The use of the water from the Murray River to expand the settlement of Mildura predates Ted’s arrival in Red Cliffs but is important in understanding what brought him there.
Mildura’s first residents included the Latje Latje and Yerri Yerri people. Their population was relatively large as there was an abundance of food in and around the Murray River. The first Europeans to arrive around 1857 brought sheep to graze on the rich pasture. A major drought from 1877 to 1884 prompted Alfred Deakin (before he became Prime Minister) to visit irrigation areas in California. There he met the Canadians George and William Chaffey. George came to Australia in 1886 and selected a derelict sheep station known as Mildura to be the site of his first irrigation settlement.
Dr Hamilton-McKenzie completed a Phd thesis titled “California Dreaming: The Establishment of the Mildura Irrigation Colony”. She paints a picture of the men behind Mildura’s irrigation settlement as misguided dreamers. First she points out the major differences between California and the Mildura area.
We didn’t have the river systems that California had – we’re the driest inhabited continent in the world. Our Murray Darling Basin is a drainage system, it is not a system that is actually rejuvinated by melting snows, as America is, as California’s system is.
I thought I’d check that out and found melted snow contributes less than 5% of the water in the Murray. (Murray Darling Basin Authority)
The Chaffey brothers invested money into preparing and irrigating blocks of land for sale. Many English settlers were attracted by a red book called The Australian Irrigation Colonies, promising much more than it was able to deliver.
After the initial success of early irrigation development work William began construction of Rio Vista in 1889. The Spanish name Rio Vista (River View) reflects the Californian influences found in the house.
Disaster struck. The bank crash of 1893 left the brothers in a serious financial situation. Everything that could go wrong did and many people just up and left their land. The Chaffey Brothers firm ceased operation in 1895 and George returned to the United States. William, however, stayed on in Mildura and worked hard to see the irrigation projects continue.
In 1889 William’s wife Hattie died of pneumonia shortly after the birth of their sixth child. The baby died soon afterwards and was buried, with his mother, close to the old homestead. On William’s final visit to America, he married his first wife’s niece Hattie and brought her back to live at Rio Vista. Six more children were subsequently born to William and his second wife. Sadly, their first child, Lillian Hattie Chaffey, died in infancy, aged only five months. Tragedy continued to haunt the family. Their second son, Edward Lamport Chaffey, drowned in an ornate fountain in front of Rio Vista in 1897, aged 18 months.
The shattered parents had the fountain removed, and re-installed at its present location, in the Deakin Avenue centre plantation at the intersection with Eighth Street.
William led a relatively successful and productive life in Mildura and became mayor in 1920. He died in 1926 while Hattie remained living in the house for twenty-four years until her death in 1950.
It was this seemingly misguided scheme surrounded by personal tragedy that sowed the seeds for Ted’s arrival in Mildura.