WATER, water everywhere . . . except in the lost Newcastle boat harbours.
The recent flooding rain reminds me of a time when our port foreshore, often swampy land, was a lot more vulnerable in wet weather and high tides.
It was a time long ago, before much of our present waterfront was reclaimed, when harbour waters lapped the edges of the (then heavy) rail line into Newcastle's Honeysuckle terminus.
Among the changes to Newcastle foreshore in the past 200 years, has been the loss of four once important boat harbours. Surprisingly, five sheltering boat harbours once dotted our shorelines. Today there's one survivor and it's inside the pilot station on Wharf Road, near Nobbys Beach.
The five small boat refuges include an early colonial boat harbour at Stockton, opposite the suburb's General Washington pub. Today, however, you'd never guess it was ever there, as it's buried beneath parkland.
That's because of massive harbour dredging in the 1960s when a new foreshore was created with the passenger ferry wharf greatly extended into the harbour. The original southern shoreline facing Newcastle across the water simply disappeared.
These days, people might also remember stories of when there were two prominent boat harbours along Newcastle's Wharf Road. One was at Market Street and the second, still within living memory for some, was at Perkins Street. But more about these in a moment.
The port's sole surviving boat harbour is the so-called 'Cornish dock' inside the port's pilot station. Dating from about 1860 with slipways and sheds erected in 1870, the masonry dock is regarded as a superb example of a 19th century coastal pilot service - a rare engineering relic.
But Newcastle Harbour had its first government pilot to safely guide ships into harbour from 1812. Where did these pilots operate from? From the early 1800s, it's likely that rowing skiffs were tied up at a rough convict wharf once at the bottom of Watt Street.
Built beside it probably 40 years later was the port's first, if now "unknown", boat harbour. It was a giant structure fronted by a large seawall guarding against ocean swells surging in as the port's southern breakwater out to Nobbys Island was being completed. The middle of this protective boat harbour was estimated to be 78 feet (24 metres) wide. It stood in front of the convict stockade at the much later Customs House site.
The Watt Street stone wharf and small boat shelter were a proper port landmark. Improved with facing rock and dating from circa 1846, the project was believed to be the one of the last and biggest projects undertaken in Newcastle's convict era.
But the days of this useful boat harbour were numbered. By the 1860s, with new wharves planned east of Watt Street, plus a railway extension towards Nobbys, the convict-built boat harbour had to go. And it did.
New wharves were built to handle wool and coal exports and new railway yards (now East End parkland) were created parallel to it. Then it was decided to build a wharf further west, at the bottom of Market Street.
Officially dating from 1872, although the site was probably used from the 1850s, this is our best remembered boat harbour. A buried remnant of this was only re-exposed in August 2017 (pictured) during preparations for Newcastle's future light rail scheme. The now lost Market Street boat harbour was built on what was to become the old heavy rail corridor sandwiched between Scott Street and Wharf Road.
Being so close to the mouth of the Hunter River, this new mini-harbour was a big success and lasted for decades. A large open-sided shed at the eastern end was a popular venue for farmers coming down from the river islands (now Kooragang) to sell their produce onshore.
The actual stone-sided boat harbour within was used as well by watermen travelling up and down the coast in long rowboats, by fishermen and passenger ferries.
By 1887, the rectangular boat harbour had been enlarged and improved, according to the Newcastle Nautical Almanac. It now had a 510ft (155.5m) frontage. Of this, 250ft (76.2m) was reserved for upriver settlers landing farm produce. There was also 160ft (48.7m) to accommodate boats of watermen (such as water taxis) and 100ft (30.4m) for slips and sheds on its northern shore.
On the western shore of this inner harbour was a water police shed. A map from 1897 shows that across the 'tramway' route (or Scott Street) were two pubs - the Market Wharf Hotel and the Great Britain Hotel.
The same map shows that the big market shed was directly in the path of the much later, but now demolished, overhead pedestrian bridge in modern times linking the Hunter Street Mall with the Queens Wharf hotel complex and the (also demolished) tower.
To get an idea of how long the Market Street Wharf was, stand on the Queens Wharf side of Wharf Road and look back towards the city. Facing you is the multi-storey brick bulk of Hunter Mall Chambers (previously Bebarfaulds) at 175 Scott Street. It takes up almost the length of an entire city block. That's how long the Market Street Boat Harbour once was. It stretched from Market Street to the waterside car park at the western end of Queens Wharf.
This waterside entertainment complex itself has only existed since around 1988 after extensive dumping of rock and dirt to create The Foreshore promenade.
But nothing lasts forever. With the colonial government's desire to extend the railways eastwards from the 1890s, our major boat harbour had to go.
To replace it, a new one was dug slightly further west, at Perkins Street, opposite the old David Jones city store. Like the previous boat harbours, it was used by people provisioning ships, watermen, linesmen and commercial boat operators. Opened in 1902, the harbour existed until 1960 when it was filled in to create a small public car park.
Everything was almost forgotten until huge dressed sandstone blocks of the old Market Street boat harbour were unearthed only slightly below ground in February 2018 during light rail construction. An excavator removed several stone portions to reuse while other pieces, unaffected by the path of the light rail, were left below ground.
So, are there any public reminders today of the lost Market Street Boat Harbour? It's likely there is, in the shape of Jamie North's public artworkBorrowed Landscapes in Hunter Street West.
Since March 2019, recycled sandstone blocks and rusted steel relics have stood on the only bend of Newcastle's inner-city light rail, at the entry to Worth Place. More than a co-incidence, wouldn't you say?