On the bank of the Richmond River

In the past, when exploring in the Broadwater area, I had followed the loop of road off the Pacific Highway that runs through Rileys Hill, while completely unaware of its history, and especially the existence of the dry dock a short distance away. I later spotted this site on a Richmond Valley Council local heritage list.

Still in a state of ignorance about this former industrial operation, I headed down there to check it out. It’s a sunny and warm autumn day, with a few small fluffy cumulus clouds floating high above. Access is via a track running parallel with the Richmond River to its left. Over on the far side of the river is the rural district of Dungarubba-Kilgin.

I’ve arranged to meet up with Tony Corbett, the Chair of the Trust that administers the site. Tony opens a padlocked tall double-gate, which allows access to a group of white-walled and metal-roofed sheds a short distance further on. The grass is short and well grazed. A series of metal information boards provides some useful background to the place.

Rileys Hill is one of three dry docks that were created on the North Coast for repairing boat hulls, with the others located at Terranora Creek near Tweed Heads, and at Ashby on the Clarence. However, this was by far the largest. In the early 20th century, when rivers were equivalent to today’s highways, a range of boats needed repairs. Cable ferries, dredges, and other government and private boats were given an overhaul.

Construction started in 1898, with the facility opening in 1901. The dock itself was excavated from rock, and then lined with a foot of concrete. To fit in the dry dock, boats require a maximum draw (depth below the water line) of no more than three metres. In 1930, the dry dock was extended by 30.5 metres to accommodate large boats. The largest of all to be repaired is the Manly ferry South Steyne, which was transported all the way here in 1984 for refurbishment. This required the dock to be extended a further five metres, which involved blasting a further five metres of rock. The associated explosion is reported to have sent rocks flying as far as the far side of the river. Today, the South Steyne is used as a restaurant in Darling Harbour.

The dry dock closed in 1991, following a long-term downturn in business. Its ninety-year history saw a transition from steam-powered vessels to diesel. After closure, its buildings were becoming more derelict, and were subject to vandalism. The Rileys Hill Dry Dock Heritage Reserve Trust was formed in 2003 to look after the site and refurbish it.

In addition to the dock, other commercial activities once occurred here. Close to the road turnoff is the Rileys Hill quarry. Stone was conveyed to the dock approach track along a narrow-gauge railway, using special rail cars. Wharves ran a long way along the bank, allowing rock to be loaded onto punts using steam-powered cranes. Notable uses for the stone include the Richmond River breakwater at Ballina, which was constructed between 1896-1905.

Tony shows me around, starting with the dry dock itself. To my eyes, the most remarkable element of the site is the impressive length of the dock itself.

It features original mitre lock gates at its mouth, which were perfectly balanced, allowing one man to open each gate. Nearby is a restored hand winch that was used to open a gate by pulling on thick steel cables.

The timber of the gates was encased in a layer of copper to protect against the Toledo Beetle or shipworm. Gates closed behind vessels, which would have rested on supports. Water was then pumped out of the dock. Workers accessed the dock via steel ladders set into concrete, two of which remain. It is hard to imagine the hive of activity herein its heyday.

Close by is the pump shed, which has had its roof and roof timbers replaced. It once contained lathes, milling machines, and a forge for making rivets.

However, the standout features here are two identical steam-driven centrifugal pumps made by Milne Brothers in Sydney. One is from 1898, and the other is from 1902. Only five were ever built, and these are the only survivors. Originally steam-driven, they were later converted to run on diesel, and then on electricity. Water came up the circular pipe, and then went through an underground discharge channel into the river. Beside both pumps are circular metal bases where the boilers once sat.

One person active in the trust is Ron Doyle, who used to work at the dock. He contributed greatly to the project by spending three years restoring both pumps and getting them into a working condition.

While we are standing close to the pumps, a loud knock from an unknown source emanates from the vicinity of a concrete slab little more than a couple of metres away.

A little further from the river is the Byron shed, named after the fact that it is the old passenger shed that once stood at the end of the now-dismantled Byron Bay jetty. It used to be common practice for government buildings to be re-purposed elsewhere, and this one was moved some time in the 1950s.

This particular structure is the former manager’s office. Currently a meeting room, there is a vision to turn it into a display area. Recent additions are an access ramp and a compost toilet. The roof is new, replacing an older one that came off in the November 17th 2012 storm that ripped through the district. I sign the visitors’ book, which indicates that the last few visitors have included Chris Gulaptis (the State MP for Clarence) and Robert Mustow (the mayor of Richmond Valley Council.)

Behind it is the Woodenbong shed, originating from the sewage works there. As with the Byron shed, both were in poor condition and have seen a lot of restoration. This shed has a new water tank, and there are plans to replace the windows while putting on shutters. It is currently used for storage. Another small structure is known as the rivet shed. Rivets for use on vessels lined one of the walls, sorted by size into compartments, and numerous rusty examples still remain here.

Probably the most striking building, from an aesthetic viewpoint, is the small early toilet block. With white timber and blue- and orange-coloured doors, it looks a little like an English beach hut against the scenic backdrop of the river. It replaced an earlier long-drop toilet block that hung out over the river!

Nearby is a large flat rusty metal piece that I later discover may be something like part of a ship’s rudder or hold door, found close to the Ballina Bar. On the bank are two concrete posts that were used for tying up ferries, and beyond is a vista of the river upstream in the direction of Woodburn.

Being Crown land, the dry dock is administered the Rileys Hill Dry Dock Heritage Reserve Trust on behalf of the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI.) Over the years, the DPI has supported this voluntary Trust by providing more than $100,000 worth of funding, all of which has been spent on improvements. Admirably, the Trust has attempted to support the local economy by using local tradespeople for labour when possible. In addition, Trust members have been very generous over the years with contributing their own unpaid labour and skills.

Now that basic restorations are nearly finished, applications are underway for two substantial grants, with a view to opening up the site as a tourist attraction, hopefully by the end of the year. With the detour of the Pacific Highway under construction, small towns such as Woodburn and Broadwater will receive less passing traffic, and will be looking to find other ways to draw visitors. Plans include picnic settings, creating a primitive campsite, and building a jetty for boats to dock. Further down the track, there is a hope that the deteriorated original dock gates could be removed, restored, and displayed on-site. The dock itself could then be re-purposed as a marina.

This vision has so far received little publicity, and the Trust is hoping to bring it to a wider audience. Meanwhile, for anyone who is interested in contacting the Trust, Tony can be reached on 6682 8670, or via email at sandyandtc@bigpond.com.

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