Gundagai Inundation

The Sydney Morning Herald

29 October 1844

Gundagai. October 22

It is my painful task this week to furnish you with a brief account of one of the most awful visitations with which a country can be afflicted a general and devastating inundation.

I regret I have not time to enter into as circumstantial an account of the frightful deluge as would be necessary to convey to you and your readers some idea of its effects, both immediate and subsequent - nor do I feel myself adequate to the task, even had I the opportunity.

Our feelings and position cannot be estimated, save by those who now may walk over the lately flooded land, and behold the marks and effects of the "waste of waters”.

The river for a considerable period has been subject to floods at very short intervals, and the waters, as I informed you, had risen beyond the highest water-mark for many years.

On Thursday, the 10th instant, the river had partially subsided; but the rains which had fallen the day before caused it before evening to commence rising again, and by Saturday morning it was once more at its usually high pitch.

Friday, however, had been fine, and we anticipated no evil.

On Saturday, the rain recommenced, and that day and Sunday fell without intermission.

The river remained stationary, and by our flood-stakes had neither risen nor fallen an inch up to ten o'clock on Sunday night.

On Monday, the weather was again fine, but about seven in the morning the river began to rise slowly, and continued to do so until towards night, when, having attained an enormously high point by comparison with other floods, we were all impressed with the idea that the dawn of Tuesday would show us the receding waters.

The flood at this time (dusk of Monday evening) had risen about two feet 9 inches above previous marks, and had forced two men from their hut to take refuge in our kitchen for the night.

As no danger was threatened up to this hour, it was treated as an amusing affair enough, and the position of the men had only excited passing merriment, particularly as the river rose with that sluggish movement which always indicated to us its arrival to its maximum height, and its consequent approaching fall.

At eleven o'clock on Monday night, however, our alarm was for the first time excited.

We had for three hours of darkness lost sight of the river, and an exclamation of the most profound surprise, not unmixed with dread, escaped us, on taking a lantern to observe its progress before retiring for the night, we stepped into the water at a point which at dark was two feet six inches perpendicularly above it!

We looked at each other in silence for some seconds, so perfectly astounded were we at the awfully rapid advance of the river.

We had, whilst assembled at prayers a few minutes before, heard shouts from one of the sheep stations, which was attributed to the watchman in order to scare the wild dogs; its meaning now burst upon me with a fearful certainty - the people were being driven from their huts and I knew from their position, they had no means of escape as for days previous they had been hemmed in on an island, from which for a woman with four children or a man who could not swim well, there was no escape.

Throughout the night shouts and cries could be heard in all directions and the river rose fearfully, breaking its banks in all directions, and effectually cutting off all egress to the ranges.

As we were several feet still above the level of the water, we did not deem it possible the flood would or could reach us, and we had retired for the night comparatively easy.

At four o'clock in the morning the waters rushed over the banks and drove the people from the kitchen and we were all soon busily and cheerlessly engaged in securing all property from the probable effects of the water.

At day dawn the river could be seen, without the aid of marks, encroaching upon us and no time was to be lost; distant and continuous shouts and cries too plainly convinced us of the painful position of others, and by the time I had placed all our goods upon the lofts of the hut, the water broke through our dwelling with a dismal and hissing rush, and in an instant the mighty river was exerting the strength of its foaming and boiling current upon us; we constructed a platform for my family, and most providentially the working bullocks and horses having retreated during the night from the waters to the high ridge on which our hut was erected we secured them, and by wading to the middle in the flood, succeeded in yoking them up, and getting my family with some necessary comforts away from the dwelling to a small ridge at about 200 rods distance, which still held up its grassy form above the flood about three feet, and gratefully did we take possession of it as a hill of refuge.

All around us now was one wide waste of eddying and boiling stream and the rushing roaring sound of the mighty waters was awful; beyond where we were there was no escape and the space was a confined one of a few hundred rods; the instant we reached the mound stakes were set to ascertain the progress of the flood; and evident alarm became at length fixed upon the countenances of the female members of the family, when it was discovered that by ten o'clock our three foot of dry earth had decreased to two and the gradual shelving of the ridge made it appear almost level with the water’s edge, and on the point of being covered.

At two o'clock the flood was only fifteen inches perpendicularly from us, and we now began to contemplate chaining the dray to a tree, and fastening boards on the top of the frame as a sort of scaffold to mount to after we were flooded entirely out.

The river reached its maximum height at about three o'clock on Tuesday, the 15th, and joyfully did we hail the cry which was raised "The waters stand".

The shouts in the direction of Gundagai were quite audible, and excited our feelings deeply whilst as yet the result of the awful visitation was involved in obscurity.

Furniture, packages of goods, dead sheep and pigs, &c, were passing all day on Tuesday and gave frightful evidences of the consequences that had attended the inundation.

As particulars attending this distressing event would engross a small volume, although collected only around Gundagai, I must hasten to report the catastrophe, and sum up the result in as few words as may be.

The waters subsided slightly on Wednesday, the 15th, but rose again on that night.

On Thursday they fell rapidly and on Saturday we returned to our hut.

So soon as egress was possible our local incidents were collected.

The poor woman with four children of whom I have spoken, and a man who chanced to be stopping for the night at the hut, were driven to a tree, and were amongst the branches from Monday night until Thursday morning when they were enabled to descend.

They had no food during all that period except a fowl which was providentially placed within their reach by the water, and which on the third day the children ate raw.

There is a thrilling narrative attached to the sufferings of these poor people; but want of space forbids its detail.

The woman had a child at her breast only six months old, another just able to crawl about, and the remaining two of corresponding ages.

Their position was awful beyond measure for although on a tree, they were in the midst of the boiling stream.

One of the boys fell twice into the water, overcome by exhaustion, and another became delirious from his sufferings.

They were all in a pitiable condition when relieved; but are now doing well.

The woman's husband could see them, but could render no assistance save by cheering their spirits with the hope of aid that came not.

Fathers and mothers alone can sympathise fully in their awful position.

A shepherd here was also driven to a tree, and remained there without food for four days, a number of sheep were drowned; the township was completely under water; some of the dwellings were covered to the roof-tree, and none with less than three to four feet of water in them; gardens and fencing of all kinds were totally destroyed, and much property damaged or swept away.

Mr. Andrews suffered severely, having deserted his house precipitately before the waters reached it; and unfortunately without taking any precautionary measures to prevent loss, by storeing his goods above the floors.

The position of Gundagai as a government township is no longer tenable; no one would receive the allotments now as a gift, and the Government has no alternative but to remove the site, and allow the present holders of allotments the choice of others in the newly defined village.

The surveyor who marked out the present township committed an egregious error n the selection of the spot, and evidently had no data to form his judgment upon; for the only spot which was not covered by the flood is marked on the chart as valueless, being " subject to inundations."

The inhabitants deserted their houses in most instances or took refuge on the roof or lofts; many escaped to the mountains by the aid of canoes, and remained there until the waters subsided.

Mr. Norman (whose general attention to the wants and safety of the inhabitants, now houseless and without food, is duly appreciated) was incessant in his exertions to render their position as little painful as possible; his oven was fortunately not immersed, and by the aid of a punt, with four oars, temporarily rigged, wood was procured, bread and meat baked, and dispersed amongst the unfortunates, until he left himself without flour.

The body of a man was seen floating down the stream on Wednesday. One man was drowned at Jewging, one at Bagelong, and another near Yass.

This information reached us per the mail man, who arrived at Gundagai on Thursday last.

A servant of Mr. Charles Tompson, named Thomas Arms, in attempting to save a woman and her children, was drowned, together with his horse, which was harnessed to a cart. The poor fellow's body has not yet been recovered.

The family of Mr. Richard Guise were exposed to great and trying danger.

Mr. Guise is at Port Phillip, and Mrs. Guise was with two infants on the roof of her hut for several days, until rescued by the blacks in a bark canoe the water was nearly to the roof of the dwelling.

Those instances might be a thousand times repeated, however, and we have all reasons to be thankful to him "who biddeth the floods to rise, and stilleth the waves thereof," that so many have been spared from death and domestic bereavements.

The sight was one which will live impressed on my memory to the latest hour of my existence. It will form a new era in our district transactions.

l am so busily engaged in remedying the havoc caused by the water, that this communication is not worthy the deep and momentous occasion which calls it forth.

You must excuse its fugitive and disjointed character therefore. Having sent into Gundagai today, I leave this open until return of messenger, who may bring some fresh information.

My position during the flood must be considered as that of all others on the river banks, and as general observation at the time was impossible, I have of necessity, confined myself to my own situation, in the detail.

October 23, - No fresh intelligence to impart.

The weather has been beautifully fine since Monday last, and we hope for a continuance thereof.

The punt - which fortunately for us all was saved - has to-day commenced plying again, the river has subsided very considerably, and the Gundagaites have nearly repaired the damage done to them by the late inundation.

There is, nevertheless, in the ap- pearance of the township and all around it, an air of chilly desolateness, from the too evident effects of the calamity, that is painful to the feelings of the beholder. T

here are a great number of persons in the village, the mass having accumulated in consequence of the impossibility hitherto of crossing the Murrumbidgee; to-day, however, they will "be sent upon their way," and if not "rejoicing," still happy to escape from the confinement of a watery thraldom.