A railway line to Bendigo was constructed by the government-owned Victorian Railways Department and opened in 1862. In 1864, it was extended to Echuca, connecting with paddle steamers that transported produce to and from farms along the Murray River. Dubbed the ‘meeting of the whistles’, this made Melbourne the principal seaport handling produce from southern New South Wales.
The Leader, in Melbourne, celebrated the opening of the new railway line as a significant achievement for Victoria, writing:
During 1864 we have quarrelled with New South Wales, or rather she has quarrelled with us, on the subject of the Murray duties; and we have practically triumphed, for she has withdrawn her unfounded claim to exclusive jurisdiction of the boundary river, and we have completed our railway to that point by the opening of the line to Echuca, which, giving us prompt intercourse with the interior of the continent, must give us the ultimate command of its trade in spite of all artificial or temporary obstacles.
For more than ten years, goods had been carried up and down the rivers of the Murray Darling basin by paddle steamers. River transport had begun in 1853 and the port of Goolwa near the Murray Mouth became the staging post for goods transported from as far away as Walgett, just south of the Queensland border. Access to many of the upstream ports was dependent on the level of the river and in dry years the steam-driven paddle-wheelers, despite their shallow draught, ran the risk of being stranded if the water dropped.
From Goolwa, goods were transported by rail to Port Elliot and later Victor Harbour, where seaports were established. Goolwa continued as a significant port through the 1880s, but the ‘meeting of the whistles’ meant much of the trade from south-eastern New South Wales now went through Melbourne.
As railways became more extensive they became the principal means of transport for agricultural produce and the importance of the paddle steamers declined. The last steamers ceased operating in the 1930s.
Today, a number of paddle steamers operate as tourist boats. The oldest of these is the “Adelaide” which was built in 1866 and is based at Echuca. Other boats have been stripped of their machinery and are used as houseboats. The old port at Echuca is one of the region’s primary tourist attractions.