The Yarra River is not big by world standards, nor even very clear. But this sepia-coloured river has had a big impact on shaping Melbourne — the city that grew up on its banks.
It runs for just 242 kilometres from its source at Mt Baw Baw in the Yarra Ranges, to its mouth at the head of Port Phillip Bay in Newport.
The dreaming path
For the aborigines of the Wurundjeri tribe, the Yarra River was a life source that had been carved into the landscape by the ancestral creator spirit Bunjil — the wedge-tailed eagle. They called the river Birrarrung, 'place of mists and shadows', and it was the dreaming path they followed and camped beside through countless seasons.
White explorers first recorded sighting 'the great river' in 1803, when New South Wales Surveyor-General Charles Grimes was sent to map the Port Phillip district. He rowed upstream as far as Dights Falls, naming the river 'Freshwater River', and proclaimed the valley:
the most eligible place for a settlement that I have seen.
Almost 23 years later, the next white man to arrive came to the same conclusion.
On 8 June 1835, the Tasmanian farmer John Batman encountered a group of aboriginals on the banks of the Yarra. Trading items like scissors, shirts, tomahawks, knives, blankets and handkerchiefs, he obtained the marks of the 'chiefs' on a pre-written 'grant of land'.
Batman returned to Launceston boasting,
I am the greatest landowner in the world.
He claimed his exchange had secured 500,000 acres of land for the Port Phillip Association he represented, including the Yarra River. However, the aboriginals believed they had taken part in a friendship ceremony allowing Batman temporary rights to cross through their country. This riverside transaction was the beginning of the end of traditional tribal life for the Wurundjeri, who were progressively disinherited from their land and fell victim to disease and declining birthrates.
The name 'Yarra' is attributed to surveyor John Wedge, who accompanied Batman on the original 1835 exploration. Wedge asked local aborigines what they called the cascading waters on the lower section of the river. They replied 'Yarro Yarro', meaning 'it flows', and Wedge's mishearing of the word determined its enduring name.
The growth of Melbourne
Although Batman had been credited with founding Melbourne, it was contested by two other colourful colonials: Launceston publican John Pascoe Fawkner, and businessman George Evans — who took command of Fawkner's ship after he was arrested for failing to pay a debt.
Evans and his party landed on the Yarra's banks on 30 August 1835, near where Customs House now stands. They immediately started clearing land and planting crops. Fawkner did not arrive for another 10 days and Batman appeared six months later to reassert his claim.
The settlement was still deemed illegal by the New South Wales Government the following year, but with 177 settlers and 26,000 sheep it was there to stay. The overlanders from Sydney were soon on their way south, driving their mobs of cattle.
For the next 15 years, Melbourne — named after the British Prime Minister Viscount William Lamb Melbourne — would progressively fan out along the Yarra River. Historians began to describe Melbourne as:
a sleepy wool port on the very fringes of the civilised world.
Gold was discovered in 1851, and within a decade had quadrupled the population of the newly-proclaimed Colony of Victoria and made it one of the richest cities on earth.
The first publicised find was of six small specks, uncovered by Louis John Michel in a tiny tributary of the Yarra River at Warrandyte. Within a month, 300 miners were digging in Warrandyte's "Victoria Field". As more gold was found across the state, unprecedented numbers of people — about 250 each day — began arriving or jumping ship in Melbourne. It became "an instant metropolis" as the river’s southern banks became an overnight tent city.
By 1860, the city had a resident population of 500,000 people. The 25 million ounces of gold that had been mined during that period (worth about $10 billion today) meant "a city of magnificent intentions" quickly grew on the banks of the Yarra: a city founded and populated by adventurers and "enthroned by gold".
The river that shaped a city
The discovery of fresh water in the Yarra was crucial to the development of Melbourne. The river’s pristine upper reaches feed the city’s nine major reservoirs which supply most of Melbourne’s drinking water.
Further downstream however, the Yarra has long been dubbed "the river that runs upside down" because of its muddy colour.
The water was clear at the time of European settlement but significant land clearing and development since the mid-1800s has resulted in suspended silt (or tiny clay particles) being carried downstream.
The muddy appearance does not mean that the Yarra is unclean. In fact, it is probably one of the cleanest capital city rivers in the world. Since the major clean-up campaigns of the late 1970s and 1980s, the river has again become home to platypus and a range of migratory native fish species. Platypus have been sighted in the Yarra River at Kew, less than 10 km from the city centre.
The river's ancient delta meant that the land between St Kilda and Williamstown was mostly swamp. As such the city of Melbourne was initially established on the higher northern bank. The low, flat land on the southern bank was largely left to light industrial development until late in the 20th century. Albert Park Lake is the last remnant of those delta swamps.
The Yarra’s biggest floodplain is 40 km long and stretches from Yarra Junction to Yering Gorge. The floodplain gives the world-famous Yarra Valley wine region its very productive soils.
With 24 tributaries and a catchment area that covers about 4000 square kilometres - the Yarra was historically an unpredictable river, with frequent severe floods. The first flood was recorded in 1839. Building anywhere within the Yarra’s floodplain would risk buildings, fences, crops and farm animals. The first white explorers noted evidence of floodwaters rising 20 metres or more.
In the century between the founding of Melbourne in 1835 and the devastating flood of 1934 (which left 18 people dead, 6000 homeless and spread as a single lake from South Yarra to Warrandyte) it was the Yarra River that determined how the city developed.
The river’s changing course
From 1879 the Lower Yarra’s course was significantly changed in order to alleviate floods. The rock bar was blasted and the river was widened and straightened. The original wide loop in the river, west of today’s Docklands was removed in 1886 through the construction of the 1.5 km Coode Canal at Fisherman’s Bend. This was designed by British engineer Sir John Coode. It took 20 years to construct and not only shortened travel time up the river for boats, but also created Victoria Harbour and Victoria Dock.
From the 1880s the City Council made improvements to the Yarra’s northern bank, upstream of Princes Bridge, which helped the river to flow more directly to Port Phillip Bay. Later, major realignment works between the CBD and Richmond were carried out by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (Melbourne Water’s predecessor).
Between 1924 and 1929, the Board removed 24,000 items of natural debris from the river to improve flood control. In 1929 a new river channel was cut at Burnley, which created Herring Island in the process. In the 1960s the construction of the Eastern Freeway further altered the course of the River.
Everywhere you look along the river valley there is evidence of how the Yarra helped to shape the city of Melbourne.
The Yarra River has been under pressure ever since the early years of European settlement when it was used as a dumping ground for industrial waste.
Although Melbourne relied on the Yarra as a source of drinking water, all the city’s waste ended up there too. Epidemics of typhoid and diphtheria led to a Royal Commission in the 1880s. As a result of the Commission, the Western Treatment Plant was built at Werribee to stop sewage flowing directly to the Yarra.
In the 1890s, Melbourne homes began to be connected to the sewerage system. At the same time, about 100,000 hectares of land around the source of the Yarra was locked up to provide high quality drinking water. This area now forms Melbourne's protected catchments and is the source of about 70% of Melbourne's drinking water. Both of these decisions helped to improve the Yarra River’s water quality by the early 1900s. Water quality in the Yarra got another boost in the 1970s mainly because industrial waste has been diverted away from drains and into the sewerage system, and because of large-scale sewering of Melbourne's suburbs and rural areas.
More recently, gains have been achieved through further sewerage system upgrades; councils and the development industry working with water authorities to reduce stormwater pollution; and farmers, community groups and water authorities becoming partners in a range of Yarra River improvement programs.
These and other initiatives have helped maintain water quality levels in the Yarra in the past 10 years - a significant achievement in the face of continued urbanisation and intensification of agriculture.
How the Yarra River was formed — as told by Barak
One day two boys were playing in the bush, throwing their toy spears at whatever bird they saw. After a while they tired of this game and, sighting an old wattle tree, went up to it in the hope of finding some wattle gum, of which they were very fond. They saw some gum on a bough fairly high up, and one of the boys climbed the tree and reached it. He began to throw the gum down to the other boy, who was waiting for it underneath the tree. But when the lumps of gum reached the ground they disappeared, and the boy who had remained below could not find them. At last he noticed a hole, and thinking that the gum may have rolled down, he poked the end of his little spear in it.
As soon as he did this, a deep growling voice was heard and the ground seemed to shake. An old man, who had been sleeping underground with his mouth open, suddenly made his appearance. He picked up the frightened boy and shuffled off, dragging his feet, because he was old and the boy was heavy to carry.
As the old man huddled along he made a furrow, which deepened into a gutter, then into a creek, and lastly became the Yarra River. All this time the little boy was crying with fright. At last Bunjil heard him. He put sharp stones in the path of the old man over which he fell, and cut himself into pieces. The boy ran off to his home.
Just before the old man died, Bunjil appeared, and said to him "Let this be a lesson to all old men. Thy must be good to little children."