It’s one of those facts that almost every South Australian seems to have heard of but can never verify.
Was there ever going to be a canal down the middle of Port Road?
Was it ever part of the plan?
Port Road stretches 12 kilometres from the Adelaide CBD to Port Adelaide, but its width is what sets it apart from the city’s other roads.
It is more than 60-metres wide with a giant median strip in the middle.
So where did talk of the canal start?
South Australia’s first surveyor-general Colonel William Light wrote a letter five weeks before the province of South Australia was proclaimed in 1836, which showed a canal between what is now Adelaide’s CBD and the Port River.
The letter to his friend George Jones on November 22, 1836, sent from the ship Rapid just a day after he explored the Port River, included a drawing of a “Canal” between the “Capital” on the River Torrens and the “Harbour” at what is now Port Adelaide.
A map of Adelaide in a letter from Colonel Light in November 1836 showing a proposed canal to Port Adelaide. (State Library of South Australia)
Unfortunately, there is little more information directly from Colonel Light about his plan for the canal, as all 30 years of his journals were destroyed in a fire in 1839, along with his house, shortly before he died.
How far did any progress towards a canal get?
An 1839 map of “The District of Adelaide, South Australia; As Divided into Country Sections” based on Colonel Light’s trigonometrical surveys showed a “Road and Proposed Canal to the Harbour”.
It was much wider than the “Road to Glenelg”, which later became Bay Road and then Anzac Highway.
An 1839 map of Adelaide published by John Arrowsmith showing a “Proposed Canal to the Harbour”. (State Library of South Australia)
“It was proposed and it was expensive and before long there was a railway and that meant a canal wasn’t needed,” South Australian Maritime Museum curator Adam Paterson said.
A small canal was built at the original port at the end of Old Port Road at West Lakes, then a mosquito-ridden swamp that locals dubbed “Port Misery”.
“Nothing in any other part of the world can surpass it in everything that is wretched and inconvenient,” T. Horton James wrote in the South Australian Register on November 29, 1839.
The main port later moved to the North Arm Marina in Port Adelaide.
A small canal — or more correctly a dry dock — was built there from the river to the Black Diamond Corner parallel to Commercial Road.
Work started in 1887 to build another canal extending Tam O’shanter Creek perpendicular to Commercial Road.
This canal lasted until the 1960s and in the 1980s the area became what is now Old Canal Park and the Port Canal Shopping Centre.
A 1911 map showing a canal where Old Canal Park and the Port Canal Shopping Centre are now. (Port Adelaide Library)
The closest the canal got to happening was in 1851, when Edward Snell — a visiting engineer and artist — was commissioned by the Yatala and Noarlunga district roads boards to create a large drawing of a canal between the city and Port Adelaide.
“A Bird’s-eye View of the Country between Adelaide and the North Arm, showing the proposed Grand Junction Canal” was shown to the public on September 4, 1851.
It “startled” the colony’s “plodding citizens”, according to a writer in the South Australian Register.
“The design is most spirited and animating; but the cost, we suspect, will not be trifling, although the nature of the country is favourable for the canalization and the railway system proposed to be introduced.”
An 1851 drawing by Edward Snell of places on the Adelaide plains from Greenhill. (State Library of South Australia)
Why didn’t the canal get built?
Around the same time South Australia was founded, a new technology was emerging — rail — which was much cheaper and quicker for freight and passenger transport than canals.
The first commercial steam railway opened in England in 1830, which connected Liverpool and Manchester.
The first reference to a railway between Adelaide and Port Adelaide came from November 25, 1839, in a report from surveyor George Strickland Kingston to David McLaren, the chairman of the Rail-Road Committee of the South Australian Company.
He suggested building a steam railway instead of a horse tram to the port and building the railway along its current route between Port Road and Torrens Road rather than through the middle of Port Road as others had suggested.
It would be cheaper, avoided having so many level crossings on Port Road and prevented dust from the road interfering with the railway.
It would however, mean houses needed to be bought at a cost of about £400.
An artist’s impression of the first train to Port Adelaide in 1856. (National Railway Museum)
“My principal motive for proposing this deviation from the old line of road, arises from the great expence [sic] attendant on building bridges to carry the road across the Torrens,” he wrote.
In any case, the Adelaide Observer wrote “On applying the theodolite (a device measuring angles) it was found that the land reserved was not suitable for a canal, whilst the construction of a railway parallel with a highway road would have led to perpetual accidents.”
“By carrying the line through Hindmarsh and Bowden, the inhabitants of those townships are crying out against the obstruction of their thoroughfares, and raising a class of difficulties, all of which would have been obviated if a more careful survey had at first been made,” the newspaper wrote.
A labour shortage caused by the Victorian gold rush put off any work until 1853, when the Legislative Council decided to follow the railway’s current route.
Work started in early 1854 and the first train ran between Adelaide and Port Adelaide on April 19, 1856.
It took 22 minutes, or one minute more than today’s Adelaide Metro trains, which stop nine times along the way.
An 1850s tracing of a South Australian Company map showing the route of the City and Port Railway “now in course of execution”. (SLSA BRG 42/119/56)
Could a canal still happen?
“While the room is there, you never know what might happen,” Port Adelaide Enfield Mayor Gary Johanson said.
An 1845 painting by S.T. Gill showing the dry-dock area at the end of Commercial Street in Port Adelaide. (SLSA B 60663)
“It’s a shame it [a canal] never happened because it would have been a wonderful thing in terms of that connectivity with the city.”
In the meantime, plenty of other uses have been found for the middle of Port Road.
A private steam railway, then a horse tram and finally electric trams operated in the median strip of Port Road between Port Adelaide and Alberton from 1879 until 1934, when buses took over.
The Glenelg tram route was extended to Hindmarsh in 2010, following Port Road through Thebarton and ending at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre.
Today, the median of Old Port Road is filled with a canal of sorts — wetlands completed in 2016 as part of the Water Proofing the West project.