The 1950 grounding of the SS Empire Gladstone between Eden and Pambula offered up an irresistible income opportunity for some residents.
Others, however, found themselves in the unenviable position of wondering if they would ever reach dry land again.
Travelling along the NSW coastline en route from Whyalla SA to Sydney, the 7090-ton steel freighter ran aground on Toalla Point, known locally as Haystack Rock, on 5 September 1950. Built in Sunderland, England, in 1944, she had only been operating in Australian waters for six months when she came to grief.
Although stuck fast and badly holed, the crew remained on board for several days until, with 20-foot waves battering the stricken vessel, Captain John Lennie ordered the 31 Brits and Scots, and three Australians to abandon ship and head for the port of Merimbula.
Before taking his leave from the grounded ship, Captain Lennie walked to the rail and tossed his gold-braided cap into the foaming waters below, indicated that he was finished with the sea. The voyage was to have been his last before retiring from a 30-plus year maritime career.
Although there was no hope of saving the steamer, a syndicate headed by Merimbula publican Ben Buckland purchased the salvage rights to cargo valued at £750,000. Within days, well-known Eden fisherman H Bell began carting car bodies from the wreck to Merimbula wharf on his trawler Lismore Pride. Plying to and from the scene day and night, he earned himself £15 for each six-mile run, carrying three car bodies at a time.
With the average weekly male wage then around £23, other boat owners followed suit, the owners of larger vessels making up to £250 each for their efforts.
Car bodies soon choked the small township of Merimbula, filling several vacant blocks, laying all over the wharf and littering the decks of every available fishing boat.
By the time the ship and her remaining cargo of iron ore was given over to the mercy of the ocean, nine fishing boats had spent two and a half days and two nights lifting 150 Chevrolet, Vanguard, Holden and Dodge car bodies along with other items.
Enterprising boat owners also turned their attention to ferrying passengers on sightseeing tours out to the wreck. Averaging two trips an hour with six passengers on board at 2/- a head, they were able to make another £8 a day each due to the grounding.
The salvage crew, consisting of leader and syndicate member Ben Buckland, Reg Warn, Allan ("Bubby") George and an unnamed Melbourne man, each earned £3/3/- a day for their part in the operations - but all was not plain sailing.
At one stage, although calm weather initially gave every sign of a successful recovery operation, a stiff north-easter' and rising seas saw the party unexpectedly trapped on board the ship without food or fresh water. And although the shoreline was well within sight, the men had no way to safely reach it.
Residents, fearing for the stranded four, fired red signal flares, but concern grew when no answer was received. Then, just as a group was preparing to steam out to the wreck, the salvage party's launch was spotted making for the Merimbula Wharf in turbulent seas. After the five-mile trip, "Bubby" George, reportedly so relieved to be back on dry land, got down his knees, kissed the ground and said, "I'll never leave you again!"
We saw the flares go up from the coast and tried to reply but in the spray and water and wind we couldn't get our flares away properly.- Salvage leader, Mr Buckland
According to newspaper accounts at the time, salvage leader Mr Buckland said "We had a sleepless night huddled in the wreck's forepeak. It would have been madness to try to get ashore in the sea that was running last night.
"We saw the flares go up from the coast and tried to reply but in the spray and water and wind we couldn't get our flares away properly."
There was no loss of life due to the grounding, and although one crew member was hospitalised, that was for an unrelated condition. Following a Marine Court of Inquiry, Captain Lennie's Master's certificate was suspended for six months.
Today, the Empire Gladstone wreck is a popular recreational dive spot, while several local museums hold relics remembering the incident.
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