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While the Sydney Harbour Bridge was being planned and built in the late 1920s and early 30s, a project in the south of the city was being fiercely debated. Said to rival the bridge in cost and importance, it was never completed, but its story tells us much about how Sydneysiders valued, or did not value, their waterways.
Back in 1896 an engineer named Joshua Henson proposed cutting two canals to link the Cooks River in inner south-western Sydney with the Parramatta River. The aim was to encourage water-borne commerce, and to flush out pollution from urban and industrial development. Canals were still an important and cheap mode of transport in many countries, and Henson hoped that building one would solve a multitude of problems.
The Cooks River had become a smelly eyesore after a dam was built at the present-day Princes Highway in 1839 to augment the colony’s water supply. The project failed to achieve its aim, but the dam did have another impact. It prevented the dispersal of pollution caused by the growth of farming and agricultural processing businesses such as tanneries in the mid- to late nineteenth century. Later, in the twentieth century, waste from manufacturing was also dumped into the river.
It was hoped that joining the river to Sydney Harbour via the Parramatta River would allow tidal flushing of industrial waste to clean the river, like a giant washing machine, while providing a watery highway for small commercial vessels.
Henson’s plan was taken up by the Cook’s River Improvement League, first formed in 1908, which became particularly active after it was reformed in the early 1920s. A copy of the rare pamphlet outlining Henson’s scheme is in the Library’s collection, along with the League’s colourful campaign literature.
Though the idea of twin canals was quietly dropped as too expensive, the river’s banks were dredged and regularised, commencing in 1936, to stop river siltation from impeding the flow of the water and increasing urban flooding. After the upper river was concreted, mostly between 1938 and 1943, many people came to think of it as a canal. Downstream, the addition of steel piling and further dredging after 1946 added to the industrial appearance of the river.
But it had become a canal to nowhere. It was never finished, barges never plied their trade upon it, and the concreting only exacerbated flooding and meant that more pollution was carried downstream.
In the 1950s, with the idea of a canal abandoned, the Cooks River Valley Association was formed to lobby councils and the state government to finish dredging downstream, clean up the river, stop further factories being built along its banks, and create a pleasant place for recreation.
Artworks in the Library’s collection document the presence of Indigenous people, and trace the changes in landscape since the nineteenth century. Samuel Elyard’s paintings of the river bank at Tempe, and early sketches and watercolours of the river upstream, show the early history of European occupation and the dreams of turning wild nature into a pastoral paradise for the colonial ‘gentry’.
By contrast, photos from the 1970s show a stark landscape wrought by dredging, canalising, and the dumping of river silt upon wetlands and farmland. These images provide a benchmark to evaluate the changes in vegetation since that time.