SOMETIMES you just get curious to discover what's around the corner . . . or even up the NSW coast. Then you go with the flow, so to speak.
While speaking recently to a Fern Bay group on local history yarns in my book The Hidden Hunter, I mentioned a rather remarkable 19th century character, Edward Orpen Moriarty, and realised I really should know more about him.
Despite Moriarty (1824-1896) sounding like the name of a Sherlock Holmes (or a Goon Show) villain, he was instead a very respected NSW civil engineer who left a big legacy.
The design of the Port of Newcastle itself is a marvel, officially recognised by The Institution of Engineers back in 1989 when they declared the whole place an engineering landmark.
Think, for example, of Nobbys and Stockton ocean breakwaters making the port safe.
Before these stone breakwalls existed, at least 35 vessels in the sailing ship age between 1850 and 1900 came to grief in Newcastle Bight or on Stockton Beach.
Our former dreaded Oyster Bank, atop which the rusting wreck Adolphe still exists, alone claimed more than 23 vessels.
The blueprint for a safer port of Newcastle became a reality under engineer Moriarty between 1855 and 1858 when he was the NSW engineer for Hunter River improvements.
Former Maritime Service Board port manager Ted Coulin, who once studied Moriarty in detail, described him admiringly as "an underwater breakwater freak . . . with weird and wonderful ideas, some of which worked".
Another port historian, the late Terry Callen of Stockton, also researched Moriarty at length, saying the engineer made the future successful port possible.
While building the Newcastle breakwater to connect with Nobbys (then island) began in the convict era, Callen said that in the 1850s, almost 40 years later, Moriarty proposed building a small rock breakwater seawards from Stockton's Pirate Point (creating today's wave trap) to halt the continual sand drift into the harbour channel.
(Building the larger, longer Stockton breakwater with Waratah stone finally started after Moriarty's time in 1898. It straightened out the current over the harbour bar and finally prevented beach sand silting up the main channel.)
Callen said Moriarty was soon promoted, becoming engineer-in chief for Harbours and River Navigation with the NSW Department of Works.
Then, in the early 1860s, a start was made on Moriarty's major plan for a curved stone ballast wall along the edge of Bullock Island (now Carrington). Piles of stone were dumped 200 foot (60.9 metres) apart to define a wall 2.4 kilometres long.
Ship ballast was then offloaded between the rock piles to build up the present foreshore, creating today's Dyke End.
Contracts were then let in 1874 to build a 776ft (235m) long wharf. Three years later, a special yellow brick engine house (today's Carrington pump house) was erected nearby ready for the first four hydraulic coal-loading cranes to operate soon after.
So, Newcastle was well on its way to later become the world's biggest coal export port.
Another of Moriarty's ingenious ideas also still captures the imagination. North of today's modern Stockton Bridge were once notorious shallows where packet steamers regularly grounded on mud flats. Moriarty's solution was to realign the Hunter River flow to allow the current to straighten, run faster and scour out a single deep channel. He did this by building short underwater guide walls, perhaps a dozen in all. They're still there, being one of the Hunter's best kept secrets.
His era was long before the Pacific Highway and the North Coast Railway existed, when the best way to travel north was by sea.
Meanwhile, Moriarty was soon very busy elsewhere. His era was long before the Pacific Highway and the North Coast Railway existed, when the best way to travel north was by sea.
It was this idea that prompted me recently to make a quick trip north to check out other NSW river inlets to see how far Moriarty's reach, if any, extended up the coast.
My first stop was the Camden Haven River, at Laurieton, just south of Port Macquarie.
The idyllic sleepy hamlet is dominated by the forested bulk of the 487m tall North Brother Mountain, a reminder of the time when seven timber mills operated locally.
The village's other claim to fame was when a giant US Catalina flying boat carrying entertainer Bob Hope crashed-landed on a Camden Haven River sand spit in August 1944. It made headlines world-wide.
Here, the view of North Haven's breakwall and the large wave trap at Pilot's Beach opposite seemed to be strangely familiar. More proof of Moriarty's work?
Alas, after inquiries, this was not to be, yet Moriarty is still remembered further up the north coast for two major 19th century projects.
Earlier, in 1861, Moriarty praised the building of our Macquarie Pier (Nobbys convict breakwater) from 1818 as "the only useful public works remaining to show" how prison labour could be usefully employed.
It probably inspired his 1875 plan to protect ships at Trial Bay up the NSW north coast. He suggested using prison labour to build a mile-long (1.6km) breakwater across the bay entrance. Construction began in 1877, but eventually stopped in 1903 due to rising costs.
Moriarty was also in charge of the once proposed deep water Port of Iluka, above Yamba. He worked on building a better Clarence River entry between 1862 and 1889. Here, he proposed short breakwaters and rock training walls.
Moving sandbars, however, frustrated his ambitious plans. With retirement looming, Moriarty then went on leave and another river training walls scheme, a radical departure to his own, was implemented instead.
Part of the remaining Iluka training wall though is today called 'Moriarty's wall'.
By then, Moriarty might have had enough anyway. He migrated to NSW from Ireland in 1848 to assume huge responsibilities, ranging from Newcastle harbour works, to controlling the building of water supply schemes from Wollongong to Albury and Hunter River towns.
He'd also been commissioner and engineer-in-chief for NSW roads and in 1869-70, he was president of the Hunter River Flood Commission.
As the adage goes, if you really want a job done, give it to a busy man.
Moriarty was probably the go-to man of his era. Besides being very capable, his public service longevity was likely due to his being "politically connected and influential" according to Hunter historian Ian McNeil.
McNeil has written extensively about Moriarty for years, especially his role building the Clarence River breakwaters when the river entrance was a serious shipping hazard.
Even when approval for building came in 1873, Iluka wasn't even a village on paper.
Yet, as McNeil says, the Clarence River is the largest river is the largest system on the NSW North Coast and for 100 years was a busy maritime highway. (In 1879 alone, 72,731 railway sleepers were shipped from the Clarence to Victoria and New Zealand.)
After 30 years with the NSW Public Works, Moriarty, now in poor health, took leave, and officially retired in 1889. He returned to England where he died in late 1896, aged 71.
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