Argo Barge and its history - Another special South Australian icon.

Friday, Feb 05, 2021 at 04:50

Stephen L (Clare) SA

Born in Sweden, John George Arnold ran away to sea at the age of only 13 it was here that he learnt his trade. Migrating to Australia, he arrived in Murray Bridge in 1899 and with his qualifications, worked with Captain Murray Randell in the paddle steamer industry and in 1913 Captain Arnold purchased the Dry Docks at Avoca Reserve in Mannum, South Australia.

In 1915 with a contract from the Engineering and Water Supply Department, Captain Arnold built the barge Argo and this was renowned as the largest barge built and to ply the Murray River and was built as a permanent floating pumping station equiped with a 20 inch Robinson pump, steam engine and wood fired boiler and primary used to pump water from in and out out the Murray. Like other barges built before and after the Argo, they were towed by paddle steamers and were know to freight up to 1700 bales of wool that weighted over 200 tonnes, so these were the real work horses of the Murray River.

Even though the barges were towed, they still requires a skilled barge master who had an independent wheel and rudder on the barge as well as a fireman to operate the wood fired steam driven pumps. During the 1920’s the Argo was used in the construction of the locks, weirs and barrages along the Murray in South Australia. Another interesting fact is two of the black and white images that are courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, show another special South Australian woman, Peal Hogg with her at the wheel of the Argo. What made Pearl so special, she was the first and only ever female River Boat Captain on the Murray River.

The Argo was towed by the paddle steamer, Industry that was also another Engineering and Water Supply Department vessel and became a regular site along the Murray. During its working life it was used in many other important jobs along the Murray including pumping water from the Coffer Dams during the construction of the Paringa Bridge, during times of low river flows was used 23 kilometres north of Renmark at Woolenook Bend to pump water for the Chaffey Irrigation District and another one of its critical jobs was during the 1956 floods, where the Argo was crucial in the dewatering on the many low lying areas along the river.

The last working years of the Argo’s life was spent at a permanent mooring at Mypolonga where from 1958 until 1964 it was used for irrigation. At the end of its working life, the Argo returned to where it was originally built, Mannum where it was stripped and sold to Swan Hill in Victoria in 1987 where it ended up on dry ground at Murray Downs Station.

In 1993 at the instigation of the works manager from the Renmark Council and a P.S. Industry enthusiast, John Halliday, the Council paid $2000 for the Argo barge so it could again be re united its its old working vessel, the P.S. Industry. From Swan Hill to Coligan, the Argo was towed by the Paddle Steamer Impulse, and from there a six horsepower outboard motor was fixed to the barge and with the help of strong currents from a flood, the Argo finally made it back to Renmark.

At its mooring in Renmark, the Argo lay bottomed and in 1998, there was an interest from people in Murray Bridge to purchase the barge from the Renmark Paringa Council. Spurred on by moves for the Argo to taken to Murray Bridge, a Restoration Committee was formed in April 1998. Volunteers then started the “Buy a plant” scheme and in total ninety percent of the hull was replaced using 92 planks that were 5.2 metres long of imported Marbou timber and Red Gum when it was available.

Besides the many helpers in the restoration project, the was a core team of around 8 men, who’s average age was 72 and this dedicated group become knows as “Dad’s Army” that worked week in and out at its dry dock moorings just upstream from Renmark in Ral Ral Creek. Finally on the 1 August 2001 the Argo was re floated and handed back to the community of Renmark and Paringa.

For 19 years the Argo sat proudly behind the P.S.Industry and visitors were able to view it from the Visitor Information Centre. Sadly due to adverse weather conditions and a very choppy river, it was believed that the protective skirt filled with water and the argo sank in September 2019. In February 2020 the barge was refloated and trucked to its now final resting place, where it can be viewed at the Olivewood Historic Homestead and Museum at the corner of Renmark Avenue and Twentyfirst Street.

All Black and white images are Courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.
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