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Conversations by the River


Zoe Satherley
23 February 2007
Tregeagle retired boat skipper Tom Kyle has spent the best part of six decades on Lismore’s Wilsons River and now his memories are to be recorded for all time.

Mr Kyle is one of the many Northern Rivers locals who are being invited to share their stories about life on the river, from the early days of settlement right up to the new millennium.

The ambitious project, Conversations by the River, is being managed by Southern Cross University under the auspices of Lismore City Council and is a key part of the Wilsons River Experience Walk Project.

Richmond River Historical Society, local Indigenous Elders, Land Care groups and other interested community groups are also involved in the project.

The project team has dedicated Friday, March 2, between 3pm and 5.30pm, near the boat ramp at Riverside Park, Lismore, as a time and place to call together everyone with a yarn to tell about our river.

The public consultation will be held in an informal social atmosphere and aims to celebrate, share and record stories about the river and its upstream tributaries and to stimulate interest and knowledge in the social history of Lismore and its environs.

It will be a time to share stories and rekindle memories, to bring along old photos or memorabilia to show the Richmond River Historical Society research team who will scan or photograph the items and try to identify any mysteries, and to have your story – old or new – taped and recorded for future generations.

Mr Kyle, 77, said he was delighted to be taking part in the project and urged others to come along on Friday March 2 to ‘sit and have a cuppa and a yak’.

“I came to the area as an 11-year-old and my first memory of the river is jumping in for a swim,” Mr Kyle said.

“The water wasn’t as clean as you might imagine – it was filled with butterfat as the milk factory discharged all its buttermilk directly into the river. You felt greasy after a swim.

“I was a member of the Lismore Ballina Surf Lifesaving Club and we did our training on the river. We had to wash down the boats each time we put them in the river for training as they were covered in a creamy wax.”

Over the years My Kyle has skippered many boats on the river – sand dredges, timber and steel barges and tugs.

“There were huge boats – some up to 200 feet long – that crossed the Ballina bar and came up river with freight,” he said.

“Absolutely everything came by boat in the early days and the river was alive and busy all of the time. There was everything from cement, steel and timber for building, to fabric, cosmetics, food, furniture and liquor.

“I remember being told there used to be about 10 hotels along the riverbank between Lismore and Woodburn, where the maritime traffic would stop for a drink or a meal. It was a very lively scene. I remember it cost 10 bob (one dollar) a week for full board.

“Some of my fondest memories are of my old wooden tugboat the Leo that I owned and skippered for many years, using it to take cedar logs downstream the 95 miles to Ballina.

“When I stopped that business I wanted to sell her locally but I couldn’t get a buyer. She went to an artist in South Australia who restored her to her former glory.

“It would be fantastic if she could be acquired as a history museum by the local community and I invite interested groups to get involved in bringing her back – she certainly would be a drawcard for tourists.

“The river is still navigable to large vessels along its entire length from Ballina to Lismore and it is a great shame we have no river trade or tourist trips on offer at the moment.”

Photo: Tom Kyle with the wheel of the paddle steamer Laurieton, which he used as a sand dredge on the Wilsons River until the late 1980s. Television, radio and print media opportunity: Media are invited to attend the Conversations by the River event on Friday, March 2, between 3pm and 5.30pm, near the boat ramp at Riverside Park, Lismore. Local SES members will be providing trips up river and Gunna Wannabe Indigenous caterers will be providing refreshments.