Prior to the construction of The Entrance at Lakes Entrance, Victoria in 1889, the Gippsland Lakes would naturally fill to a high level before the pressure caused by the build up of water would be intense enough to break through the Ninety Mile Beach sand dunes which are continuously replenished by the ocean surf of Bass Strait. In the early years of settlement, this natural phenomenon provided an intermittent and unreliable pathway between Bass Strait and Gippsland’s lakes and rivers, affording the transport link between Gippsland’s Steamers and the coastal, national and international shipping lines accessing the rest of Australia as well as the rest of the World.
” . . . The summer of 1846 and 1847 was unusually dry, and the owners of runs bordering the lakes were surprised to find the waters continually rising and over-flowing all the low lands and morasses; and this went on until the water in the river Latrobe was backed up as far as the Tanjil Station which is situated between 5 and 6 miles above the Latrobe Bridge. Mr Boyd Cuningham, of Roseneath, being the principal sufferer from the overflow of Lake Wellington, purchased the cutter Wave from me, and proceeded with Mr Arthur King to the Entrance, where they found a high sandbank had formed, which effectually dammed up the lake waters to a height [roughly estimated] of 9 feet above sea level. The bank was about 300 yards wide. After a few days’ work, they succeeded in making a cut so that the lakes once more flowed into the sea, but provisions falling short, they returned to Roseneath, and the trench they had cut not being wide enough was soon choked. Again Mr Cuningham accompanied by Messrs Wilkinson and Rhodes, his son, with 2 or 3 men whose names I forget, returned to the Entrance and succeeded at last in freeing the imprisoned waters. In the space of an hour a deep channel was cleaned out . . . “
– Source: Excerpt – Gippsland Times – published 26th May 1879
The problem remained, however, that the natural entrance was:
→ very dangerous
→ often closed &/or not navigable
→ variable in size, depth and location
→ subject to a variable and treacherous bar
→ exposed & vulnerable to gale force winds & large surf
Built in 1859, the PS ‘Thommy Norton’, as she was affectionately known, was brought to the Gippsland Lakes by the newly formed ‘Gippsland Lakes Navigation Company’ in 1864. During the times that there was a navigable channel between the lakes and the ocean, the paddle steamer PS ‘Thomas Norton’ was one of the pilot tugs used to tow and navigate sail and steam vessels through this treacherous stretch of water.
After some thirteen years of traversing the waters of the lakes and rivers – towing endless water vessels though the challenging and every changing passage joining Bass Strait to the Gippsland Lakes, on the 26th October 1877 – just 2 years before the Artificial Entrance was completed – between 6:00 and 7:00 pm, the PS ‘Tommy Norton’ was wrecked on the western spit of the entrance location at that time. Ruthlessly pounded by relentless waves, the little paddle steamer held on to ensure no lives were lost:
” . . . And now the latest proof is the complete wreck of the steamer Thomas Norton, the most useful vessel the Gippsland Steam Navigation Company possessed for the navigation of the lakes between Sale and Bairnsdale while the Entrance was closed, and as a pilot boat while the channel was open. She has now gone to pieces at the Entrance, and her remains whatever may be left of her, belong to some insurance society. While we are not in a position to say that a telegraph line could have been of any material avail in an endeavour to save the little steamer from wreck, being entirely past help shortly after striking, the establishment of an office within sight of the Entrance might have been the means of sending early assistance to those on board of her, who spent the whole night in terror and suspense, momentarily expecting the little steamer to go to pieces and they to be cast adrift at the mercy of the rough cruel waves, which were furiously dashing her backwards and forwards on her sandy bed . . . “
Between six and seven o’clock on Friday last, after piloting the steamer Murray and schooner Nowra safely outside, the T. Norton returned to re-cross the bar, and in the attempt was caught broadside on by the wind and heavy sea running there, and driven on to the western spit. At once refusing to answer her helm, she canted over on one side and remained so with the sea beating over her until about eight o’clock, when the locks that connect the boiler with the ship’s side were carried away and she immediately began to fill, the water putting out the engine fires, and the little vessel remained on the spit gradually falling to pieces owing to the immense strain of water that was breaking over her side. . . “
” . . . The steamer Murray remained at hand outside the Entrance for some time, and sent a boat to see if it could be of any assistance, but the captain warned the men in her to keep off and return to the Murray, so rough and dangerous was the sea the the time that had the boat reached the side of the vessel it also must have gone to pieces. In this condition of excitement, terror, and anxiety, all hands, consisting of the captain and four of a crew, with Mrs Rigney, a lady on a visit to Bairnsdale, who had been brought from Sale by the Murray and transhipped by her into the T. Norton, remained on board until daylight. Without a murmur of complaint the lady continued in that position the whole night through, and when asked to o below for fear of being washed overboard she begged to be allowed to remain on deck, stating that while she could see her fellow sufferers still alive it gave her hope . . . “
” . . . As day-light broke, Captain McAlpine and Brown, the engineer, succeeded in getting ashore and securing the boat of the Maffra, which was lying in Reeves River, by which they rescued the remainder of the crew from the wreck. . . “
” . . . Nothing was saved belonging to the company or the crew, except the clothes the latter wore at the time the vessel struck . . . “
Source: Excerpts – Gippsland Times (Vic) – Article ‘ The Wreck of the Tommy Norton’ – published 2nd November 1877
All Evidence of the wreck and Natural Entrance are long gone . . .
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