Lower Lakes Local History

The following interviews can be found in their entirety at the Alexandrina Local History Archive.  The interviews are with locals who speak about what it was like before the barrages were built in 1940's.

Interview with Jim Marsh, Barrage Superintendent at Goolwa on Monday 27th September 1999

Interviewer Rose Geisler

Punctuation by G.W. (Frodo) Krochmal

Corrections by Jim & Maria


"They listened to the locals?

Yes, just asked the locals.  Ecological considerations weren’t taken into account.  If they wanted to do this now, there is no way they would get it up, it would not be approved because of the impact it had on the ecology.  They reduced the size of the estuary by nearly ninety per cent, (87%, actually), and that reduction of the estuary was the start or the cause of a lot of the problems they are having now.  Since they built the barrages we’ve had a series of fairly wet years with good flows out through the Mouth.  In the last twenty years we’ve had enough dry years and a very, very significant increase in the rate of diversion upstream, which has had quite considerable effect on the amount of water that we’ve got to pass out through the Mouth, and when you get back to the size of the estuary reducing by eighty-seven per cent, they reduce what we call the tidal prism.  This is the force, the column of water that surges in and out of the Mouth daily by just the effect of the tide.  That was enough to keep the Mouth clear.  When they reduce the size of the estuary, they reduce the size of the tidal prism and greatly reduce the velocity and volume of that water that was passing in and out.  Ever since 1945, we’ve had yearly a net gain of sand, and that was first shown up fairly soon after, with the formation of Bird Island.  That wasn’t there before they built the barrage.  That’s really the nucleus of all the sand shoals there now.  In the past, we’ve had big flows in the 50’s and 70’s that have shifted a lot of that sand back out through the Mouth off shore.  We haven’t had a big flood for quite a while, and we’ve had some very low flow periods.  Every time you get a tide, every flood tide brings in some sand, and you don’t get enough force in the ebb tide to carry it out again.

So daily you get a net gain that’s building up now to a critical level and this is causing all the problems.  The possible incidence of a Mouth closure has been reduced from something like one in twenty to about - they were quoting one in six several years ago, but I venture to say it’s about one in four now.  It’s getting worse and worse by the year.

This has also had an effect on the native fish, - the Mulloway, Mullet, Flounder, Bream - all need the estuarine conditions to complete their breeding cycle. Especially the Mulloway, they use the Coorong now - which is all that’s left of the estuary - they used to use the whole lower lakes as a nursery area.  The adult Mulloway would come in and feed because the brackish water had its own particular ecology - it was a very rich nutrient area where a lot of the smaller vertebrates and predators are, that started the food chain - a very rich feeding area for the Mulloway.  They would come in, fatten up, get in good condition for breeding and go out to sea and spawn and when the spawn hatched, the fry would come back in through the Mouth and live in it for about the next twelve months, as they grew. They’d feed up and grow on until they were big enough to withstand the rigours of the open sea.  It was a similar story for the small Flounder and Mullet and the Bream.   By reducing that estuary, you reduce the size of the local fishery by a proportional amount.  This is why there is now a strong move to modify the operations and the structure of the barrages to facilitate the movement of fish through them again, to try and restore some of those conditions, increase the numbers of fish that can take advantage of it.  Hopefully that won’t get bogged down with red tape and we might see some result of it in a year or two.

 I can remember Bert Lundstrum, who’s one of the old retired fishermen around the town, telling me that the year that they closed the barrages  for the first time, the Mulloway came in the Spring, usually about November - normally they go straight up the river into the lakes - they got to the Goolwa barrage, or the barrages, because they all closed at much the same time - 1940, and there was this physical barrier there, and there were hundreds of tons of Mulloway in the Goolwa channel below the barrages and people used to come down and net them just like you can do it with Carp now.  There’s a famous photo of the Goolwa wharf with, I think someone said there was, a hundred and sixty ton of Mulloway on the wharf.  The Goolwa wharf was covered in Mulloway from one end to the other and it was about four times as long as it is now.

What did they do with it?

Tried to ship it away, but a lot of it went rotten, got dumped…."


Here is a historical photo of the Goolwa wharf from 1939 covered in Mulloway.


Interview with Bert LUNDSTROM

Interview by Rose GEISLER; Transcription by G.W. (Frodo) KROCHMAL, with emendations by Bert LUNDSTROM

Booklet design & Production by FRODO



"You had it all to yourselves. So that if you heard a noise, you’d run out and look to see what it was – it was a boat coming up the river. Fishing is not the same as it was back in those days.

Rose: Do you think the barrages made a difference?

Bert: Yes, I think it has, because when they shut the barrages, there was fish everywhere, coming in to try and get up into the lake. In the ‘50s, I was working with Hector Semascho.    …three of us used to go, for hauling – nearly ten ton we got in one haul – and loading them up; in fact, when the barrages were getting built, the copper dam on the Island’s side was nearly finished, and several ton of mulloway swam into the dam, and they closed them off – accidentally, they didn’t know – and you could see them all swimming around in the sheet-piling (?) around the dams, keeping them in. We got permission to save some of the other fish, we could go in and catch them, if we could. It was pretty hard, because the sheet-piling was straight up-and-down, and to get in there, under the fish, and hoist them up. We give it away, but the chaps working on the barrages had the time of their lives afterwards, when the water got pumped out around the dam, around these big old mulloway.  Every day, you might say, in the ‘50s up until the ‘60s, there was catches of fish coming up on the Goolwa Wharf, and they’d go away to town.  I don’t know of any people lately that have… the schools of fish. It’s just one of those things, with the Mouth being closed like it is. Back in those days it was a good Mouth, a nice wide Mouth, and the fish could come in and out.

Rose: Did they want to get up into the lake to spawn?

Bert: I think that’s mainly what they wanted. Early in the piece, we used to fish in the lake as well, while the barrages were being built. The mulloway’d go up there, and you’d catch them in the winter. The Milang fishers had done well, people at Milang and Narrung and all those places – they fished in the lake. The mulloway’d get up there specially in a school, and probably breed up there – I don’t know – but you’d catch them in the summer, coming in, the winter going out. There was all salt-water in Goolwa in those days. We used to go down with a little net, down opposite the station, Goolwa railway station, then we’d walk around and get a feed of mullet.  You could fish off the wharf…there was a lot of garfish around.   Mr. Lush, he used to be a champion on garfish. He was getting a lot more than we were. “The secret”, he said, “Is using a stud blow-fly!”  They were just joking.     Across from the ferry, there were dolphins there. Big old fisherman used to put nets out there and catch mulloway. A lot of the tidal waters, a lot of these places are now dry, especially down on South Lakes, and out there. Those banks out there are normally dry with the low tide, and get flooded with the whole tide (?)

Rose:  What, did that whole area get flooded there? By the tide? Really? How far back did it go?

Bert: Yeah. Tidal waters. It’d go with salt water to the lake.

Rose: Out near South Lakes, how far that way?

Bert: Ah, well Aggie’s Knob, that’s the one close in to the South Lakes, it would go around there, like that, and this bank around here would go dry, and over here, opposite here –

Rose: Liverpool Road

Bert: Would be dry, totally dry.


Interview with Harold Bedford

Recorded October 1999


D: Harold can you describe for us the building of the Barrage?

H.B.: Overall, it's a very long story - the building of the barrage was the final major structure of the barrage works. Let's have it quite clear - the barrage was a structure to prevent salt water coming from the sea up into Lake Alexandrina, and that's what the barrage was. It's performing its duty, as I say, by excluding salt water. It's sort of - you know the fresh water fishing was never very much, even hand line - there is more caught over here now than in those days...


D: Did they begin building the barrage in 1935?

W.B.: Yes, in 1935.

D: And finished in 1940?

W.B.: They were completed on the 7th February 1940. There is five - there is Goolwa, Mundoo, Boundary Creek Ewe Isalnd and Tauwitcherie. There's a lock here at Goolwa and a small one at Tauwitcherie – that is only for small boats, and the other four run right across. This is something which always bugs me about the bridge here, and all the fuss and bother about the natives. There was never a thing said – nothing - during the building of the barrages. There's a Lock here and there's a small one to Tauwitchery - that is only for small boats. They were finished on the 7th February 1940 and they came into operations on 17th February 1940, which happened to be my father's birthday and he was.


D: What difference do you think the barrage made to Goolwa?

W.B.: Tremendous.

D: Right, what were the differences?

H.B. Well - for a start, there was employment on the barrages itself - permanent gang, and a lot of maintenance, that sort of thing - but Goolwa itself, it didn't make much difference. After once they reached a stage on the Mannum pipeline, the men were offered jobs in other parts, but with the war coming on, I don't know.

W.B.: Well, it didn't - but it made a difference to us - in respect of it, we were the first people to irrigate, when the water became fresh. Harold eventually irrigated sixty acres of pasture for the cows


Interview with Syd SMITH

Recorded July 2005


D: Would you like to tell us the reason that the Barrage was built in the first place?

S: The Barrages - it was a part of the early agreement with the River Murray  Commission that they started the first lot, I think it was at Blanchetown, and it was stated then that they should build the barrages to keep the salt water back. It used to go up as far - I was talking to someone last night, they lived at Mannum; it depended on the big winds, you get a big wind, and - Lake Alexandrina's like blowing water in a saucer, if you blow on it, it builds up (on) the other side, so it would wash up the river. They was hoping that they'd perhaps use it for more irrigation - they possibly did - I think it was mainly the lucerne, is at Meningie. But then, of course, the reclaimed swamps, they had to use it there. Jervois is the biggest reclaimed swamp.


Interview with W.A. Pretty

Interview, Edited Transcription, Book Design & Production by G.W. (Frodo) Krochmal 

Emendments by W.A. Pretty

Reproductions of Thomas, John James & Albert Arthur by Bill Cox

Recorded 1/7/2004


The water from Lake Alexandrina to the Mouth has had a long history of difficulties – dried up at some times of the year. Then the town water supply was reticulated from the pumping station up in Liverpool Street, and now the water is too saline to be used domestically – reticulated water has come from the Myponga Reservoir. The salinity of the water is governed by the rise in the sea-levels and winds, and the water coming down the River Murray from the developed bank areas, dairy farms and orchards and vine-yards, has a fairly-high content of fertilisers. The River Murray was originally the shore of the sea, and all of the Murray Mallee and the South East were under water, the sea-bed. As the water drains into the River Murray, it just accumulates and comes down here, and, in the interests of the economy, the Barrages down here were built soloidly to the bed of the river. The water at high levels flows over the top of the Barrages. There is no way, now, of putting holes through the walls of the Barrages to have better control of the water and consequently, the water coming down in the channel drops its silt and all sorts of other minerals and salts behind it. There were only two channels between the Goolwa Wharf and the Barrage for ships and paddle-steamers to go into the Coorong. The rest of it is all silted.

F: Does that mean the Barrages are a failure?

W: They've been operating since 1939 – that's 65 years, so they've served their purpose, really, in that regard.

F: And as we speak, by the way, today's paper says that there's water through the Murray Mouth for the first time in something like two or three years, so apparently the dredging that's been happening for the last years or so has been to some extent successful.

W: Periodically, the Mouth has to be dredged, because there is a fair force of water, with the tides and the winds of the salt-water of the sea, coming to the Murray Mouth, and coming into the Coorong. Other parts of the wetlands where these channels and rivers are, and of course, that brings the sea-water in, and with it the sands of the shores and the Mouth. The only answer to it, to the present set-up, is to keep the Mouth open by dredging.



Interview with RICHARD SPENCER on Tuesday 16th November 1999 

The interviewer is Rose Geisler. Richard's family were early settlers in Goolwa.

With emendations by Richard. 

Booklet Design & Production by G.W. (Frodo) Krochma


RS: No.  We did a lot of swimming, actually, out from the wharf.  There were a couple of walkways with ladies’ and mens’ bathing sheds situated out along this walkway, and we used to swim there.     In the early days, before the barrage was built, it was all clear salt water and it was beautiful swimming.


RS:  It was quite deep.


RS:  No, not really.  Inside the bathing houses they had piles along there that sheltered a part at the end of the wharf, and there was quite a good little swimming pool - little children could go in there swimming quite easily.

RS:  Coming up with fish, loads of fish, from the Mouth and Coorong and everybody in the town must have, I don't know whether they could smell them or what, but they would be at the wharf when the boats came in bringing in the fish.  They used to bring them up by the tons in those days, Mulloway.


RS:  Yes. The biggest catch I remember was ten ton.  There were about three or four fishermen involved.


RS:  I can't remember their names now.


RS: Mr. Woodrow might have been in on that one, and Mr.Treleaven. I can't remember for sure just who they were.  They had fish lined up from one end of the wharf to the other.



RS:  They would send them - it depended how long it was before the next train because there was only a freight train running once a day, and if they had long to wait there would be someone with a truck to run them in to market in the city. A big lot like that ten ton, well they had to have several trucks.


RS:  Yes in the 30's.  If the fish hadn't been able to get through the barrages I don't know what happened to the old spawning grounds.  They used to spawn in Currency Creek and the Finniss River, and since they haven't been able to come up to spawn, they would have to have gone out to sea and found another place to spawn in.  I don't know where they went to, actually.


RS:  I know they were at one time, but are they still talking about it are they?  Well, usually these things go on for a number of years, talking about it.


RS:  They would if anybody wanted them


RS:  Yes, well of course the father was fishing at that time, too, because we just about grew up on fish.