Recent works along the foreshore of Darling Harbour in the remake that will be Barangaroo have uncovered the remains of Sydney’s nineteenth century maritime industry.  Stone cut slipways, timber piles, boat launching ramps, anchor shackles and chains have all appeared out from under decades of mud and silt in archaeological digs along the length of the future development.

These remnants reveal not only the diversity of industrial development in this area, but show us the extent of the harbour reclaimed to create our familiar foreshores.

Barangaroo is just the latest name for this part of Sydney.  The long bay to the west of the city has many names attributed along its length.  Darling Harbour takes it all in, but prior to 1826 it was Cockle Bay, and before that its Aboriginal names were Gomora, Tumbalong in the south, Koodgi in the north.

Throughout the nineteenth century wharves, jetties, slipways and ship yards filled the entire eastern shore.  As early as 1815 a dam was built across the southern portion, trapping a fresh water stream that was used in Sydney’s first steam engine close by the site of the Entertainment Centre.  The harbour then ran back to Hay Street where Paddys Markets are, and lapped at the edge of George Street.

In 1901 the Sydney Harbour Trust was formed in response to the outbreak of the plague in Sydney with a mandate to clean up and rebuild Sydney’s harbour wharfage.  From 1912 they began to build finger wharfs to accommodate increasingly large ships coming to Sydney.  As their name suggests, the wharves stuck into the harbour like giant, timber fingers.  They stretched from Woolloomooloo, around Walsh Bay, all down Darling Harbour’s eastern shore and into Jones Bay.

These wharves went from smallish to huge structures such as those at Walsh Bay, Jones Bay and Woolloomooloo Wharf which remain (mostly).  All the wharves were built using timber, mostly Australian hardwood turpentine trees.  Impervious to marine borers, they were perfect.  Long and straight, the trees grew to between 12 and 35 metres long.

Building the wharves in Darling Harbour c1920. The bark is still on the trees.
Building the wharves in Darling Harbour c1920. The bark is still on the trees.

Cut into piles and spaced 3m apart, beneath the wharves resembled a giant, drowned forest.  As most wharves extended on average 35m from the shore, they needed upwards of 240 timber piles, or 240 trees each.  At the peak of the timber wharves in Sydney in the 1950’s, it was estimated that there were 40,000 timber piles in Sydney Harbour.

In Circular Quay, commercial wharves have long given way to ferries and cruise ships, but they once dominated here too.

Like Darling Harbour, large portion of the head of Sydney Cove were reclaimed to make the waterway more usable for shipping.  For thousands of years and in the first forty of European occupation, the headwaters of the cove ran back to where Bridge Street is, with Pitt Street marking its western shoreline (Pitt Street itself came no further then Hunter Street).  Wharves, jetties and warehouses fronted the Tank Stream that, when the tide was in, allowed boats to get to them.  When the tide was out however, the stinking, polluted mud flats covered the whole area that is now Circular Quay.

In 1837 the Government acted to build a quay.  Using convicts in the last and one of the largest convict engineering projects in Sydney a quay was created.  First stone was quarried along the east side of the Cove, through the Rocks (to create the Argyle Cut) and from Cockatoo Island and Pinchgut (Fort Denison).  The seawall extended from one side of the cove to the other over the next 7 years.

A plan of Circular Quay improvements in 1840. THe old harbour line can be seen below the dotted line of the soon to be extended streets.
A plan of Circular Quay improvements in 1840. The old harbour line can be seen below the dotted line of the soon to be extended streets.

Behind the wall the land had to be built up from the mud.  Preceding the Darling Harbour wharves by 70 years, hardwood piles were driven into the mud in a huge grid pattern.  Hundreds of trees sunk into the silt to take the back fill rubble that would form the land.

With land came the streets: Pitt, Castlereagh, Macquarie, Phillip and Alfred Streets all extended or created.

A lost forest right under our feet.