History of the Yarra

Over 30,000 years of Indigenous history

The area surrounding the Yarra River and modern day Melbourne was originally inhabited by various clans of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. It is believed that the area was occupied by indigenous Australians for at least 30,000 years. The river was an important resource for the Wurundjeri people and several sites along the river and its tributaries were important meeting places where corroborees were held between indigenous communities. The river’s resources were utilised sustainably by the Wurundjeri until the advent of early European settlement in the early-mid-19th century.


European discovery and settlement

Melbourne Landing, 1840; watercolour by W. Liardet (1840)

In 1803, the first Europeans sailed up the river, a surveying party led by Charles Grimes, Acting Surveyor General of New South Wales, sailed upstream to Dights Falls where they could no longer continue due to the nature of the terrain. European explorers would not enter the river for another 30 years until, in 1835, the area that is now central and northern Melbourne was explored by John Batman, a leading member of the Port Phillip Association, who negotiated a transaction for 600,000 acres (2,400 km²) of land from eight Wurundjeri elders. He selected a site on the northern bank of the Yarra River, declaring that “this will be the place for a village”.

Melbourne Landing, 1840; watercolour by W. Liardet (1840)


The river was instrumental in the establishment of Melbourne along its banks from 1835 onwards. The new settlement’s main port was sited near Queensbridge, the place where saltwater met freshwater. Ships would use one side of the falls while the other side provided fresh drinking water for the town and a convenient sewer. In the city’s early days the Yarra was one of two major ports, the other being Sandridge or Port Melbourne, but the Yarra was preferred due to the direct access to the town’s main streets and was the location of Customs House. Early industries grew along the banks of the river, rapidly degrading the water quality until Melbourne’s fresh water had to be sourced from elsewhere. Industries then began using the river and tributaries such as Merri Creek as landfill and for harmful chemical dumps for substances like grease and oils.


The first permanent crossing over the river was Princes Bridge, which first opened as a wooden trestle bridge in 1844, the current bridge was constructed in 1888. In the early days, the river would frequently flood. While this was not considered a problem in the floodplains near Yarra Glen and Coldstream, it caused much trouble further downstream in settlements such as Warrandyte, Templestowe, Bulleen, Heidelberg and Ivanhoe. The Upper Yarra Dam was later constructed to alleviate the flooding, protecting settlements along the river, yet depriving the river banks of soil and silt deposits and causing other problems such as erosion and salinity.


Victorian Gold Rush


Gold was first discovered in Victoria near the Yarra River in Warrandyte. The find was made by Louis Michel in 1851 at a tributary of the river, Anderson’s Creek and marked the start of the Victorian gold rush. The approximate location of the site is marked by a cairn on Fourth Hill in the Warrandyte State Park. The river was drained and diverted in various areas throughout the gold rush to aid gold miners. An example of this is the tunnel at Pound Bend in Warrandyte. The river was partially dammed at Pound Bend near Normans Reserve at its eastern entrance and near Bob’s wetlands at its western exit. Miners then blasted a 145m long tunnel through solid rock. The river was then fully dammed at the entrance and exit to the tunnel and water was diverted through 145m and out the other side leaving a 3.85 km of riverbed around Pound Bend exposed to the sun and the miners picks. Other diversions include The Island cutting in Warrandyte and the Little Peninsula Tunnel and Big Peninsula Tunnel near McMahons Creek.


The Gold Rush saw increased development in Melbourne and “tent cities” of new migrants lined the Yarra during the early years of the gold rush. In the 1840s a weir was built at Dights Falls to power a flour mill and to give some control over the river downstream from there. From the earliest years of settlement, the mid and upper reaches of the Yarra began to be used for recreation. The river was selected as the site for the Royal Botanic Gardens in 1846 and the course of the river was modified slightly for the creation of a feature lake. Further upstream, the Cremorne Gardens were established in 1853.

Dights Mill Abbostford (built 1839) pictured in 1863



Sections of the river mouth and the area around the former West Melbourne Swamp were widened in the late 19th century, to make way for docks, harbours, bridges and other infrastructure. The increasing industrialisation of the river and the growth of the shipping industry saw the need for major infrastructure works which dramatically changed the course of the river in its lower reaches. The creation of new shipping channels to cope with the growing use of the Yarra by cargo ships was first tabled in the 1870s.


The Yarra and Victoria Docks in 1928The first major change came with the cutting of the “Fisherman’s Bend” channel, known as Coode Canal, between 1880 and 1886. This major infrastructure project created an island which was known as Coode Island, named after the British consultant engineer engaged to design the works, Sir John Coode. This also included widening and deepening, and in some cases, vast areas of land were excavated, such as Victoria Dock, in order to give ease of access for cargo and later container ships. Abattoirs, smelters and even mortuaries were to use the river as a means of waste disposal in its lower reaches. This industrialisation also led to a steady deterioration in water quality during the 19th century and into the 20th. In 1891, the great flood caused the Yarra to swell to 305 metres (1,001 ft) in width.


Initially known as “West Melbourne Dock”, over 3 million cubic yards (2.3×106 m3) of material was excavated and a new dock was eventually opened in 1892, the material that was removed was subsequently used to fill in part of the West Melbourne Swamp, it took 6 days for water from the Yarra River to fill the dock. The dock was later renamed Victoria Dock. In 1910, the main channel was widened and deepened (81 to 131 m or 266 to 430 ft). In 1916, the central pier at Victoria Dock was completed which provided 6 additional shipping berths and cargo sheds and creating a distinctive landmark for Melbourne ports. By 1942, 650m of the old course of the Yarra River at Coode Island had been filled in, by the 1950s it had been completely filled and land parcels were allocated including a site for the new Fish Markets.


In 1957, the Upper Yarra Reservoir was constructed, primarily to alleviate flooding downstream. This reduced the river’s flow to around 50%, where it sits today. Swanson Dock was constructed between 1966 and 1972 equipped for modern container shipping. Shipping activity at Victoria Dock during this time had gone into steep decline and it was almost disused by the mid-1970s. In February 1972, the CBD was flooded as the natural watercourse of Elizabeth Street became a raging torrent.[11] This was due mostly to previous storm water drainage works which utilised Elizabeth street as a watercourse during times of intense rain creating flash floods. Prior to settlements, the area now occupied by Elizabeth Street was a gully off the river.


Recent history

By the 1960s there was a growing awareness of the neglect of the Yarra amongst some residents of Melbourne, spawning various community groups and “friends of…” organisations to protect the remnants of the river’s ecology. Through the 1970s and 1980s, many desirable developments alongside the river began, such as the Victorian Arts Centre, as its lower courses progressively became gentrified. Growing high density residential development in the lower reaches in the early 1990s coincided with minor government programs such as the installation of litter traps. The riverside apartment complex Como Centre at South Yarra and the larger urban renewal of the formerly industrial Southbank precinct were both built during the late 1990s.

Inner-city projects, including Federation Square and Crown Casino, have focused on the advantage of the location of the Yarra River as a tourist attraction.


Around 2000, the river through the Melbourne city centre became a focus of major government projects. Projects were proposed to connect Flinders Street Station with the river and early proposals for the Melbourne Museum were situated along the south side of the river, however the Crown Casino and Entertainment Complex and Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre were built in its place. The Melbourne Docklands urban renewal project began in 2000, comprising mixed use residential and commercial land and recreational boating moors along the river at the disused Victoria Docks and also on the south side of the Yarra. Federation Square was proposed to connect the spine of Melbourne to the Yarra at Federation Wharf and a neighbouring park, Birrarung Marr was also built along the banks. New ferry services and water taxis sprang up along the city reach, servicing as far up river as South Yarra and out to Hobsons Bay.

The development of Southbank's Promenade epitomises the recent revival of the Yarra as the capital's new Central Activities Districts


Source: Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yarra_River


Yarra Above Falls 1937

yarra 1920’s

Yarra 1900

Yarra 1875 Looking NE

yarra 1858

Yarra 1853 Below Princes Bridge

View of Government House Yarra

Very Early Yarra

the yarra

the yarra princes bridge

The Place Fora Village

the original punt

studley park bridge 1857


SS Oscar Delivering Beer on Yarra

spencer street edwardian period

spencer street 1900’s

shipping on the yarra

shipping on the yarra

queens bridge up close

queens bridge edwardian period

Princes Bridge v early

Princes Bridge Early

Princes Bridge V Early 2

old vaults fed wharf

old princes bridge

Great Yarra Flood 1891 b

Great Yarra Flood 1891 a

flinders street station 1889

flinders street old

flinders street from above

flinders street flood 1863

flinders street 1880s

finders street station east 1898

East Melbourne Map 1880

Early Melbourne Map w Yarra

Docklands History

Collins Street 1839

1867 Yarra

1863 Melbourne Map



Yarra Sheds & Boats

Yarra Shanty 2

Yarra Shanty 1

Yarra Schooner

Yarra Rowing Race

Yarra Rowing 1880

Yarra Relax

Yarra Reflection

Yarra Railway Bridge 1928

Yarra Punt Road

Yarra Punt 1845

Yarra Parade

Yarra Mornings

Yarra Looking East 1870

Yarra Levee

Yarra History

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Yarra History 2

Yarra Gold Rush

Yarra Floods City

Yarra Floods 1934

Yarra Flooded

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Yarra Flooded 6

Yarra Falls Austral Silk

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Yarra Banks 2

Yarra Banks

Yarra Below Falls 1858

old princes bridge 3 (1970s)

Melbourne Settlement

melbourne 1949

melbourne 1945

Melbourne 1945 1

Melbourne 1862 From Princes Bridge

Melbourne 1836

Jim Couier Celebrates Aus Open Yarra

Incidents of the Yarra Flood

Henley OnYarra

Great Yarra Flood 1891 South Yarra