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Historical Feature — Bourke’s Great Flood of 1890

Railway Station, the camping ground of 300 people and 80 horses – area two and a half acres, Bourke flood, 1890. Photo Mitchell Library NSW

Dr Paul Roe

The Outback Historian

As Bourke faces one of the highest floods since the 1970’s, we reflect on the tragedy of Bourke’s Great Flood of 1890.

There’d been warnings about the construction of the 1885 railway embankment for years.

Pioneers Edward Bloxham and Henry Colless, who’d arrived at Bourke in the wake of the first river steamer and survived the massive flood of 1864, first sounded the alarm.

They knew the solid bank of earth across the floodplain would one day divert a massive wall of water into the fragile cluster of buildings clinging to the southern bank of the Darling. Railway engineers knew better.

The prolonged rain event stretching across the eastern seaboard early in 1890 sent a shiver through Bourke. In early April, anxious citizens clustered around the river reports mounted daily outside the Post Office in Oxley Street. They spelled out an ominous warning.

A quarter of a million square miles of territory was draining water into the rivers to the north. All of them were running high and a red-brown tide was moving slowly and inexorably south-west. Some townsfolk threw up walls of tin and earth around their homes and businesses. Others scoffed at suggestions to secure the town levee.

Thursday April 10. As the water steadily rose, street corner debates changed into urgent delegations to council and finally a desperate scramble began to strengthen the town defences. Bank officers stripped down to shovel day and night alongside shopkeepers and farmworkers filling carts and drays with earth. Hundreds of navvies recruited by Premier Parkes arrived by train, but they proved a problem. Many were lazy, complaining and unwilling. It was the team of town volunteers who built the wall.

Wednesday April 16. The water levels were rising rapidly. Edward Bloxham urgently advised dynamiting the railway to let the flood-water through, but the engineer sent from Sydney assured Mayor Daniels that the levees would hold. Governor Carrington arrived by special train to witness the emergency first-hand, but stirring speeches did nothing to stem the tide.

Thursday April 17. River steamers churned the Darling, carrying women and children crowded on the wharf to high ground at North Bourke. As flying squads laboured to heighten the banks of earth and corrugated iron, Lady Carrington moved up and down between the military style camp of circular tents in pitched lines, encouraging families camped on the sand ridge upriver from the town.

Still the engineer insisted the levee would hold, but finally, insistent voices speaking from local experience won the day. In the evening, as the Governor’s train steamed away, the line behind it was blown in seven places. Too little too late.

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