The Coen flood boat and ferry was used on the Archer River goldfields in north Queensland, inland from Cape Melville on the coast at Cape York. It is a relatively rare example of a late 19th century flood boat, a craft that was available on many rivers throughout Australia in the early days of settlement, and remained in use until bridges were constructed. People depended upon the craft for transport, supplies and mail during times of flood. The Coen flood boat was most probably built by Sutton and Gay in Brisbane in 1894. It features the use of an unusual material for a craft just under 4.70 metres long. The riveted form of iron or steel plate construction contrasts with the typical wooden construction of a vessel of this type. However it is an appropriate choice of material for the location and intended use, and is an excellent example of an unorthodox but correct method of construction for a vessel. Its use as a flood boat, ferry and even possible recreational activities helps interpret the social story of this area which was settled as part of a gold rush in the last quarter of the 19th century.
DescriptionIt has been identified as a close sister ship to another flood boat MAY-BELLE (HV000534) because it shares virtually identical dimensions, the same shape and same construction method as MAY-BELLE. Both the Coen flood boat and MAY-BELLE were designed and built to ferry passengers and small amounts of cargo such as mail and supplies across rivers in times when the river was in flood and could not be crossed by any other means. The passage was about 100 to 200 metres over water up to six metres or so depth, and relatively fast flowing. This required an open boat fitted with thwarts for seating and rowing as the logical choice for the period, and similar boats were used in many locations for this purpose all around Australia. The hull has a conventional dinghy or waterman’s skiff style and proportions to its 4.67m length, giving it a nice sheered hull profile, rounded stem and angled transom. There is a hollow toward the keel in the bottom sections aft that forms a keel toward the transom for steering control.
The hull has been built in thin gauge iron or steel plating on angle bar frames. This choice of a heavy material is slightly unconventional, because typical craft of this type would have been made in wood, either carvel or lapstrake planked. However, the dry inland environment for much of each year, where the craft would have remained out of the water for long periods would have been unsuitable for a wooden craft, which would have opened up at the seams whilst out of the water. It would not have been usable immediately when required as the seams take some days to swell and close up again. It is also possible that the extreme nature of the dryness could have caused the wood to split making the craft unusable. Therefore the choice of a metal plated hull seems quite suitable, with the only major issue being corrosion or rust. However, the likely service life expected was measured in years or a decade or so at best, in which time any corrosion leading to holes could be plated over if needed. A metal hull would also be more resistant to damage, and the many dimples and deformed areas on the existing hull show how it could absorb the damage but remain intact, even though the surface became somewhat misshapen. A metal hull could also be more easily repaired, as the skills required were within a blacksmith’s trade, a common occupation throughout inland locations.
The hull has a very simple layout. It is an open boat with no decking. The bilge is completely open, and there may have been floorboards across the frames to keep cargo clear of any bilge water and act as a sole to step on. An unknown number of thwarts and rowing positions were fitted. Whilst it is clear the Coen flood boat could have been rowed which is the natural form of propulsion for this type of craft, the strong current raises the question as to whether there was a cable or flying fox between the shores, which somehow attached to the hull to keep it from being taken downstream from where it was to land on each shore.
MAY-BELLE was used at Maytown on the Palmer River, further south than the Archer River. It is known that MAY-BELLE was built by Sutton and Gay in Brisbane, most probably in 1895, and it can be considered likely that this boat for Coen was built by the same builders, but a year or so earlier. The Country News from 10 March 1894 reports from Maytown that the Hann Divisional Board (the local Government authority for the region) had just supplied a vessel that fits the description of this boat.
“A large serviceable iron boat has been provided by the board for the use of the travelling public at Archer River, Cape York Peninsula."
On 30 January 1895 it comes to attention in the North Queensland Register:
" A large iron boat provided by the board some months ago, and transported to the Archer River, Cape York Peninsula, has, it seems, only been used as an ornament, no person has been found willing to undertake propelling duties during flood time for under or less than 3 pound 10 shillings per week. Consequently, just now when required, mails and passenger traffic are blocked."
No further newspaper reports resolve what happens or confirms its final use by the Hann Divisional Board, however it is known that sistership MAY-BELLE was used as a flood boat and ferry on the Palmer River and it is assumed this craft was intended to do the same duties on the Archer River. The availability of these craft helped open the area to exploration, mining and settlement during the late 1800s.
It has been recorded that the craft was used at the cattle station called Langi, in an area now known as Mungkan Kandju National Park, where it was used to carry equipment bound for Somerset across the Archer River, so it clearly performed one aspect of its intended servcie. Then, in the early 1900s a Chinese gardener called Willie Ah Chong used the boat to cross the Langi Lagoon to tend his market garden. The Chong Swamp within the park was named after him.
A report in the Northern Miner from 23 October 1911, noting the need for "an iron or steel boat to placed on the Archer River' suggests that by 1911 this craft was either no longer servicable, or had been moved to another location. By this time the Hann Divisional Board had been abolished and replaced in 1902 with a Shire Council authority.
The shell of the craft is now on display at the Cape York Heritage House in Coen, North Queensland, and this is just south of the Archer River, and to the east of the Mungkan Kandju National Park. The plates on either side of the keel have rusted away considerably, suggesting it spent time abandoned with a lot of water in its bilges, or was left sitting in muddy conditions. No records exist to show when it was recovered or where from, but it has been stabilised and still shows its shape and construction details.
Current status:on public display
Hand propulsion/steering mechanism:oar
Hull material and construction:iron
Hull shape:round bottom
Current status:museum vessel