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Developing trade and port histories: Outports - Port Pirie

Port Pirie

Port PirieThe harbour or landing place that became Port Pirie was discovered in July 1839 by Captain Germein in the government cutter Water Witch while on a supply run for the explorer Edward Eyre.  It was re-discovered in 1846 by Captain Thompson in the John Pirie. The harbour was considered important as it would service the local pastoralists - bringing in supplies and taking their wool.  The harbour was in a creek, and was compared to Port Adelaide on its river - it would be sheltered from all winds

Three large sheep properties were the first to use the anchorage in the creek - Beetaloo, Crystal Brook and Booyoolee. The latter was shipping its wool in November 1847 - later tallow would be shipped as well. This necessitated the building of a landing stage - by May 1848 there was also a large shed to hold the wool bales awaiting shipment. With wide tidal variations, the ketches and other small ships were beached and loaded at this time, either from drays or by rolling the cargo out. The loaded vessels then refloated on the rising tide. Goods for the stations were also arriving through the little harbour.

In 1869 the first meat preserving industry in South Australia operated from the harbour. Taking advantage of a glut in the market, tinned meat, and again, tallow were lightered out to the large ships waiting offshore.

The various jetties and store sheds at the port were all privately erected by the station-owners, and as the next phase of the harbour's history began, for a while these were also used by farmers for shipping their wheat. By late 1871 the government was surveying a town along the creek - for a while two 'Port Pirie's' existed - the old private township that had grown around the jetties, and the new 'government' township: shortly a bridge spanned the creek to join the two.  The newly expanded port was in place to take advantage of the opening of the interior to wheat farming: during the summer of 1872-73 nearly 300,000 bushels of wheat were shipped.  Improvements to the harbour were needed - the farmers wanted better roads, or a railway; in the port, merchants wanted the harbour deepened and the telegraph connected. With this the merchants would be able to contact European buyers through the Overland Telegraph Line that connected Australia to the world.

They could signal good harvests and expect bumper prices for their wheat. The railway was argued extensively in Parliament - was Port Pirie the best destination? Petitioners thought so, and eventually Parliament agreed. In 1874 construction of the railway line began. A new jetty was also constructed to bring in supplies for the line.

The first steamer arrived in 1875 and at this time Port Pirie was bustling with ketches and intercolonial and overseas ships. That year also saw the first government sponsored deepening of the harbour. 12,000 cubic yards of silt was shifted, the first of thousands more. Private dredging was also going ahead as well. 

Port Pirie, from being a landing stage in a creek, was becoming a large harbour, surpassing Wallaroo and Port Wakefield. More wharfage was built. The Queen's wharf was completed by October 1877 - silt from dredging was used for land reclamation behind the wharfage, and government offices were built adjacent to it. The jetty built for the unloading of railway sleepers and rails was upgraded and renamed Government Railway Wharf. As dredging continued, larger and larger vessels could use the port.

In 1877 and 1878 alone 126,000 tons of silt was removed and used for further land reclamation. The following year one dredger alone raised over 100,000 tons. The little creek was totally changed - jetties were being superseded by wharves running along, not out into the creek. Port Pirie's trade was still based on the economy of the adjacent interior, but this was to change shortly.

The mines at Broken Hill needed an outlet for their ore. For a short time there were arguments over which port should be used, but by a narrow vote in Parliament, the die was cast for Port Pirie. The railway line to the New South Wales border was laid by June 1887; this connected with the private Silverton Tramway Company. With the railway line open everything for and from Broken Hill went through Port Pirie - timber for the mines, coal and mining gear and outwards the ore and processed minerals. Smelters were built at Port Pirie and the face of the town changed rapidly - it became an industrial town as well as a port.

In 1889 11,000 tons of coke was sent in six months from Port Pirie to Broken Hill; 4 million superfeet of timber was handled; 11,244 tons of silver-lead bullion was despatched and BHP (Broken Hill Proprietary Ltd) paid 69,000 pounds for railway cartage and labour.

The port expanded rapidly with its association with BHP, and was an important link with the company's development at Whyalla on the opposite side of the gulf.

Substantial upgrades were made at the port during the 20th century - steel sheet piling replaced the original timber wharves; the channel was deepened further and a bulk loading facility was installed and opened in 1962.

The smelters in Port Pirie are now owned by Nyrstar, one of the largest zinc smelters in the world. Port Pirie is today one of the largest ports in South Australia and is operated by Flinders Ports. In 2005/06 0.767 million tonnes of cargo was handled at the port - as well as lead and zinc concentrates, grain and seeds were exported with the principal imports being coal and ores.

Further reading:

Flannery, Nancy. Reluctant harbour: the romance of Pirie Jamestown, S.A.: Nadjuri Australia, 1976

Ardrossan jetty
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Arrival of 'S.S. Morialta' at Port Lincoln.
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Australian warships at Victor Harbor
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Barque Lawhill
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Boats moored at American River
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Cargo ships at Wallaroo wharf
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Channel leading into Lake Butler
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Customs House, Port MacDonnell
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Glenelg jetty 1850
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Grain ships at Ardrossan jetty
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Jetty at Murat Bay
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Jetty Port Lincoln
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