After opening up river trade on the Murray River, Captain Francis Cadell and William Randell turned their attention to the Darling River. However, the Darling presented more of a challenge for navigation than the Murray.
Settlement was far-flung, the river winding, the flow erratic and it contained numerous navigation hazards. Cadell surveyed the river and decided it needed a thorough de-snagging and the building of locks. In 1858 he presented this idea to the Select Committee on River Navigation, but the NSW Government was reluctant to spend money on this view which they saw as only servicing trade to South Australia.
In 1859, the first paddle steamer, the Albury, headed off up the Darling, delivering cargo to Mt Murchison Station and returning with 100 bales of wool.
By 1865, paddle steamers were carrying wool and copper down the Darling. The wool industry was the mainstay of the river trade. With new and more powerful steamers and longer and wider barges, the volume of wool transported by paddle steamer increased rapidly.
However, river trade on the Darling was a ‘boom and bust’ affair, more so than the Murray River. Pastoralists and shipping companies learnt to live with the river and manage with the high and low water levels in the Darling. In some years, the river was too low, while during floods, paddles steamers could virtually go anywhere. In once flood, a paddle steamer paddled up the Paroo River to the Queensland border, almost 300 kilometres from the Darling River.
The Jane Eliza holds the record for the longest time a boat was stranded in the Darling River – three years.
There are numerous stories about paddle steamers. One boat left Wentworth with building material for a new hotel at Bourke, only to get stranded when the river fell. When the boat finally got to Bourke, the hotel had been built with materials carried to the town by the new railway. When another steamer full of potatoes was stranded by a low river, the enterprising captain got the crew to plant the spuds on the riverbank. When the river rose, the crew dug up the mature crop and proceeded on their way with three times the cargo! There is also a story about a river boat that left the main channel in a flood only to be permanently stranded kilometres from the river. The story goes that the boat became a grandstand at a race meeting.
The sinking of paddle steamers and barges were common and fires were a constant danger. Snags were a constant hazard and snagging boats stayed out for weeks at a time, clearing snags from the river. Unfortunately the next flood would re-deposit snags and the snagging boats would start all over again! De-snagging of the Darling River was seen as the single most important task to river navigation.
1880 marked the beginning of the end for river trade as roads and railways were built.