The NSW National Trust rallied locals in a bid to save the wharf.
By 1977 a Tathra Wharf Trust had been formed and an appeal had been launched. Plans were drawn up for retention. By 1982 this had been successful in that minor parts of the wharf were demolished, a few more recent buildings were removed and the decking had been replaced, along with restoration of the two story shed.
Under the leadership of the late local Mrs Daisy Brearlin a museum was established on the upper deck of the wharf building and plans were made to run a commercial café and tourist shop on the lower floor. Public amenities were constructed and safety equipment fitted. The mezzanine deck was removed for visitor safety.
In June 1994 fisher families enjoy the fishing and the view of the Tathra Beach.It was 1982 that I re-visited the great wharf. I was able to offer some help with images of some of the ships that had served the area and I became friends with the, mainly, elderly people who were battling to raise interest among a new generation who had never seen a ship near Tathra.
In the intervening years the museum suffered from lack of volunteers. Some work was carried out on the structure but road access had become more difficult as one leg of the access loop road had been closed by boulders after heavy seas smashed over the headland.
A slight sea nibbles at the base of the wharf supports in 1986. File 874-12, GKA.In 2010 I again visited the site. It was impossible for tour buses to reach the wharf unless all other traffic was barred. Asking elderly bus travellers to both walk down to the wharf and back up to the bus meant that the wharf seemed not to be on the bus tour run. The museum was ‘closed for renovations’ while the shop seemed to be doing little business among those few visitors wandering about, not helped by the surly shop attendant on duty.
Will the Great Tathra Sea Wharf last out this century? I doubt it. I feel that the odds are just too great for that to happen but in the meantime if you can find an opportunity to visit – do so, but you won’t even be able to find a donation box!