The first known sighting by early settlers of the Yarra River was by surveyor Charles Grimes in 1803. Grimes commented that the river offered great potential as the site of a future township. However it was not until Batman arrived in the area in 1835 that development began.
The Yarra River has its headwaters in the Yarra Ranges and travels 242 kilometres to empty into Port Phillip Bay. It has 24 tributaries (two of which are in Darebin – the Merri and Darebin creeks), and supplies water to 2.6 million households.
The name of the river is actually a mistake. When surveyor John Wedge asked local Aboriginal people the name of the river in 1835 they replied “yarro yarro”, meaning it flows. The river was actually known by the Aboriginal people as Birrarung, or place of mists and shadows.
The first land sales on the Yarra River in Northcote occurred in 1840 when a number of farm lots were sold in Alphington and Fairfield. From 1881 C. H. James purchased large blocks of land in the area and subdivided and sold them at auction.
Whilst living on the Yarra certainly had its attractions there were also pitfalls. The Yarra River was prone to flooding, the first known flood was in 1839 and it was to flood at regular intervals until the last great flood in 1934. Thereafter, redevelopment of the river bank and the construction of weirs managed to bring the situation under control.
It was during the 1920s that the Yarra River finally began to impress itself upon the minds of Northcote citizens. Up until then it was popular as a swimming destination but suddenly it enjoyed a boom period. The Rudder Grange and Willow Dell (Fairfield) boathouses enjoyed popularity and canoeing, rowing and swimming flourished. The Fairfield Park was established and swimming pools were built in Fairfield Park and in Alphington. Regattas were a commonplace occurrence. This was the golden age of recreation on the Yarra and was to last until the Second World War.
Up until 1962 Alphington and parts of Fairfield were part of the City of Heidelberg. However a State Government Inquiry in the preceding year recommended changes to local government boundaries and as a result Alphington and the remainder of Fairfield became part of the City of Northcote. In 1994 another series of local government boundary changes saw the area south of Heidelberg Road move to the City of Yarra.
Lemon, Andrew (1983). The Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne: Hargreen.