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A talented pioneer - Edwin James Welch
Mackay's First Traffic Bridge, crossing the Pioneer River, pictured under construction dur

Mackay's first traffic bridge panning the Pioneer River pictured during construction in 1876.

by Dr Lyall Ford

 

On 25 November 1875, residents in the small community at Port Mackay were delighted when the first pile was driven to start construction of a bridge over the Pioneer River near the site of today’s Base Hospital.

In 1872, they had submitted a petition seeking this outcome and had watched on as various investigations and reports debated the merits of the possible locations.

This site was recommended by Archibald Campbell Macmillan, Engineer for Roads Northern, based at Bowen, because it was the lowest cost option.

It seems that the bridge was initially designed in Macmillan’s office and later re-designed in the office of Frederick John Byerley, Engineer for Roads, in Brisbane.

When tenders for its construction were called in March 1875, none were received, so Byerley decided that the government would undertake the work itself.

Tenders were called for the supply of timber and in mid-November 1875, he arrived in Mackay to get the job underway.

Macmillan had appointed Edwin James Welch as a Foreman of Works on 1 January 1875, to construct and maintain roads. Flood damage in February kept his road parties busy for months.

Byerley, needed a foreman to build the bridge, which was a challenging task because, after some design changes, it was 409m long with 37 spans and it required timber piles up to 14 metres long.

It was almost a metre higher than today’s Edmund Casey Bridge. A job like this would usually be undertaken by an experienced bridge builder, but the inexperienced Welch was entrusted with the task.   

 

It was common for many men in the early years of the new colony to undertake several jobs and careers, but Welch was somewhat exceptional, so it is interesting to trace his history.

Edwin James Welch was born in 1838, at Falmouth, Cornwall, the son of Captain David Welch, RN, who served on the flagship Victory with Lord Nelson.

 

Edwin James Welch. Image: Roads to Riches,

Development of the Main Road Network in the Mackay

District of Tropical Queensland, the First 100 Years by

Dr Lyall Ford (2012).

Edwin attended the Bluecoat School attached to the Royal Naval School at Greenwich, and he was apprenticed at the Greenwich Observatory where he learnt astronomy, which knowledge was to come in handy years later in Australia.

In 1853, aged 15, he entered the Royal Navy as a cadet and saw active service in the Crimean War, being present at the bombardment of both Sebastopol and Bomarsund.

After peace was declared in March 1856, he moved to Australia, proud of his ribbons and his Sebastopol clasp.

He took an instant liking to the Australian bush and in 1857, was humping his swag in the Deniliquin area of southern NSW, doing menial work.

Two years later he was a telegraph messenger in Toowoomba but soon returned to Deniliquin where he worked as a barman at the Royal Hotel.

In September 1860, most of Australia’s population began following the progress of the Burke and Wills expedition which set out from Melbourne with 19 men, aiming to be the first Europeans to cross Australia from south to north.

 

It is a long story which ended with the deaths of all but one of the participants, an Irish soldier named John King. Burke and Wills died at about the end of June 1861.

In August of that year, Edwin Welch, then aged 23, joined Alfred Howitt to form a relief party which set out from Melbourne. Welch was welcomed as the second-in-charge and surveyor because of the skills he had learnt, both at Greenwich and in the Australian bush.

While using a quadrant to take his observations on this journey he was blinded in one eye and apparently received £200 as a douceur (conciliatory gift) from the Victorian Parliament.

On 15 September, he personally found King living with the Yandruwandha people. The bodies of Burke and Wills were then located and buried. Welch conveyed King back to Melbourne arriving in late November 1861.

From Swan Hill onwards King was received as a hero and toasted at many functions but was in a pitifully weak condition.

Welch then moved to Queensland and joined the Electric Telegraphic Department where he superintended the erection of many telegraph lines.

In 1872, he was the station master at Dalby and in June he was promoted to Acting Inspector and Relieving Officer in that department.

In 1874, he was working at Bundaberg but resigned on 22 December, to take up the position as Foreman of Works with the Department of Public Works roads division at Mackay.

He would not have expected to be building a huge timber bridge over the Pioneer River 12 months later.

By March 1876, piles had been driven to a depth of 5.4m for 120m. Welch anticipated completion of the bridge by the end of August but an exceptionally high flood in March carried away much of the working material and staging, causing significant delays. However, the structure itself had withstood this severe test.

By June, a length of 100m had been completed except for the handrails.

The bridge was finished in January 1877, but in July 1876, Welch, then 38, had resigned and moved to Clermont to become a reporter with the Peak Downs Telegram. This was the beginning of a new lifelong career for him.

Late in 1877, he returned to Mackay and, with a partner Henry Bowyer Black, founded the Mackay Standard. It was published every Tuesday starting on 11 December and was well received by readers. Welch became a Justice of the Peace in Mackay and sometimes presided in court with a fellow JP.

Once again, he decided to relocate and sold his share of the business to Black on 2 June 1879.

He then secured ownership of the St George Standard in southern Queensland, much to the disgust of some of the old-time residents. He soon sold this and returned to Victoria where he secured the Mansfield Courier.

A few years after that he moved to Sydney where he was associated with several papers including the Bulletin and the Echo, and later the World’s News, issued from the office of the Daily Telegraph.

In 1889, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Fellow of the Royal Colonial Institute in London. In addition to his professional pursuits, he was an avid photographer and artist.

Welch retired to Petersham in about 1906 and died there on 24 September 1916. He was well-known and respected in journalistic circles.

No doubt the knowledge and experience he gained from his earlier diverse occupations which included apprentice astronomer, naval cadet in battle, humping the swag, bar tending, learning photography, leading a search party through the outback, erecting telegraph lines, maintaining roads, building a bridge, and presiding in court, would have all contributed to his later success as a journalist and editor.

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