The Swan Hill region has a rich history dating back to the dreamtime, through European settlement to the prosperous farming region it is today.

The Wemba Wemba and Wati Wati people first lived in the area thousands of years ago.

The area was named Swan Hill in June 1836, when explorer Thomas Mitchell camped on a hill and was kept awake with the sounds of swans.

A post office opened in 1849 and a hospital and churches followed. In 1883 the first of several red brick water towers were built to supply the growing town with water. Water was pumped from the river and into the tower by a wood-fired steam engine, and then gravitated to surrounding businesses and homes. Many of these towers can still be seen around our city today. The timber truss, steel lift span bridge – which is also still in place today – was built in 1896.

The river

The Murray River played an enormous role in the region’s prosperity, and continues to do so.

In 1853 Francis Cadell navigated the Murray River on the PS Lady Augusta, from the river’s mouth in South Australia to Swan Hill. He arrived on 17 September, narrowly beating William Randell of Mannum, who arrived just four hours later in the PS Mary Ann. This ‘race’ demonstrated the feasibility of river traffic, which then flourished.

Swan Hill became one of the region’s major inland river trading ports. Paddle-steamers plied the Murray, and nearby rivers like the Wakool and Edward, transporting wool to market and bringing much-needed perishable goods to settlements. When the railway was extended to Swan Hill in 1890, and further to Piangil in 1915, river trade declined.

Farming

Agriculture has been driving force in the region’s prosperity – through both irrigated horticulture and dryland farming.

The Swan Hill area was first irrigated in 1887. In 1910 the Nyah irrigation area was established and the Swan Hill irrigation system upgraded. Irrigation in the Tresco area started just a few years later. Stonefruit, grapes and dairy industries all developed with a steady supply of river water. The Swan Hill, Nyah, Woorinen and Robinvale irrigation areas were also part of soldier settlement schemes after World War I and World War II.

While some used river water to grow their crops, to the west of Swan Hill, others were trying their luck in the dry, red Mallee. The Mallee was first recognised as having potential in the 1870s. Large-scale scrub clearing schemes were rolled out quickly across the region, making way for wheat crops and sheep grazing. While drought, rabbits and wild dogs forced many to desert the area in the late 1800s, they returned again to try their luck from about 1906 onwards. The completion of railway lines soon after led to the main period of settlement in the Murray Mallee, and the 1920s were the major period of vegetation clearing and development.

Both forms of farming have endured, albeit with major and ongoing changes. Irrigated farming now extends many kilometres both and south of Swan Hill. While many of the traditional family farms remain, large-scale horticultural industry has flourished. Commercial quantities of stonefruit, grapes, olives and almonds are grown for both domestic and export markets, and for value-adding.

Dryland cropping remains strong too. Where the pioneers once ploughed and land with horse-drawn equipment, huge GPS-operated tractors and headers now help farmers grow a diverse range of cereal crops over thousands of hectares.

Townships

As farming areas developed across Swan Hill and the wider Mallee, small settlements developed, mostly along the river and railway lines. Some of those settlements have become townships in their own right, while others succumbed to the changes in farming practices and the resulting population declines.

Many of the buildings, machinery and other items you see at the Pioneer Settlement have been relocated from these Mallee and riverfront townships, making the Settlement an authentic representation of the area during the early 20th Century. As you wander the Settlement, you will see buildings from Mallee settlements like Dumosa, Towaninnie, Waitchie and Culgoa.