The Port Elliot Maritime Heritage Trail highlights the area's role as the first seaport for River Murray trade.

Development of the river as a significant inland transport route involved bypassing the hazardous Murray Mouth and constructing a rail link – the first public railway in Australia – between Port Elliot on the coast and the Port of Goolwa on the Murray.

From 1851 to 1866 more than 500 vessels used the facilities of the seaport. Unfortunately the wrecking of seven vessels between 1853 and 1864 confirmed Horseshoe Bay's growing reputation as a 'ship-trap', resulting in Victor Harbor replacing Port Elliot as the coastal outlet for the Murray trade.

Four of the wrecked vessels (Harry, Josephine Loizeau, Lapwing and Flying Fish) are often exposed within the surf zone at Horseshoe Bay.

The Emu, Commodore and Athol sites are thought to lie outside Horseshoe Bay and are yet to be located.

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Josephine Loizeau (1841-1856)

Location: Horseshoe Bay, Port Elliott (-35.533269°S 138.686519°E)

Vessel type: two-masted wooden schooner

Josephine Loizeau was built in Mahe Island, Seychelles, in 1841. On 10 July 1856 the schooner was moored near the jetty at Horseshoe Bay. The crew had mistakenly shackled the vessel to the mooring chain instead of the mooring cable and gale-force winds broke its connection and drove the vessel ashore. The vessel’s master, Captain Mennie, was hailed a hero for repeatedly swimming to and from the wrecked vessel to rescue the 13 women and children passengers aboard. The vessel had right over, the side was stove in, and wreckage was littered along the northern beach.

Flying Fish (1843-1860)

Flying Fish

Location: Horseshoe Bay, Port Elliott (-35.532913 °S 138.689163)

Vessel type: 2-masted wooden schooner

Flying Fish was built in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1843, for the intercolonial trade. The schooner arrived at Port Elliott on 29 November 1860 and took up a mooring in the inner harbour. By 2 December the vessel was riding out a southwest gale described as the most intense in memory. The following day the wind force reached its peak and the mooring cable parted. Attempts to anchor failed, and the vessel was driven ashore with such force that it was tipped onto its side where it lay for some time. The wreck was sold the following month and all rigging, fittings, stores, and reusable timbers were salvaged.

Lapwing (1808-1856)

Location: Horseshoe Bay, Port Elliott (-35.532845 °S 138.689121 °E)

Vessel type: 2-masted wooden ketch

Lapwing was built in 1808 in Mevagissey, Cornwall. The ketch was laid to the heavier outer moorings when, on 5 September 1856, the vessel Swordfish entered the harbour and took up one of the inner moorings. However, the harbour master was unable to lay out the prescribed amount of anchor chain without fouling Lapwing. A gale blew up, turning south-southwest and exposing Swordfish and Lapwing to heavy swell. The harbour master decided that the only way to save Swordfish was to secure it to Lapwing’s heavier outer mooring. Both vessels dragged their mooring and went ashore – Lapwing swung broadside to the swell and heeled over. Although the crew got ashore safely, two later drowned when they tried to re-board the vessel. Within 24 hours Lapwing was a total wreck, with wreckage scattered all over Horseshoe Bay.

Harry (1842-1856)

Location: Horseshoe bay, Port Elliott (-35.533400°S 138.689403 °E)

Vessel type: two-masted wooden brig

Harry was built in Bridport Harbour, Dorset, in 1842. On 9 December 1856, the Port Elliot pilot/harbour master, Mr. P. Nation, boarded Harry to take the vessel to the outer anchorage at the request of Harry’s master, Captain Fleming. Within a short time of casting off, the vessel was swept ashore near where Commodore was wrecked earlier the same year. It is unclear whether the cause was a shift or a drop in the wind. Its cargo of wool and lead ore was salvaged but the vessel became a total loss.

Emu (1847-1853)

Location: Port Elliott, outside Horseshoe Bay (-35.523677 °S 138.701348 °E)

Vessel type: 2-masted wooden schooner

Emu was built in Leschenault, Bunbury, Western Australia, in 1847. On 29 April 1853 Emu departed Port Elliott for Port Adelaide with a cargo of wheat. For two days it battled a southwest gale before turning back to Horseshoe Bay. The vessel was unable to gain the shelter of the harbour, eventually anchoring in the lee of Pullen Island between the government mooring buoys on 1 May. The following morning, Emu’s hull was found broken in two on the sand about 5km east of Port Elliott and other wreckage was strewn along the shoreline towards the River Murray mouth. There was no trace of the four crew and they were presumed drowned.

Commodore (1818-1856)

Location: Port Elliott, outside Horseshoe Bay (-35.533957°S 138.690236°E)

Vessel type: 2-masted wooden schooner

Commodore was built in Dartmouth, Devon, in 1818. When the schooner arrived at Port Elliott on 28 February 1856, Captain Smith ignored the services of a pilot and instead chose to anchor in an exposed position 50m from Commodore Point. Despite gusty conditions, Commodore remained in this dangerous position until about 12.30am the following morning when the wind veered southwest and it began to drag its anchor. The captain signalled for assistance, but it was too late and the vessel drifted onto the point. Most of its cargo was lost or damaged and as Commodore broke up, wreckage became scattered along the beach in all directions.

Atholl (1853-1864)

Location: Port Elliott, outside Horseshoe Bay, between Pullen Island and Commodore Point (-35.533959 °S 138.689398 °E)

Vessel type: 2-masted wooden brigantine

Atholl was built in Pictou, Canada, in 1853. On 19 March 1864, Atholl was moored between Pullen Island and Commodore Point, just outside Horseshoe Bay. It was waiting its turn to enter the harbour to take on 500 bags of wheat for Melbourne. For some days prior, heavy and high seas had been rolling into Port Elliott from the southwest and, as a precaution, a second anchor was put out. During the night, Atholl dragged its anchors and went ashore. While attempting to kedge the vessel into deeper water, the windlass was ripped from the deck. To lighten the vessel, the foremast was cut away but for some hours defied efforts to cast it overboard. When the mast was finally cast adrift, the motion of the vessel eased and lines were rigged to take the crew, stores, mail and other property ashore.