Want to see shiploads of historic shipwrecks? Here’s what you’ll find at the Port Augusta Ships’ Graveyard.
If you want to learn more about South Australia’s maritime heritage or you just want a day out with a difference, head to Port Augusta, about 300 km north of Adelaide.
Here you’ll find what’s known as the Port Augusta Ships’ Graveyard. It’s one of 19 areas in South Australia where you can find several shipwrecks located within kilometres of each other.
This graveyard has the remains of a number of wooden and iron vessels that are thought to have either been barges or lighters that were used locally but abandoned when they weren’t needed anymore.
Interested in getting a closer look? Here’s what you’ll find and where to find them:
1. Wooden barge – northern side of the Old Great Western Bridge
Known as Barge No. 4 and sometimes referred to as Old Jeny, some sources say this wooden barge was built at Mannum in the 1880s and used on the River Murray until 1910.
It was then taken to Spencer Gulf to carry ore from Whyalla to the Port Pirie Smelters, before being brought to Port Augusta in 1944 to carry materials used for the extension to the old Great Western Bridge.
The barge was sold later that year but has remained in the same spot ever since – abandoned and left to rot, and stoically defying several efforts to remove it during the 1960s and 70s.
Where to find it: You’ll find Old Jeny north of the Old Great Western Bridge. To get there, walk down from the main street (Tassie Street) to the Eastern Foreshore, and walk under the bridge to the northern side.
2. Iron vessel – south of the township
It takes a diligent eye to spot this shipwreck, with only its top edges poking through the mud.
Most sections of this iron vessel are heavily corroded, but its rectangular shape suggests it is more likely to be a pontoon than a barge.
Unfortunately not much is known about the history of this vessel, so let your imagination run wild.
Where to find it: Make your way to Loudon Road in Port Augusta West and head to the Carpenter’s Landing Boat Ramp carpark. You can see this wreck about 4 m away from the seawall in a cleared area between the wall and the mangroves.
3. Wooden barge – adjacent to the old salt works site
On the edge of Spencer Gulf at the old salt works site, you can see the remains of a wooden barge that has a nearly identical construction to Old Jeny.
The salt works operated from 1917 to 1932, with a brief resurgence in the 1940s, and it’s thought that this vessel was abandoned at about the same time as the salt works closed.
The vessel might have been used to carry bagged salt from the salt works to Port Augusta wharves prior to the railway siding being constructed or, given that it is a design similar to Old Jeny, it might also have used along with Old Jeny to modify the old Great Western Bridge in the 1940s to carry the Morgan-Whyalla water pipeline.
You can still see its entire lower hull, with the intact sternpost and rudder, amongst the mangroves.
Where to find it: The wrecks at the old salt works are located about 5 km north of Port Augusta and 3 km north of the Red Banks Train bridge. The site is most easily accessed via boat or kayak. It is next to the remains of a former railway abutment where a railway siding crossed the gulf. The site is on the eastern side of the abutment.
4. Wooden vessel – adjacent to the old salt works
The remains of a wooden bin-barge or punt can be found near the railway abutment at the old salt works site.
It’s a rectangular-shaped, blunt-bowed vessel. Most of its timbers are in advanced stages of decay and its iron fasteners are highly corroded.
It’s unknown what this vessel was used for, but one school of thought it could have been used to ferry pedestrians and vehicles across the gulf before the old Great Western Bridge was built, although some of its characteristics are reminiscent of the bin barges that were constructed for work on the locks on the River Murray.
Where to find it: The wrecks at the old salt works are located about 5 km north of Port Augusta and 3 km north of the Red Banks Train bridge. The site is most easily accessed via boat or kayak. The site is on the eastern side of the remains of a former railway abutment where a railway siding crossed the gulf.
5. Wooden vessel – Back Beach
On Back Beach you’ll find an outline of what’s thought to have been a relatively large timber vessel, possibly 20 m long by 8 m wide.
Based on the size and features of the remains, it’s thought to be a coastal trading ketch – a vessel with two masts, a flat bottom and a centreboard that used to transport goods from the regional outports to and from Port Adelaide.
The main feature visible at the site is the ballast mound. When vessels sailed without cargo or passengers, they usually carried ballast stones in the hold to help counteract the forces of the wind and give the vessel stability. For timber vessels that slowly disappear over decades, often the only clue that a ship was wrecked or abandoned is the ballast pile that remains.
Where to find it: Head to the carpark at the seaward end of Rupara Street, then access Back Beach through the cleared mangroves. The wreck site is located on the southern side of the clearing and is best visited at low tide.
6. Iron barge – opposite Shoreline Caravan Park
The remains of this 20 m iron barge in Port Augusta West have an interesting back-story.
While its early history is unknown, a hand-written manuscript written by Ross Nykiel in 2008 that now features in the State Library of SA says that the barge was used in the construction of the original Great Western Bridge.
When the bridge construction was completed in 1927, the barge was sold to prominent local businessman who converted it to a floating dance venue.
It was moored to the northern side of the Mill Jetty, but during a storm in 1934 the barge broke its mooring, drifted north under the very bridge it had helped build, and washed ashore a kilometre to the north.
The barge’s owner tried desperately to save it but unfortunately died four days later after his salvage efforts led to him contracting pleurisy and pneumonia.
The barge was then sold, with the new owner choosing to leave it where it was and having it as a ‘home for the spirits’.
It slowly rusted and was used as a playground for local children.
Where to find it: You can find this barge on the western side of Spencer Gulf, near the Shoreline Caravan Park. To access the site, head to Gardiner Avenue and turn right just before the caravan park, onto a dirt track that crosses over the water pipeline towards the river edge. Then turn right and park opposite the northern end of the mangroves. The site is most easily accessed by walking around the northern edge of the mangroves to the river edge, then turning south for about 60 m. The wreck is in the mangroves high and dry.
Bonus: Barge – in the channel
If you’re a diver, you might be able to help locate a barge that’s believed to have been scuttled near the No. 2 Beacon, located about 18 km south of Port Augusta near Blanche Harbor, in about 1945.
This information hasn’t been confirmed, so if you happen to come across the barge, make sure you contact the Heritage SA team with details.
About historic shipwrecks
There are 814 shipwrecks in SA registered on the SA Register of Historic Shipwrecks.
However, broadly speaking, it’s only on the wreck’s 75th anniversary that it becomes protected as a ‘historic’ shipwreck under the SA Historic Shipwrecks Act 1981. There are 448 shipwrecks in SA that fit into this category.
Under the legislation it is an offence to damage, destroy, interfere with, or remove any part of a shipwreck or its associated relics.
How you can help
The Department for Environment and Water is conducting archival research on these vessels to try to identify them.
The date that the vessels were wrecked or abandoned is important to verify whether they are protected as historic shipwrecks.
If you have any information that can help, including anecdotes, historical information or photographs, the Heritage SA team would love to hear from you.