Call Council Office 08 8083 8900

Our History

Australia has been inhabited by the Aboriginal people for some 40,000 years. Lake Mungo to the south of Wilcannia and Mutawintji to the north-west give evidence of long occupation. Because of this, the Aboriginal people have a unique place in our Australian society. The Central Darling area around Wilcannia was held by the Barkindji tribe (from barka meaning a river). Many of the Aboriginal people living in Wilcannia today belong to the Barkindji tribe.

Captain Charles Sturt was the first European to map the Murrumbidgee River and the Murray River to its mouth in 1830. In 1835 Major Thomas Mitchell followed the Bogan and Darling Rivers down to Menindee. He named Mt Murchison on the Darling. Settlement commenced prior to 1850 along the Darling, but it was 1855 before the Central Darling runs were consolidated. Captain Francis Cadell's Steamer Albury entered the Darling on 27 January 1859 and reached Mt Murchison in 8 days. Later the name was changed to Wilcannia meaning 'a gap in the bank where flood waters escape'.

The township of Wilcannia was notified on 26 June 1866. In 1880 it had a population of 3000 with 13 hotels and was known as 'The Queen City of the West'. Wilcannia became one of the major ports of the Murray Darling system and the paddle steamer trade flourished for 70 years. In 1887 218 steamers and their barges unloaded stores weighing 36,170 tons, and 222 loaded wool and other produce weighing 26,552 tons at the port of Wilcannia. At one time there were 30 steamers loading or unloading. There were 90 steamers plying the Darling in 1890. The total distance from Wilcannia to Goolwa at the mouth of the Murray is 1110 river miles. Eventually rail and road transport killed the river boats and Wilcannia lost its former glory. Many fine buildings from the era remain in good condition making Wilcannia one of the best preserved historic towns in Australia.

The name 'White Cliffs' seems to have come from the smudgy white cliffs easily seen by passengers travelling the road from the river port of Wilcannia and the Mt Brown gold fields. From the first there were problems with lack of water and extreme heat in summer. These conditions made for considerable hardship in the opal fields and led to the town's characteristic underground dwellings, not the first in Australia but the first on any opal field.

Look around and try to picture White Cliffs in 1884 when only the unknown miners were here. In 1889 four roo shooters sent opal samples to TC Wollaston at Adelaide, and intensive mining followed.

1897 represented the peak of White Cliffs' fortunes. By this time the town had an air of permanence with four hotels, Salvation Army barracks, a public school, permanent water tanks, a new Police Station and its own newspaper, The Western Life.

Over 100 businesses catered to their needs. There were five places of worship, a public school whose first schoolmaster was the father of famous cricketer Bill (Tiger) O'Reilly, a convent, a hospital, two doctors, a pharmacy, seven stores, five pubs, five eating houses (one underground), five guest houses, four billiard rooms, four well stocked libraries, a local newspaper, four bands and four halls where dozens of clubs and societies met and where local and overseas companies entertained regularly. At the turn of the century, a population of some 4,000 people lived in an incredible assortment of over 500 dwellings in the town as well as other homes up behind the mullock heaps.

Ivanhoe was originally situated on a well-used route across flat, western New South Wales between Wilcannia and both Balranald and Booligal. George Williamson purchased the first land in the area between 1869 and 1873 and became a central figure in the town's development. He established a branch store with a liquor license in 1870. At that stage the store and a bark hut constituted the town. The Ivanhoe Hotel came into existence by 1872 and a Post Office opened on January 1, 1874.

The town's name probably came from Williamson who named it after Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe. Williamson was a Scot and there were a number of Scots in the area. They looked to their country of origin (and its most famous novelist) for other local place names - Mossgiel, Glenro, Waverley (another novel by Scott) and Abbotsford (Scott's birthplace)

A telegraph station opened in 1883, by which time there were about 50 residents, a blacksmith's shop, two hotels, two stores, the telegraph office and a few cottages. The town was a change station (where coach horses were changed) for Cobb & Co. by 1884. A police station opened the following year and a school in 1889. Ivanhoe was proclaimed a village in 1890. The arrival of the railway in 1925, and the completion of the line from Sydney to Broken Hill in 1927, was a definite boost to the town.

There is little information available on the local Aborigines. However it is clear that there was, in general, intense and violent conflict over European settlement of the far west of NSW until the 1850s and 1860s. On the shore of Boolaboolka Lake, to the east, a group of whites shot an entire tribe and left the skeletons to bleach in the sun. The Carowra Tank Aboriginal Settlement was later established under the supervision of the Mossgiel police and a local resident recalls no conflict from this period. In the 1930s the tank dried up and the Aborigines moved away although some have, over time, made their way back.

Menindee's history is full of colour and characters. It was 'discovered' by the aborigines of the Barkindji Tribe. Their fossilised skeletons remain in the dry sand dunes around the Menindee lakes and have provided some of the most prolific and consistently early remnants of human existence anywhere in the world. Thus far archaeologists have positive evidence of occupation dating back 26,000 years - not much younger than the now famous neighbouring site, Lake Mungo.

Game adventurous men might often have wished they had never gone beyond Menindee. The most famous of these, Burke & Wills, may well have rued leaving its safety. In 1860, their party stayed in a shanty pub owned by Thomas Pain, now Maidens Hotel, while they sorted out their differences of opinion and gathered their strength before heading north on that fateful journey with the burning sun and unforgiving land in north-eastern Australia. The marked grave of Dost Mahomet, one of the camel drivers of that expedition is buried just out of Menindee off the Broken Hill Road. After losing an arm in a camel-related accident Mahomet settled in Menindee and worked in the bakery of William Ah Chung, who established one of the first market gardens in town. Council is currently restoring the grave site of Dost Mahomet and erecting signage on the approach to the site.

The Darling River meanders through New South Wales from its origins in Queensland's Darling Downs till it meets the mighty Murray River at Wentworth. It is a significant landmark in Outback Australia. Much of the pioneering history of the region has centred on the river, and it remains vital for agriculture, horticulture and town life. Following the river will take you through the traditional lands of the Ngemba and Barkindji peoples, who regard the river as an integral part of their lives and lifestyle.

In the 1830's and 40's European explorers in search of the fabled 'Inland Sea' finally resolved the mystery by tracking the 1,000 river miles from Brewarrina to Wentworth. Sturt, Mitchell, Dowling and Burke and Wills performed epic exploring feats.

The Darling became the 'Wild West' frontier for the European settlement in the 19th century. By mid-century cattlemen began to carve out vast stations and forge stock routes to Adelaide and Melbourne. The successful navigation from the Murray to Brewarrina by riverboat in 1859 signalled that the river had become a highway. River Front wool empires grew at phenomenal speed; some were 2-3 million acres, shearing millions of sheep, so that by the 1890's the river ports of Bourke, Wilcannia and Wentworth were shipping world record amounts of wool away to Europe. At the same time militant shearers wrestled with landowners along its length. Unionism took shape and gave impetus to the Labour Party on the eve of Federation.

Legends were made here along the Darling, literary myths were created by Henry Lawson, Will Ogilvie, Breaker Morant and, more recently, "Boney" books were written about the area by Arthur Upfield. Kidman, Tyson and McCaughey created pastoral kingdoms of unparalleled proportions; the Light-horseman of World War 1 were bred on these vast plains.

Big-hearted men and woman lived and died here fighting waves of drought, flood and rabbits. Here Flynn, Drummond, Daniels and the Bush Brothers translated Christian compassion into epics of pioneering vision.

Men and woman of great technical skill have demonstrated ways to harness the river and the land to bring prosperity. There were many hard lessons learnt from overstocking and land degradation. There is currently great application to proper and sustainable use of this precious lifeline.