Former ferry’s history revealed

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Clearing taking place at the Luggate Red Bridge is slowly bringing evidence of the site’s settler history back into view.

Red Bridge reserve project leader Graham Taylor, of Luggate, said work by his team of volunteers cutting down wilding pines and clearing slash — coarse and fine woody debris — revealed the former access track leading to the Luggate punt ferry that from the 1870s to 1915 transported people across the Clutha River.

Getting from A to B .. . Before the Luggate Red Bridge a more watery crossing was via the Luggate punt.
PHOTO: SIMON HENDERSON

A heritage site survey in 2016 by archaeologist Matthew Sole showed ferry cable anchor pits, cable remnants, stacked stone walls and landing sites which were some of heritage features that remained at the site.

The punt operated as a reaction ferry, meaning it used the reaction of the current to propel the vessel across the river, Mr Sole said.

A cable was anchored on either side of the bank of the river and attached to the ferry.
By angling the ferry into the current it would move across the river, Mr Sole said.

James Smith was a longserving puntman who ferried people, horses and cargo across the river for about 30 years, working all hours of the day and night.

A Scot from Roxburghshire, he lived with his wife, Elisabeth, at a cottage near the ferry and they had seven children who survived to adulthood.

He would have been very busy during the grain harvest, transporting grain from Hawea across to the mill in Luggate.

The ferry was not without its dangers, and in 1888 the Luggate mill wagon and its team of four horses were swept down river.

‘‘It wasn’t considered an ideal punt ferry crossing site and it did suffer a few issues and accidents,’’ Mr Sole said.

Luckily, the men and horses survived and were able to swim ashore by the Devil’s Whirlpool, also called the Devil’s Elbow, downstream of the ferry.

The writing was on the wall for Mr Smith’s ferry as the advent of traction engines and increasing traffic led to calls for a bridge.

In about 1913, work began on the “Grandview Bridge’’, now more commonly known as Luggate Red Bridge, which opened officially in October 1915.

James Smith was out of a job but he was not left completely empty-handed.

The Cromwell Argus reported in September 1915 the council, recognising his service as puntman for ‘‘a great many years in an admirable manner’’, and in appreciation of his services, gave him three months’ notice on full pay and a gold watch.

He died in 1929, at the age of 79, and the Cromwell Argus recorded in his obituary that he was one of the oldest and best known settlers of the Upper Clutha Valley, noting his strong personality and keen interest in politics.

‘‘The humorous side of a thing would always appeal to him, even his Scotch descent did not obliterate this trait,’’ it said.

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