Renmark’s historic flood gauge, ‘everything after this’ warning recreated as the River Murray heads towards the peak

Jackson Wickham has a lifelong connection to the Murray River.

The 23-year-old enthusiastic local historian has learned almost everything there is to know about steamboats. he has even built his own and wrote a book about them.

Mr Wickham has heard of the 1956 floods and the impact on his hometown of Renmark in Riverland in South Australia for as long as he can remember.

“I was six years old when they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the ’56 flood in Renmark,” he said.

A man smiling with the river behind him.
Jackson Wickham remembers hearing about the 1956 floods as a child.(ABC Riverland: Anita Ward)

“There were all the photos and videos [of the floods] but this [one] stood out as something unique to Renmark that everyone related to the floods.”

The board was an extension of the flood gauge, hastily constructed during one of the worst natural disasters on record in the state, to allow locals to keep tracking the rapidly rising river levels at the Old Town pier.

“The [water] passed over the [original gauge] so they had to very quickly paint an extension that went up another three to 30 feet and was a little bit above street level,” Wickham said.

a black and white image of a wide river with sandbags and boards sticking out of the water
‘All out after this’ showed the height of the river at which Renmark was expected to flood in 1956.(Supplied: Jackson Wickham)

“That’s where they drew the line and said ‘All out after this’, [we] I can’t guarantee the safety of the city after that because it’s being held back completely by flood banks and that sort of thing.

“He ended up going up to 30 feet, seven and three-quarters of an inch.”

A flood and out

The extension plate was only used during the 1956 flood before finding its way to a dedicated display at the local Olivewood Historic Homestead museum.

An old weathered board with numbers painted on it as markers for a flood
The original flood gauge extension was used after being submerged for four months.(Supplied: Jackson Wickham)

The site is the original home of Charles Chaffey, one of the Chaffey brothers who helped establish the Renmark and Mildura irrigation districts.

Mr Wickham, who is a regular historical consultant at Olivewood, said it felt good to relive this part of history as the Murray River was facing its worst flood in decades.

“The original gauge is a bit worn and barely legible, so I went down there with some parchment paper and traced it over, got all the fonts and lettering the same, went home and painted a full-size replica,” he said.

A man making a flood gauge extension.
Mr. Wickham traced out and hand recreated the original extent of the flood gauge.(Supplied: Jackson Wickham)

“When you’re tracing each letter individually, you notice all the inconsistencies.

“The eight is upside down… you think, ‘Oh, well, a bit of the character in it,’ or the ‘r’ in ‘after,’ when you start tracing it you realize it’s not done on a stencil, obviously it’s freehand.”

The river enthusiast also noted that the inch increments on the replica gauge spread have been recalibrated as some of the original markings were slightly off.

Flood marker on the river bank.
The replica of the flood marker stands on the bank of the Renmark river in front of a levee to protect the city.(ABC Riverland: Sophie Landau)

“This time you get an accurate reading, as long as you put it in the right place,” Wickham said.

The flood gauge extension replica is now in action on the bank of the Renmark River, near a newer metal gauge.

Once the flood waters recede, Mr. Wickham will donate it to Olivewood to be placed next to the original for comparison.

“Every 30 or 40 years we have a big flood [in the Riverland] so if this marker doesn’t wear off in that time, we’ll probably use it again,” he said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *