Lost Sydney: Canals

Location: Inner West and South, Sydney
In 1839, the Government of the day decided to dam Cooks River at Tempe in the vicinity of where Princes Highway crosses the river. The dam was built as part of Sydney's water supply system and was to be linked to the city by a canal from which water would be drawn for domestic and industrial use. The dam was completed and a canal was formed by modifying a tributary of the Cooks River which began in the swamps of Alexandria. Called Shea's Creek, it was discovered and named in 1788 after Captain Shea of the First Fleet who was the first white person to see it while hunting kangaroos.

Nine years later, no water had been drawn from the dam or canal, however an act was passed which banned noxious trades such as tanneries, abattoirs, boiling-down works and wool washers from those parts of Sydney which had been developed as residential areas. As all these trades needed fresh water, the Government assisted industries in re-establishing themselves on the banks of Shea's Creek, using it as a drain for effluent into Botany Bay.

Development of industry and the canal continued for a number of decades. By 1891, Shea's Creek had been developed as far as Canal Road and was used by seagoing vessels of up to 200 tonnes, loading and unloading cargo at wharves built around Canal Road. In 1891, the Government gave support to a plan to extend the canal, now known as Alexandra Canal, as far as the present day Alexandria Park. Little extension of the canal took place, most funds going towards dredging and the repair and extension of the embankments.


Muddy Creek, Kyeemagh

After the Great War, members of the Professional Engineering Association of NSW visited Europe and inspected the canal there with a view to establishing a similar network of canals for Sydney. In 1929, The Cooks River Improvement League presented a detailed plan of how such a scheme could be implemented. In their bold proposal, Shea's Creek would be extended to meet the railway at the newly completed Alexandria Goods station. Goods for export such as wool would be off-loaded from railway trucks into barges which would be hauled by tugs down the canal to ocean-going vessels at a port to be developed where Cooks River entered Botany Bay.

Muddy Creek, also called Blacks Creek, another tributary of the Cooks River which entered from the south, would be made into a canal and extended through the suburbs of Brighton-Le-Sands and Kogarah. The land on either side of this watercourse had been extensively developed as market gardens, and the plan was to use the two canals to ship produce by barge direct from the market gardens to the markets of Sydney.

An essential part of the proposal was the opening up of the Cooks River, which would allow the development of the river as one of a series of canals connecting the Parramatta River with Botany Bay. A number of suggestions were made as to how this could be done. One was to extend Cooks River as a canal as far as Rookwood Cemetery and then extended alongside the railway line north-west as far as Parramatta Road and then north into Homebush Bay.

This scheme would link the market gardens of Kogarah to the Flemington Markets as well as provide direct access for barges between Parramatta and the proposed new port on Botany Bay. Powell's Creek could also be extended as a canal as far as Strathfield and would be linked to the new Homebush Bay - Botany Bay canal via a new waterway. Strathfield would become the major regional centre, and a transport junction for rail, barge and road transport. Hawthorne Canal, which enters Iron Cove, was to be part of the canal system though only a small section of canal was ever built.

Like the canal proposals of the 1890s, they were accepted in principal but it appears the Government went along with them only for the purpose of being seen to be doing what the public wanted, rather than what they believed was best for the city. Progress was deliberately slow, the removal of the Tempe Dam, dredging of the Cooks River and the construction of permanent embankments along it being the only progress made before the scheme quietly slipped off the Government's agenda altogether and into history. Alexandra Canal today drains a catchment area of about 16.5 square kilometres. It is a tidal channel approximately 60 metres wide, with a water depth between one and three metres.
UBD Map 275 Ref F 3







Alexandra Canal

Cooks River at Belfield

Cox's Creek joins Cooks River at Belfield

Lakes Carrington and Warren, at Sydney Park, St Peters, are the remnants of Shea's Creek

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