Maitland 200: Hunter River holds important history in Maitland

ICONIC: A Hunter River sign photographed on October 22, 1979.

ICONIC: A Hunter River sign photographed on October 22, 1979.

In the lead up to the Maitland 200 community day at Maitland Park this Sunday, The Mercury will bring you stories of the city’s history each edition. 

Today, the Hunter River has an undeniable presence in Maitland’s landscape.

Cafes in The Levee look over the water, New Year’s Eve celebrations are spread across each side and it takes prime position in the Riverlights festival, hosting the centre piece lantern parade.

But in years gone past the river has held even more important roles in Maitland.

The river has a deep history in Aboriginal culture. 

A Wonnarua dreamtime story says the spirit Baiame created the river to sustain life.

It also fueled massive growth in Maitland in the 1800s.

“Morpeth was the second biggest port next to Sydney,” Morpeth Museum volunteer Allan Todd said.

“The river was very important because there was no roads.”

Mr Todd said for a lot of people who migrated to Australia back then, their first step on Australian soil may have been at Morpeth.

He said the roaring port attracted a population of 1600 people to the town of Morpeth in the 1860s, more than the 1400 people who live there now.

“It was bigger than Newcastle,” he said.

Mr Todd said Maitland was a buzzing commercial centre, as Newcastle – a penal colony – was kept “wild and woolly” to prevent convicts from absconding.

“They didn’t want to develop it too much so Maitland became the commercial centre.”

But trips were mostly made from Maitland to Morpeth by land.

As Maitland and District Historical Society secretary Kevin Short wrote in his ‘A Short History’: “This was due to the convoluted nature of the river to Morpeth, a mere 6 miles overland but a whopping 30 miles (50 km) by river.”

In that 50 kilometre stretch, the river bended back upon itself.

Over time, the river straightened out to what it is today.

“The floods cut the corners off,” Mr Todd said.

Mr Todd said it was a flooding event in 1893 that cut the “horseshoe” shape in the river, where the suburb of Horseshoe Bend now sits.

Morpeth remained a bustling port until the establishment of the railway link from Newcastle to Sydney in 1889.

The last cargo was carried down the river from Morpeth in 1950.

As time went on and infrastructure was developed, bridges were built over the river.

The first was Pitnacree Bridge which opened in 1866 and was followed by Belmore Bridge in 1869, which was then replaced in 1964.