Wahgunyah: A short history

Peter Smith soaks up the atmosphere at Wahgunyah's customs house. PICTURE: Matthew Smithwick.
Peter Smith soaks up the atmosphere at Wahgunyah's customs house. PICTURE: Matthew Smithwick.

LIKE many other towns, Wahgunyah lives off the waters of Australia's longest river.

The river has sustained the region's indigenous inhabitants, pioneers, business and industry. There are also the tourists who flock to the wineries, restaurants and historic buildings.

Most likely named after an Aboriginal term describing a white settler's house -- "Wah" meaning big and "Gunyah" a shelter -- it is believed the region was occupied by the Whroo people of the Kwat Kwat, one of the many Yorta Yorta clans.

Two Johns -- Foord and Crisp -- leased a cattle run in 1841.

Historian Peter Smith, 75, whose family established All Saints Estate in the 1860s, managed the vineyard for 24 years until about 20 years ago.

Mr Smith said Crisp sold to Foord who selected the site for the town on a narrow section of the river.

"He set up a punt, took the land up under pre-emptive right, had a sawmill and a toll bridge on the river that paid very well," Mr Smith said.

"The famous steel John Foord Bridge that still links Wahgunyah with Corowa -- then known as North Wahgunyah -- replaced it."

The discovery of gold led to a river trade at Wahgunyah with paddle- steamers bringing goods from Echuca for overland transport to Beechworth, Chiltern and Eldorado.

"There were six or seven riverboats -- Wahgunyah was as far up the river you could count on navigating in reasonable flows," Mr Smith said.

John Foord owned a flour mill and used his boats to distribute flour downriver and transport such goods as wine to Echuca and on to Melbourne.

The loading depot stabled about 100 draught horses.

"The river trade ended practically overnight when the railway arrived in Albury with a branch line to Wahgunyah," Mr Smith said.

Until Federation in 1901, everyone had to stop at border customs houses to pay duty on goods every time they crossed the river from one state to the other.

Wahgunyah's heritage listed red-brick customs house, complete with a hipped roof clad in slates and surmounted by iron finials, was opened in 1886 and sits near the Victorian entrance to the John Foord Bridge.

"An old chap told me, if you went to Corowa to buy new boots, you left the old boots in Corowa and wore your new boots home," Mr Smith said.

"And you flatly refused to pay any duty on your new boots, even though the customs bloke probably noticed you had new boots on, it was as tough as that.

"The people finally revolted at all the borders, not just here at Wahgunyah, but everywhere, and duties disappeared with Federation."

Mr Smith said John Foord's enthusiasm had driven Wahgunyah's early growth.

"It was quiet after the gold ran out but when Uncle Tobys arrived the town took off again," he said.

"And the piggery opened at Corowa and both Wahgunyah and Corowa have grown rapidly since.

"There is just good, solid, steady growth."