My relationship with the motor vessel Merle during the 1956 Murray river flood

My teenage hopes and dreams for an adventurous adult life were quashed in a short lived fire. Merle was a cruise ship riverboat that caught fire and sank at Murray Bridge in 1958.

This video shows the Merle on it’s maiden voyage as a passenger vessel in 1941.

When I was around 12 years of age I met the owner of a Murray river passenger boat. The boat’s name was The Merle. The owner of this boat was Ro. Ro and my mother were unmarried partners. Merle carried up to 19 fare paying passengers and made one trip per week, over four nights. This was from Murray Bridge in South Australia to Blanchetown and then returned to Murray Bridge via Lake Alexandrina, which includes the township of Goolwa.

During the great Murray river floods of 1956, when I was aged 13, the flood greatly interfered with Merle’s weekly trips, and unknown to me, Ro was becoming financially stressed. His regular trips with Merle began to falter. It was during this time that Ro periodically asked me to steer Merle along the river.  During such trips, mostly with less than 19 passengers, I played 78 r.p.m. records in order to entertain them.  My mother continued with her hostess activities. Ro did most of the cooking (as an interim measure until he could find another suitable cook in lieu of one that had resigned) as well as maintaining necessary functions within the engine room.

Few people today know about the Merle. I will tell you a little bit about her. Merle had twin 6 cylinder Buick engines, and her electrical power system was 110 volts but there was one 240 volts power outlet which was linked to a power converter. The power generator was an English four cylinder Ford Prefect motor. Merle had two bathrooms and two toilets and raw sewerage  discharged  directly into the river. The six inch jarrah hull of the Merle was built in around 1904 and for a time Merle was a barge. In later times she became a steam powered, rear paddle wheel river trading vessel, (see photo below) like a traveling shop. Merle’s conversion into a passenger vessel was completed in late 1940 and her inaugural trip as a passenger boat took place from Murray Bridge in 1941.

I especially remember on one occasion I was at the helm of the Merle when it was sailing between Wellington and Goolwa. To do this the Merle had to cross Lake Alexandrina. On that particular day there was a slight swirl and the Merle was moving up and down in relationship to the trough and peak of each wave. The river and the lake were in a state of flood. There are markers on the lake that were in place to guide ships like the Merle as to where the safe traveling channel is. Ro had earlier told me what the correct protocol was in navigating the Merle to the left and right of the markers. A little way into the lake some passengers asked me what was the slight thump they they could feel as we were traveling. Ro was having a sleep at the time. It soon dawned on me that the Merle was periodically hitting the bottom of the lake. I phoned Ro in his cabin and let him know what I thought was happening. He had already heard and felt the mild thumps anyway. The Merle’s propellers were turning near to high speed. Ro hurriedly came forward and took the helm in hand and quickly maneuvered the Merle to a nearby marker. He was obviously as distressed as I was. However, soon after this event Ro calmly told me the reason why the Merle was hitting the bottom of the lake was because I was incorrectly steering the Merle in relation to the markers. The Merle was not traveling in the appropriate channel. He said it was only because of the flood that the Merle did not become stuck in the lake and we would have had to have been rescued. When I returned to boarding school at the end of the term I wrote a short story about this event. I belatedly note the “romanticism” in the style that I created it [like the spinning helm].

The story is copied and pasted as follows:

As you may gather from these words my experiences with Ro and the Merle were not only highly adventurous ones, but also a most happy and relaxed ones. My most memorable recollection with Ro and the Merle was at the time when we jointly navigated Merle up the flooded main street of Mannum in South Australia. Merle was 87 feet long and she had a four foot draft. I steered Merle on that day.  She had a large helm [steering wheel] situated in the saloon [lounge] at the front of the boat. Ro employed the twin motors in an expeditious way. This helped facilitate Merle’s successful movement up the main street of Mannum. Ro used forward and reverse thrust with each engine in order to help steer Merle. This was whilst I was guiding the rudder via the helm. There were around one hundred people in the main street who were witnessing these activities.

On this particular occasion we turned Merle around in the main street,  this was broadside to the sandbags that had been placed across the road. Via an unroped gang plank we then discharged the passengers onto these sandbags so that they could enter the unflooded section of an adjacent hotel. Merle was then tethered to the veranda posts of this hotel.

I was deeply saddened and depressed when Merle burnt and sank at her moorings in Murray Bridge on March the 1st in 1958. Those early days in my life were a huge adventure for a young guy. Below are various photographs of the Merle below that fortunately I retained over the years. I remain deeply saddened by the events at that time.

Pictures related to the Merle:

Merle as a rear wheeler paddle steamer circa 1910

A passenger postcard available for sale on the Merle. This was exactly as the Merle appeared prior to its burning and sinking on March 1st 1958

Firefighters flooded the Merle in order to extinguish the flames. This is a rare picture of the vessel just prior to its sinking

The wreck of the Merle adjacent to the wharf at Murray Bridge prior to its remains being dragged out to the center of the Murray River at Murray Bridge. Mc Lawrie Boat Builders and Salvagers from Port Adelaide conducted the removal

This is a cutting I made from the Adelaide Advertiser story in early March 1958 relating to the sinking of the Merle [I pasted it into my scrapbook at the time]. The Adevertiser story provides a very useful insight into the Merle’s colourful history

Some readers may like to know how devastating the 1956 Murray River flood was. The picture below was taken near Mannum in South Australia