Though the landscape has changed dramatically since the construction of the artificial Entrance linking the Gippsland Lakes to Bass Strait in 1889, historical accounts and records provide the tools to estimate the location of the intermittent and ever moving Natural Entrance that challenged shipping and transport between Gippsland and Melbourne in those early years of settlement.
The Natural Entrance was situated between 4.5 to 6 km east of the artificial Entrance constructed in 1889. Visiting the site today, it is almost impossible to imagine that the sand dunes and shallow waters of the eastern end of Cunninghame Arm (previously Reeves River) were once navigable . . .
Before the introduction of trains and much later, motorways, the water highways were the only feasible transport mode. The lakes and rivers of Gippsland provided the perfect means of collecting Gippsland’s produce, timber, treasures etc., emanating from the fertile and rich soils of the region, however, Gippsland was sealed to the west by mountain ranges and swamps; and to the the east by the absence of natural harbours along the Ninety Mile Beach. From the time of the first settlement of the Gippsland region in the early 1840’s, Port Albert, which lay on the extreme western periphery of the lake system, was the only sea port. The arduous and expensive overland journey from there debilitated commerce, progress and settlement.
Water transport remained the only feasible method of transport at this time.
The lakes and rivers of Gippsland provided the perfect transport link around the 400 km² inland waterways, however, the natural entrance into the lake system from Bass Strait would often become too shallow and at times even close entirely thus stranding ships within the lakes system. The ever changing channel coupled with the treacherous bar would hamper, risk and wreck many a ship . . .
The following report by John King, grandson of Governor King (the third Governor of New South Wales), recalls:
” . . . 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
Early in 1841, Mr Kirsopp, RN, sailed along the Ninety Mile Beach in the ‘Midge’ and was:
” . . . satisfied that no permanent outlet to the sea exists at the mouth of the lakes discovered in Gippsland.”
Source: Port Phillip Gazette – 10th July 1841
1842 – Discovering a Navigable Entrance
The Spring of 1842 saw the following expedition to find a navigable entrance from the lakes into Bass Strait:
” . . . In the early spring of 1842, Mr. John Reeve accompanied by Mr McLellan, who was then Superintendent of the Heart Station, and by two boatmen started from the Ridge in a small dinghy and followed all the windings of the Glengarry [now Latrobe] into the lakes. Their object was to discover a navigable entrance: they therefore followed the east coast all round until they arrived at Reeves River. This they followed down until within sight of the sea, and Mr Reeve being satisfied that he had found the outlet, gave orders to put around. Big Mike, the boatman, being rather alarmed at the size of the breakers, gave a vigorous pull and broke off the thale pin and before a new could be shipped, the current had swept the boat through the breakers into blue water beyond. Luckily for our early voyagers, it was a fine day and not much sea on; so they easily pulled in again, and encamped for the night under what is now know as Mount Barclay, or Jimmy’s Point, but the original name was ‘Jumbuck Point’, so called because a sheep they were carrying form meat, on being put on the Point to graze, made its escape . . . “
Source: Excerpt – Gippsland Times – published 23rd August 1878
13th April 1858 – the First to Navigate the Entrance aboard a Schooner
The erratic channel from Gippsland’s lakes to Bass Strait prevented regular a regular transport service to and from Melbourne and beyond. The tremendously difficult, tortuous and expensive land journey from Omeo to Port Albert took many days, whilst by steamship, the journey could be achieved in less than a day.
The year of 1858 saw a ray of hope when Malcolm Campbell steered his schooner the ‘Georgina Smith’, through the Entrance in order to deliver his cargo of mainly flour, salt and building materials to the Omeo diggings via the Tambo River:
” . . . Mr M.J. Campbell, of Newry, arrived in Gippsland in 1846, and, taking up a station on the southern side of McLellan’s Straits, remained there for some time. During this period he made frequent trips through all the lakes in an historical black boat, which was also taken from the Entrance to Lake Tyers several times, surveyed the shores, and examined the Channels. During these excursions Mr Campbell was impressed with the facilities for sea traffic of suitable vessels, and had a very strong idea of starting the trade at that time. However, in 1852, he joined the Lands Department, on the survey staff, where he remained till 1857, his work being principally in Gippsland, where he surveyed a number of the earliest taken up runs. During this time Mr Campbell made use of his opportunities to make himself more familiar with the lake system, and when he resigned in 1857 he decided to carry out his somewhat delayed intention of opening up a trade between Melbourne and the eastern portion of the colony. He purchased in Melbourne a schooner of about 60 tons called the Georgina Smith, and left Hobson’s Bay, himself in charge, for the Tambo, on the 3rd of April, 1858, with a full cargo. After reaching Port Albert, Mr Campbell left the schooner and paid a visit to the Entrance, inspecting the channel which was then at the mouth of Lake Bunga and in a good condition. A flagstaff was fixed and arrangements made to signal when the vessel was off the Entrance as to the state of the passage, and Mr Campbell returned to Port Albert. A start from there was made early on the 12th April, 1858, arriving off the Entrance on the morning of the 13th. The white signal was up, signifying a clear entrance, and, as it was a beautiful morning and a fair wind, the schooner drawing 7ft 5in., went in without a hitch. She was sailed up the Tambo as near Bruthen as possible, where the cargo was unloaded, the greater portion going to Omeo . . . “
Source: Excerpt – Gippsland Farmers’ Journal (Traralgon, Vic) – Article ‘The First Navigator of the Gippsland Lakes’ – published 13th August 1895
He had proven that under favourable conditions, the entrance could be navigated and that enormous transport savings could be effected. A public meeting held at the Golden Age Hotel in Omeo stated in part:
” . . . To Malcom Campbell, Esq., of Glencoe
Omeo, 29th May 1858
We, the undersigned traders, race proprietors, miners, and other residents of Omeo, and the goldfields of Upper Gippsland, beg most sincerely to offer you our warmest congratulations upon the success of your recent exploration of the Gippsland Lakes, and also to express the high sense we entertain of the enterprising spirit you have evinced in carrying out alone and unaided, your determination to demonstrate the possibility of a useful class of vessels entering the bar of the lakes, and navigating those noble inland waters (which skirt what must one day become a vast agricultural district), thus showing the possibility of shipping goods at Melbourne, and landing them within 75 miles of Omeo.
We anxiously hope that you may find it practicable to enter the lakes at all seasons of the year, and that some enterprising Port Albert or Melbourne firm may unite with you in laying on a steamer of draught or burthen suitable to the lake navigation; and by establishing a depot at the Mitchell River, enable us to be supplied with provisions at much lower rates than at present; and this would no doubt be the result, as the total cost of carriage from Melbourne to Omeo, via the lakes, would not probably exceed 25 pounds to 30 pounds in lieu of from 40 pounds to 50 pounds per ton, which we now pay via Port Albert, a port 187 miles distant from Omeo . . . “
Source: Excerpt – Gipps Land Guardian (Vic) – published 11th June 1858
Unfortunately, the shifting sands and shallow bar would impound the ‘Geogina Smith’ in the lake system for some five years !!!
The year of 1862 saw the Natural Entrance close completely.
A report by the Inspector General of Public Works, WW Wardell, dated the 30th August 1862 regarding the probability of building a permanent entrance between the Bass Strait and Gippsland’s lake system stated:
” . . . Sir, – I do myself the honor to report that in accordance with your instructions, I have examined the outlet to the sea from the Gipps Land lakes, for the purpose of ascertaining the practicability or otherwise of forming and maintaining a permanent entrance to these lakes ; and, if practicable, the probable cost.
While at Port Albert, on my way to the lake entrance, I ascertained that both the harbour master and one of his boat’s crew had some knowledge of it ; the former as it existed some nineteen years ago, and the latter as it existed three or four years ago.
From the information they afforded me, it appears –
That the entrance has shifted at least one mile, in an easterly direction, within nineteen years ;
That this seemed to be the final result of various shiftings, as it had been known to move also in a westerly direction, while at other times it was totally closed up ;
That on two occasions only have vessels succeeded in entering from the seaward ; one vessels drawing six feet, and the other three feet of water ;
That this was an entrance now quite closed, and about half a mile to the westward of the present one ;
That they then entered under the most favourable possible circumstances ;
That they are now completely locked in each attempt to get them out to sea again having failed . . . “
Source: Excerpt – Gipps Land Guardian – published 3 Oct 1862
Mr Wardell continued to describe the ferocity and unpredictability of the Southern Ocean, the power of the south-westerly gales, waves of 10 to 12 feet high . . .
He also added that other entrances further westward reduced the scour of the current, allowing the sea to build up the sand at the entrance:
” . . . I found that Lake Bunga has recently forced a passage into the outlet, and is now discharging itself with a very strong current ; and this will add materially to the effect of the other water in wearing the entrance to the eastward.
From as careful a consideration as I have been able to give, I can come to no other conclusion than that, unless at an enormous outlay, it is impossible to carry out permanent works, or to maintain the entrance to these lakes from the sea, so that it would be available at all times, and under all circumstance ; and it will be borne in mind that, unless the entrance is always available, it would become a fatal snare to any other by a steam ship.
If cost were not a consideration, the difficulties of construction would be almost insuperable ; as, from the exposed position the works at every stage of their progress, would be open to destruction in any one of the severe gales to which this coast is constantly subject during nine months of the year, as well as from the very serious difficulties that would attend the supply of such materials as would have to be conveyed there by sea . . . “
Source: Excerpt – Gipps Land Guardian – published 3 Oct 1862
The steamer trade within the lakes and up the rivers of Gippsland grew. The great floods of 1863 scoured a deeper channel between Bass Strait and the Gippsland Lakes, which happened to coincide with a greatly increased demand for supplies and transport to service the gold fields located in North Gippsland. Coupled the the increasingly costly, long, busy and often dangerous overland journey from Omeo to Port Albert – the focus of transport once again turned to the lake system and a direct shipping link to Melbourne. By creating a stable opening into Bass Strait, the lakes would provide a secure highway for Gippsland’s commerce. Steamers were engaged to tow schooners through the lakes to the Latrobe River landing near the township of Sale.
As the natural entrance, some 4.8 km east of the artificial entrance, became relatively “stable”, a village grew. Older maps indicate the initial naming of this village ‘Campbelltown’ – possibly to honour the success of Mr Malcolm Campbell’s first ever successful navigation of the natural channel for commerce in 1858 – later maps indicate the name as ‘Cunninghame’ . . .
A survey of the Natural Entrance by Captain Ferguson, harbourmaster of Victoria, reported the channel to be situate in close proximity to the Lake Bunga outlet at 150 ft (45.7 m) wide and up to 5 ft (1.5 m) deep.
However, the entrance would proved to be fatal to many a vessel:
” . . . The truth is that the place [the entrance] is dangerous for all sorts and conditions of vessels . . . “
” . . . We say it advisedly and not without warmth – Let no man enter on this trade. He may succeed once or twice, but most assuredly his foolhardiness will at least result in the loss of his vessel, which nobody in all likelihood will insure, and very probably in the sacrifice of this life . . . “
Source: Excerpt – Gipps Land Guardian – published 4th May 1866
Discussions began regarding the necessity of a permanent Entrance into the lake system began, as the trip from Melbourne could be accomplished in 1 to 2 days – but then the schooners and steamers could be left waiting for hours, days and even weeks for the Entrance to be passable. Suggestions that the location be moved westward to a location opposite Jemmy’s Point began.
Though the Entrance remained open to some extent at various times, it proved treacherous to both transport vessels and tugs.
In the April of 1867 the Lakes Trade closed due to the closing of the Entrance.
The Natural Entrance opened again some 90 m eastward of its previous location.
The debate of building an artificial Entrance grew.
Works began in the 1870’s to attempt an artificial and permanent channel between Bass Strait and the Gippsland Lakes.
Meanwhile the Natural Entrance had moved some 800 m westward of its previous position in the year of 1872.
Two years later floods saw the Natural Entrance move another 1.2 km westward . . .
As Gippsland grew, so did the need for a reliable and sustainable channel between the lakes and Bass Strait, affording transport for passengers, tourists and cargo.
” . . . The natural outlet of the lake waters is, at present, some three miles distant from where Sir John Coode proposes to make a new entrance. Owing, however, to the shifty character of the sand it would be impossible to keep a permanent channel open in that locality. The entrance certainly remains open nearly all the year round, but the bar is so treacherous that the entrance is constantly varying, and occasionally it is of such an unreliable character that the bar can only be crossed at high water. There are even now as many as four entrances open, one of them observed on Saturday having been made within the past fortnight. Notwithstanding this fact, however, the steamer Murray had to lie outside all day on Saturday waiting for an opportunity to cross the bar at high tide. Sir John Coode proposes to cut through a narrow strip of sand at a place along the entrance to the Lakes opposite a spot known as Jimmy’s Point. This is three miles west of the present entrance, and about the locality which, it is argued, must at one time have been the natural outlet for the lake waters. In fact, the project is merely one of carrying out a scheme recommended by Mr. Wardell in the year 1869, and portions of which have been undertaken at various times from that year up to 1874 . . . “
Source: Excerpt – Age (Melbourne, Vic) – Article ‘The Ministerial Visit to Gippsland’ – published 15th June 1880
The artificial Entrance linking Gippsland’s lakes and rivers to Bass Strait was completed in 1889 and continues to service watercraft until this very day . . .
All Evidence of the natural entrance are long gone . . .
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