The story of the river highways in Western Sydney is a significant facet of the overall history of transportation for the region. Areas around water courses were singled out for occupation because their surrounding lands were usually fertile, which provided an agricultural and economic self-sufficiency that reduced reliance on Sydney for food supplies. Therefore, substantial settlements were established in the vicinity of rivers and many early land grants had river frontage.

During the colonial period rivers like the Hawkesbury-Nepean and Parramatta were a vital economic link to Sydney. Early roads were primitive and the rivers were the best means by which goods and passengers could be transported to Sydney. Farming and other industries like shipbuilding enjoyed a boom period along the riverfronts, while wharves had to be built to handle the ever increasing trade. When commercial use of the waterways eventually gave way to road and rail the rivers became popular venues for sport and recreational activities.


The Georges River rises near Appin and flows generally northward through the city of Campbelltown and the southern suburbs of Sydney. The Liverpool area itself is bounded on the east and the west by the alluvial soils of the Georges and Nepean Rivers.

Early European access to the area was mainly by boat. Initial exploration of the river is attributed to George Bass and Matthew Flinders, who in 1795 sailed an eight-foot boat called the "Tom Thumb" up the river beyond Liverpool. When Governor Lachlan Macquarie journeyed to the newly settled district of Georges River in November 1810, he was very impressed with the trade and navigation possibilities of the river.

In Liverpool, the first land grants given from 1798 to 1805 were located on the Georges River in the bend that is now Moorebank and Chipping Norton. The alluvial flats of the river were especially suitable for farming and these particular areas were granted as cropping allotments.

The heavy bullock cart traffic on Liverpool Road helped define the role of the river as a through-shipping route for goods to Sydney. Much of Liverpool's early industry was connected with public building works and the transportation of local produce. The river also provided much of the raw materials required for this industry such as lime made from shells picked from the river and brick clay, that came from "Brickmaker's Creek" west of Liverpool.

The Georges River was host to various major constructions during the 1830s. Scottish engineer, David Lennox designed and supplied convict labour for the Lansdowne Bridge. A quarry was opened at nearby Stockade Reach and stone was transported up the river by punt to the construction site. So that the river could be used more effectively for crop cultivation a dam was completed in 1836.

At this time the bridge, the dam and the river played an important role in Liverpool's development. The river supplied necessary raw materials for the many construction works in progress and was the means by which these materials could be moved. Not least the river was a route to the Sydney markets via Liverpool Road.

During the 1870s, various manufacturing industries brought environmentally damaging pollution to the river. Abattoirs, paper mills and wool washing factories all emptied noxious discharges into the river that raised serious concerns about public health. Effluent from Liverpool Hospital below the dam compounded the problem and, consequently sewerage, drainage and water supply became key issues at this time.

Appleton, Richard. The Cambridge dictionary of Australian places. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Keating, Christopher. On the frontier: a social history of Liverpool. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1995.


The Hawkesbury River is approximately 480km in length and rises as the Wollondilly River on the Great Dividing Range west of Goulburn. After passing Penrith the Nepean River is joined by the Grose to become the Hawkesbury. At different parts of its course, the Hawkesbury has various names because it was not initially realised that various sections of the river were all part of the same waterway.

Governor Phillip first discovered and explored the lower Hawkesbury in 1789. The area was settled in 1794 and by 1798, the township of Green Hills (later named Windsor) had developed. The alluvial soils of the Hawkesbury district were particularly fertile and therefore able to produce excellent crops. Because food supplies were of crucial importance to the central colony, the transfer of goods and produce from Windsor to Sydney via the river was to become a major transportation link. Thus, a busy river trade evolved that moved produce to Sydney and carried back supplies to the settlers.

Small sailing vessels first traversed the Hawkesbury during the early period, but this altered with the advent of steamships in the 1830s. Fruit growing became a prominent industry and from the 1870s, steamship companies competed for the lucrative trade it offered. These were the days before cool rooms, so it was essential that perishable fruits reached the morning markets. The trading boats had to run despite the weather, which could often be unpredictable.

Shipbuilding was one of the earliest industries on the river and vessels built in the Hawkesbury shipyards soon contributed to the flourishing trade. Windsor was at the heart of the river industry with ships unloading on a daily basis and by 1880, at least 450 large boats were berthing annually at its wharf.

As the century progressed certain economic and environmental factors influenced the decline of the river trade. The building of railways to the west of Sydney in the 1860s and the onset of extensive construction works in the Blue Mountains worsened silting of the upper river and increased the possibility of soil erosion. Furthermore, periodic flooding brought enormous deposits of sand that hindered navigation and buried the fertile soils of the river flats.

The river's scenic beauty attracted many visitors and a booming tourism industry operated in the later years of the 19th Century. Steamships carrying passengers and cargo were a familiar sight and railway stations at both ends of the river assisted the movement of tourist traffic. Impressive paddle-steamers like the "General Gordon" carried rail passengers from Brooklyn to Gosford until 1889.

The 20th Century saw a gradual decline in the Hawkesbury's importance as a commercial thoroughfare. The old tourist trade of paddle-steamers had given way to the new tourism of power boats and associated industries catering to water skiers. These days the river is a popular recreational venue, rather than the vital transportation link it was in the period of early settlement. Transportation on the river is secondary to current concerns about pollution and the need for environmental preservation.

Appleton, Richard. The Cambridge dictionary of Australian places. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Purtell, Jean. The Mosquito Fleet: Hawkesbury river trade and traders 1794-1994.
Stevens, Stan. Hawkesbury heritage. Windsor, NSW: Hawkesbury Shire Council, 1984.


Prior to the Hawkesbury district's lands being opened up in 1794, Rose Hill (later Parramatta) was the principal food-supplying area for the Sydney colony. Parramatta River was a vital transportation route for the early settlers because of the essential access it gave to Sydney. The land at the head of the river was the centre of settlement and as the township expanded many farms were established along the river banks.

The river is formed at Parramatta by the junction of Toongabbie and Darling Mills Creeks and flows eastward through the Western Suburbs of Sydney. The first European presence on Parramatta River was exploratory in nature with Governor Phillip seeking information about agricultural potential. The "Rose Hill Packet" which was later known as "The Lump" became the first boat built in the colony and undertook the journey from Sydney to Rose Hill in 1789. Soon after, other small vessels travelled the river as traffic between the first two settlements increased.

When steam transport arrived in 1831, a regular steamer run considerably reduced the length of the river journey. Steam ferries were the chief means of transportation during the 1840s. However, usage of the ferries declined in the 1850s once the railway made an impact in 1855.

While cargo and raw materials for new industrial sites along the waterfront continued to be transported, it was clear that the later 19th Century was really a tourism boom for the river. The river's many attractions drew holiday makers and, so a thriving, new tourism industry influenced the pattern of transportation. During the 1880s, the Parramatta River Steamer and Tramway Company had thirteen ferries making numerous trips daily. At this time most of the ferries went up the river into the township of Parramatta and docked at Queen's Wharf.

After a while the tourism trade on the river began to diminish and in 1928 the last of the Parramatta River Steamer Company boats ran between Sydney and Parramatta. Major improvements to road and rail services replaced the river as a cargo carrier. Recreational river traffic slowed down even further when the motor car became popular. In 1993, the new Parramatta Rivercat ferries substantially rejuvenated the river's tourism potential and services now depart daily from Charles Street Wharf.


The Nepean River rises to the south-west of Wollongong and flows northward. After flowing past Penrith it is joined by the Grose River to form the Hawkesbury. The Nepean is an important tributary of the Hawkesbury River and forms an essential part of Sydney's water supply system.

Captain Watkin Tench found the Nepean in 1789, unaware that it actually was the upper end of the Hawkesbury River. The Nepean River district was settled approximately 1800, but formal land grants did not commence until 1803. By the close of 1806, sixty-six formal grants had been given to settlers on the Nepean and South Creek.

Early transportation on the river was mainly punts and ferries with some trade vessels. During the period 1803-1804, ex-convict, Andrew Thompson, who lived and farmed at Agnes Banks began to build boats. Some of the vessels he constructed such as the "Hope", the "Nancy" and the "Hawkesbury" became the main form of transportation between the Nepean-Hawkesbury district and Sydney.

The Nepean district was notable as one of the major areas of early colonial grazing. As a result, the river transportation that developed assisted this pastoral industry with punts moving carts, horses and stock from one side of the Nepean to the other on a regular basis. Around 1819, William Martin was employed by the government to transport men and goods across the river because he had erected a wharf which was usually clear of flood waters.

A government-run punt service was operating in 1823 at a cost of six cents per passenger with additional charges for different types of cargo. The punt service brought several new buildings to the Penrith side of the river and, so the township expanded. The first bridge over the Nepean River was opened in 1856 and duly swept away by floods in 1857 and again in 1860. Clearly, puntage was the best means of crossing the river and this continued for quite some time.

Albert Bennett, a boat shed proprietor of Penrith operated a tourist steam boat service on the Nepean well into the 20th Century. In 1897, a newspaper feature in the "Nepean Times" noted that "Mr A E Bennett has just added to his fleet of pleasure boats a splendid cedar boat, and another one is in the stocks . . . . " Bennett also ran a cargo business that moved men and materials to and from the first site of Warragamba Dam. Use of supply boats was greatly improved when Bennett blasted a cart track along Euroka Creek to the junction of the river.

In the early part of the 20th Century the scenic attractions of the river created a thriving tourist industry. Mr W J Rowe's steam launch departed the wharf every Wednesday and Sunday for trips to all parts of the river at a return fare of one shilling. The later 20th Century has seen the Nepean River evolve into a popular tourist attraction. Water sports and boating are common pastimes to be seen on the river and old time paddle-steamers like the "Nepean Belle" cruise its waters regularly.

The book of Sydney suburbs. North Ryde, NSW: Angus & Robertson, 1988.
Cameron, Bruce. A history of the blue labyrinth . . . . . . (Penrith Library)
Murray, Robert. Dharug and Dungaree: the history of Penrith and St Marys to 1860. North Melbourne: Hargreen in association with the Council of the City of Penrith, 1988.