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History > General History > Gilgandra's Big Flood. 1955.

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submitted by Coo-ee Calls on 15.09.2005

Gilgandra's Big Flood. 1955.

Written by, Robyn Walton

Coo-ee Calls. Number 68. October, 2003.

Coo-ee Calls is a magazine that has circulated in Gilgandra since the 1990's.

Coo-ee is a call used in the bush to find another person. From Dharuk language guu-wi "come here". To be "within cooee" is to be within hearing range; within easy reach; nearby; close to finishing a project "or aim" or goal.

Coo-ee was made famous, when the first of the great World War I recruiting marches, the Coo-ee March was begun from Gilgandra in 1915. Prospective soldier-volunteers walked from Gilgandra to Sydney, a distance of more than 300 miles, calling for volunteers to join them along the way. For more information see:

***5 Kytherian families
and a number of other Greeks living in Gilgandra, were adversely effected by the 1955 flood.

For a comprehensive history of the Kytherian presence in Gilgandra


18 Photographs of the flooding accompany this article. (Because they are photocopies of photographs, the quality of the reproduction does not warrant replication here.)

3 of the photographs have either a direct Kytherian or Hellenic link.

They include,

Theo's Cool Drink shop. Then opposite the Gilgandra Weekly Office."

Morris Street after the flood
(Three Kytherian families lived in Morris Street - the Sklavos's, Pentes, and Psaltis's.)

The hole that appeared at the corner of Morris and Myrtle Streets. It is believed the area was once a Chinaman's garden, and that there had been a well at this spot. The hole measured 25ft deep, and was 200 yards in length. (The truck of Kytherian, Con George (Tzortzo)Poulos, ended up in this hole).
How Con George Poulos lost his truck in the 1955 flood

The other 15 photographs include:

Front page - An aerial photograph of the flooding Castlereagh River, taken at the time of the lesser, 1950 flood.

The outdoor picture theatre area of the Western Monarch Theatre.

The roof of the Scout Hall washed about 50 yards along Hall Street. Council later bulldozed the entire structure.

Furniture that had been glued or was laminated was ruined by the flood.

Watching the rising waters. (From the bridge).

State Bank and the ruined grand piano.

Mrs Ryan looking at the few things she saved. Her home was on the Corner of Morris and Myrtle Streets.

Interior of James Collisons and Son's store, Lower Miller Street. The estimated loss of stock was twelve thousand pounds.

Warren Road in front of Mr Tony Shalhoub's House, when the water had reached half its depth.

Inside Central Stores (where Taget Country is in 2003), and all that is left of furniture stock.

Mud and debris in the Royal Hotel Lounge.

Waters rising in front of Mr J Morris's residence in Miller Street, where the waters reached about 7ft.

The collapsed side of the Royal Hotel. These walls were made of piesa.

Apex Club vilunteers from Port Kembla clearing debris.

All that was left of the Scout Hall, and a house, after Council's Bulldozers.

Gilgandra's Big Flood

Thursday February 24, 1955 the Castlereagh River, after reaching a height of 32ft broke its banks sending flood waters surging through Gilgandra at a pace that killed, frightened, and destroyed.

The devastating floods of 1955 had their beginnings mid February when a monsoonal rain depression hit Darwin from the North dropping 17½ inches of rain in seventy two hours. Weakened slightly, it soon moved its might to Northern Queensland then began travelling South through most parts of New South Wales leaving flooded destruction in its wake.
A detailed meteorology report of the 1955 flood

Here in Gilgandra 1340 points of rain was recorded over a four day period, Mendooran measured 1216 points, and Coonabarabran 995 points. It was a Weather Pattern, the likes of which was unheard of in our past history. The river had to rise.

The morning of February 24, townsfolk woke to flood warnings. They’d been watching the Castlereagh steadily rise for a couple of days and knew its behaviour of flooding the road and backing its waters up through town from a low point just North of Gilgandra. That day the river was roaring, and still rising. Shopkeepers began lifting stock, people moved vehicles to areas thought safe, others lifted furniture up as best they could and placed household goods and treasures on higher shelves or stood them on 44 gallon drums. But when the river broke its banks, it was all to no avail.

By mid afternoon in the vicinity opposite the Tennis Courts, the water started its slow trickle over the riverbank but rapidly rose to a relentless surge of dirty water pushing its way down towards the lower end of town. People who had only just returned home from watching the Castlereagh’s depth on the level at the bridge, were told to get out of their houses that the river had broken its
banks. Mrs. Minnie Brook, whose home stood where the Four Ways Motel stands today was
knocked off her feet as she walked home across the park with her little dog, two truck drivers saw her fall and went to the rescue. Gates were opened for the safety of horses and stock, people began to gather what they could but the water was rising too quickly... .they had to get out.
In the business end of town people waded out of shops only to be caught in the might of the rising waters. Those who considered themselves good swimmers tried to swim to higher ground but the current was running at such a terrific pace, they clung to whatever they could for some form of stability while making their way back to the safety of the two hotels in Miller Street. Shop fittings
and furniture floated down the main street as people crowded into the two story buildings.
Looking down from balconies they watched cars and debris being pushed by the surge into plate glass windows.

In the area near the racecourse called The Pines lived a small community of people who, trapped by the sudden rise of the river took refuge in the Grandstand. A 52 year old racecourse caretaker Edward Ryan, disappeared when his nearby home collapsed and was later washed away. Householders in the lower end of town, frightened and disoriented left their homes dragging their way through the strong running current. Men carried women and children, other evacuees scooped dogs and cats that were battling to swim, up into their arms. Those who couldn’t get out climbed onto rooftops. Dr. Barret’s wife pushed her children up through the manhole into the ceiling then out onto the roof where they, like so many others spent a cold and miserable night. Many others much less fortunate spent the entire night perched in trees. The stories are innumerable.

Tales of bravery and selflessness are just as common. Some, who tried to help others in difficulty unfortunately fell victim themselves. The Gilgandra Weekly tells in great detail of the efforts and plight of Mr. Leo and Mrs. Joyce Wrigley who were evacuating their home on horseback when they noticed their two nieces in difficulties as they tried to cross the flooded oval. Mrs. Wrigley suggested her husband put her off on to Blair Adams truck which had bogged earlier in the day while he continued on to help the girls. He couldn’t reach them on the pony, suddenly the girls who had been hanging on to a tree guard were swept downstream. Managing to catch the branches of a tree they held fast while Mr. Wrigley tried with two other horses to rescue them. The current too strong swept the horses along and Mr. Wrigley was thrown off and would have drowned but for the efforts of a Claude Donavan who pulled him clear of the rushing waters.

Along with his creamy horse ‘Silver’, Gilgandra’s Police Constable Stevens figured in many rescues, and it was he who engaged a motor boat in an attempt to save the girls. But, as was the case in other rescue attempts in town, the motor wasn’t strong enough and the boat washed round and round in the swirling waters and finally rammed itself into the bank 200 yards downstream. Meantime two men swam out to the girls and stayed with them all night in the tree. Mrs. Joyce Wrigley sat on the hood of the truck with water lapping around her knees, then throughout the night, as they did with others who were stranded, men canying torches and searchlights flashed the beam towards Mrs. Wrigley and those in the tree.

The force of water was so strong that at daybreak Constable Stevens encouraged Silver into the cold waters near Wrigley street. From there he was swept along half riding, half swimming until he was able to reach Mrs. Wrigley. Giving her strict instructions to hold tight to the saddle they made their way against the current back towards Wrigley Street. When they had reached the vicinity of the Services Club Silver began to succumb to the force of water going under several times, their weight pulling him down. Constable slid off and grabbed the mane, Mrs. Wrigley still held tight to the saddle. The horse was swept over on its side, but Stevens had the presence of mind to unbuckle the saddle and bridle telling Mrs. Wrigley to grab on to a small Kurrajong tree, once freed the horse was swept against another tree which held him and allowed him to rest.

Constable Stevens and Mrs. Wrigley were finally pulled from the water by Bobby Walker and his brother who, stranded on a rooftop nearby, managed to secure a piece of wire to the house, the other end was thrown out and tied to a tree. This allowed the pair to pull their way out of the water, effectively saving both their lives.

Not so fortunate was Mr. Edward Hobbs who lived in Lower Miller Street. With his family begging him to leave, he decided to stay with the home finally taking refuge on the Windmill. Swirling waters undermined both the well and mill which fell. It is believed Mr. Hobbs was crushed by its weight. His body was washed away downstream and not found until the following Saturday. Impossible to get across to the Cemetery for burial, Father McKinney led the service that laid Mr. Hobbs to rest in a paddock adjoining the aerodrome. His grave marked with two pieces of pine for a cross.

During the night while chooks, dogs and cats perched themselves up out of the water on fences and posts, Tilly Lamps gave meagre light for townsfolk fortunate enough to be on high ground, or crowded into Miller Street Hotels. Although each felt relatively safe, family members were missing, or they themselves hadn’t been able to return home. It allowed for little, if any sleep that night. Those stranded out in the open, on rooftops and in trees, found their plight at the very least, frightening. Apart from the occasional reassurance of flashing torchlights they were in complete darkness. Furniture, dead animals, branches and logs swept by banging into whatever was keeping them safe, and constant thoughts of water weary snakes seeking refuge heightened their sense of danger. For them, there was terror floating by out there in the darkness. Above it all was the roaring waters of the flooded Castlereagh.

With morning came the stark realisation of the enormous havoc wreaked.
In Miller Street and Warren road the waters had reached a height of between 5ft and 7ft. The greatest force having been felt in the area at the corner of Warren Road and Morris Street. The park, Tennis courts, Swimming Pool, Bowling Green (where now the Doctors Car Park sits) were flooded, the waters reaching a depth of eighteen inches into the Post Office aud up to the steps of the Tattersalls Hotel. Along Womboyne Street it flowed into the Methodist Church and along the side of the Anglican Church, then up to the Public School. All low lying areas of town were affected to the Police Paddock where now the High School Stands. McGrane Oval as we know it, where nearby Mrs. Wrigley had spent the night was reported as being a raging torrent. To the East eveiything was flooded and many buildings badly damaged.

Council Graders pushed their weight through the flooded main street rescuing those who had spent the night in hotels, others were plucked from rooftops and trees by Constable Stevens and the many men who had been up all night concerned for family, friends and neighbours. A helicopter was used to rescue people from the grandstand at the flooded racecourse. As the water receded people began to assess their losses. Eleven homes had been totally destroyed, Council condemned another eighteen. Sixty homes had experienced considerable damage. In all, around three hundred houses had been flooded to some extent. The heartache had begun for so many Gilgandra residents. Their homes were flooded, they’d lost cars, furniture and personal belongings, some of which could never be replaced. And as with all disasters there were looters!

The stench of the silt left by flood waters was sickening. Mud filled ovens, cupboards, fridges and shelves. It took six men at times to drag silt laden carpets from homes. Ruined furniture and belongings that could be found, was most often now worthless and had to be thrown away. For the business houses anything below water level was lost, hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of stock. Plate glass windows were smashed, fixtures and fittings mostly destroyed. Canned foods were taken to the dump because without labels the contents couldn’t be identified. At the Western Stores water pumped from their huge cement cellars underground was used to wash mud and silt from the walls and remaining fixtures.

Apart from the obvious damage suffered by the business section of town/4elson’s sawmill had lost about two thirds of its timber, the Northern side of the Royal Hotel had collapsed. The Boy Scout Hall was reduced to a pile of debris, and the Eastern end of the bridge suffered damage along with its approach road. A deep and gaping hole appeared in the road on the corner of Morris and Myrtle Streets. It’s believed a truck and car were washed into it. It was only the depth and current of water flowing there that stopped Council Graders from being driven along Morris Street, thereby also falling victim to the crater like hole.

Out of town, homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed, fences lost, animals drowned. Creeks flooded and for days people couldn’t get into town. At Bulga Creek two planks replaced the bridge that had been washed away. Drivers took great care negotiating that crossing. For everyone, the Mosquitoes and biting insects after the floods were practically unbearable.

Council supplied drums of fresh water to those who had none, and trucks made regular trips around town to collect ruined household furniture and goods that would be dried out and later burned. Drs. Barrett and Gillespie whose homes were also flooded worked tirelessly to give medical attention where needed. Mrs. Corby and a group of willing women set up a canteen in the Courthouse where they served up to 150 meals each day. The local Aero Club was valuable in spotting people stranded on rooftops and dropping food parcels as well as maintaining radio contact with outside centres as telephone connections had been cut to many areas in town.

Gilgandra’ s Churches crossed over denominations helping everyone and greatly fulfilling their immediate personal needs. An abundance of clothing was sent from many St. Vincent De Paul Centres. Much appreciated tobacco was freely handed out. Father Emelhainz and the Sisters of St. Joseph set up a distribution centre delivering goods to those who could not call, and the Church of England Rectory became home to several families.

On hearing of Gilgandra’s plight individuals as well as groups came to help the town rebuild and get on its feet, there were over two hundred toilets alone that had to be replaced. Volunteers fixed engines, built fences, did whatever was needed. Local Fire Brigade and Forestry Fire Units as well as those from all over the west came to work unceasingly, they pumped water from the river to wash out premises. Due to these men and others who came with shovels, bulldozers, scoops, and trucks, just thirteen days after the flood the streets seemed to be getting back to normal.

Seventy-one Army men came, camping on the sports oval near the railway. Fifty men from the Carpenters Union, and a large band of Waterside Workers arrived. Apart from being invaluable workmen the Waterside Workers loudly voiced their opinion as to the lack of attention given to Gilgandra residents by Government as well as the greater lack of efficiency in organising working groups from those in control, namely Council.. Sentiments that were echoed by another group of thirty four men who came from Mudgee.

Individual residents as well as the local Press were also vocal in their condemnation of Council. Firstly for Council’s denial of the plan to condemn the eighteen private homes affected by flood. Their inept handling of Flood Relief Money. Their turning away of The Salvation Army and men from the Miner’s Federation who were coming to Gilgandra with Carpentry Skills. Statements confirmed by householders and volunteer representatives who stayed anyway, but denied by Council. And finally, in the vicinity of today’s Youth Club, Council’s bulldozing of the Boy Scout Hall, effectively destroying over three hundred sheets of reusable tin and over two hundred pounds worth of timber that could have been used. This action prompted letters to the Editor.

It was envisaged in the first week after the flood that damage would amount to over One Million Pounds and that it would take twenty years for our town to recover. We had a message from the Pope, visits by Governor Northcotte and Mr.C. Robertson M.L.A. for Dubbo. Father Emelhainz put a suggestion to Premier Cahill that his Government consider diverting the river so that it would miss the town altogether. The damage had been such that the world was wanting to know about (Ililgandra’ s disastrous flood.
Although having its machines silted up by floodwater, on Wednesday March 9, 1955, just thirteen days after the havoc, the Gilgandra Weekly published 2,500 copies of its paper and sold every one. The following week’s edition which contained flood pictures also sold out.

Suffering too great a loss, some businesses closed, and there were many tales of sadness. But there were some light-hearted stories that came out of the flood as well. Like the storekeeper who hurried to see if his tins of money had washed away in the current, but there they were with so much weight of coinage they hadn’t moved an inch. Sheltering in one of the Hotels, Shirley Ryan and others ate sweets all night from a glass loliy counter that was pushed in by the current. Precious family treasures were returned, having floated out of one house on to the mantle piece of another. Vie Brain made a Bowls Trophy from the leg of the Grand Piano ruined in the State Bank which, for years was a hotly contested trophy in night bowls between Gulargambone Bowling and Gilgandra Services Clubs. Silver, the brave creamy horse who’d helped save so many, was left to quietly graze in the oval; perhaps it was his Rodeo and Stockhorse background that made him such a warrior. And best of all, it wasn’t going to take Gilgandra twenty years to recover. By March 16, 1955 the Gilgandra Weekly already had a positive spin on the town’s recovery and its future.

People were both saddened and angry at their loss and the severity of flooding. And yes, some appointed blame From its experience of the 1950 flood “Council should have built a levee bank” A topic still fervently discussed and suggested by residents today “They should have or could have done” this or that The fact is that after the flood there was a lot of talk as to what would or could be done Trees were pulled out of the river bed between here and Gulargambone to give free flow to any future debris, but over the years others have taken their place. We have a new bridge, and the road is now higher in the area where the old Castlereagh broke her banks.

When she is in repose as she is today, her title of being the second fastest flowing river in the Southern Hemisphere when in flood, seems a sham.

People say there will never be another flood like that of 1955. I wonder!

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