MEETING PLACE: In the 1920s, hundreds visited the island each week for balls, functions and family outings.
MEETING PLACE: In the 1920s, hundreds visited the island each week for balls, functions and family outings.

Susan Island in its heyday

IT WAS a place where romance blossomed, where the dancing was regular and where community bonds were forged. It was Susan Island, the cultural hub of Grafton for nearly half a century.

This 60ha island between North and South Grafton was also the one place where native vegetation was able to avoid part of the settlers' axe.

Susan Island, and its small nature reserve, is significant because it preserves the last remnant of the formerly extensive cedar brushes of the Clarence Valley.

A Grafton resident, James Fowler Wilcox, noted the island remained for a period in a "state of nature.”

The Australian Town and Country Journal Sydney of Saturday, April 30, 1870, wrote:

"Mr J. F. Wilcox, of Dallinga, on becoming aware that Susan Island was reserved as above enforces the necessity, in a communication to the Clarence Examiner, of adopting means for the efficient protection of the mammalia, the birds, the reptilia and mollusca inhabiting the island. He points out that the cutting of timber, shrubs, grasses or any plants should be strictly prohibited.”

Wilcox's goal was to maintain the island's natural cover for the preservation, study and enjoyment of its plants and animals. However, by the mid-1920s, much of its vegetation had been cleared or burnt in preparation for clearing.

Between 1900 and 1943, the island was renowned for having a central role in the social life of Grafton, providing the city with its most popular recreational place.

In the roaring 1920s, hundreds visited the island each week for balls, functions and family outings, which provided funds for the Susan and Elizabeth Island Recreation Trust to build and maintain the space.

The island was served by a free steam ferry provided by the government, running regularly between Grafton and South Grafton from 6am to 11pm. A large bell was installed on the wharf at Susan Island to enable passengers to signal the ferrymaster.

It was documented at the downriver end near the wharf there was a large weather and dressing shed with plenty of toilet cubicles, as well as a large veranda where visitors could seek shelter in poor weather. About halfway up the island, on the highest spot available, there was a large and attractive pavilion about 150sqft with a good wooden floor and a supper annexe popular for dances and roller skating.

Large water tanks, plus plenty of tables and brick fireplaces for picnickers and barbecues were brought to the island.

It was also ideal for sports. It was documented programs were conducted with foot running and tug-of-wars and all the usual novelty events always attracting big entries and large crowds of spectators.

The Grafton Rifle Club had a rifle range on the south side of the island from midway west for 1200yards.

And for a bit of romance there were plenty of shady picturesque spots and grassy lawns in secluded spots.

But in time the patronage slowly declined.

One argument was the prevalence of cars after World WarII made other attractions more accessible.

The opening of the Grafton bridge in 1932 led to the termination of the regular ferry service, which made visiting the island more difficult.

The tragic drowning in 1943 of 13 cub scouts returning from a visit to the island created a bad feeling about the place and the loss of all facilities on the island, including the pavilion, in a wildfire in 1944 just about killed off the public's interest for making mass visits to the island.

The decline in recreational use also reduced the trust's revenue, limiting it to grazing permits from the 1940s until 1997.

In 1982, an area of 23ha at the northern end of the island, the only part that retained its dense cover of rainforest, was declared a nature reserve under the National Parks and Wildlife Act of 1974.

The Susan and Elizabeth Island Islands Recreation Trust today continues to manage the southeastern three-quarters of the island.

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