Shipping was crucial to the development of trade and the increase of settlement on the Bellinger. Loading and transporting cedar to Sydney was the main activity in the beginning of the settlement but the bar at the heads of the Bellinger was dangerous and captains were reluctant to bring their ships into such a hazardous port.
The ‘Northumberland’ was the first ocean-going vessel recorded to have entered the Bellinger Heads in 1842 and the first boat constructed on the Bellinger was the “Minerva” built by William Darbyshire in 1842 for the cedar trade. Many ships were later built in the Bellinger, among them those of Frederik Doepel, who settled here from Finland. He established his boatshed at East End near where the Bellingen golf course is now located. Among his boats were ‘The Surprise’, a converted punt, the ‘Bellinger’ built at Urunga, the ‘Violet Doepel’ and the ‘Alma Doepel’.
When the cedar trade died down the main export from the Bellinger was maize, pigs and other livestock, oysters, tallow and butter. As trade built up a weekly service to Bellinger Heads (Urunga) was set up by the North Coast Steamship Company. Typical of the coastal steamers was the ‘Rosedale’, a passenger and cargo vessel of 271 tons. The incoming vessels brought farm supplies, foodstuffs, hardware and medical supplies.
The pilot station was opened in 1868 but assistance given by the crew to ships attempting to enter or leave the harbour was made simpler when steam driven tugs were introduced in the late 1880s.
The first tug serving the Bellinger in the early 1890s was the ‘Ranger’, which later sank off Trial Bay. Others which followed included the ‘Harrington, ‘Alert’, ‘Thistle’, ‘Volunteer and ‘Repton’, which was lost at sea in the 1930s. The ‘Harrington’ sank while towing the ‘Petrel’ to the river entrance. The ‘Petrel’ was also wrecked. The framework of the ‘Petrel was visible for many years on the southern side of the training walls at the Bellinger River mouth. A tug was stationed at each North Coast river port. As well as guiding in three to four ships on a busy day, the tug crew took over the responsibility for sounding the channel from the pilot station staff. The Pilot Station was closed in 1933 when shipping to the port ceased.
Ships seldom attempted to sail up the river. Instead goods were loaded and unloaded at wharves and sent to further destinations on droghers.
Dredges owned and controlled by the Public Works Department also made up the fleet in the Bellinger which included ‘Theta, ‘Rho’ and the grad dredge ‘Beta’ which operated upriver.
Some of the ships regularly visiting or sailing out to the Bellinger were:
Ketches: Corunna, Galgabba, Harold, Premier, Phil Forbes, Candidale, Annandale, S A Hayword, Landsdown, Isabella Defraine, Zelma, Wave, Sarah Hunter, Forbes Brothers and Rozelle.
Fore and Aft Schooners: Aleda, Australia, Three Cheers and Enterprise.
Topsail Schooners: Alma Doepel, Violet Doepel, Alpha, War Lord, Myalle, Aliza Allen, Jap and Elliston.
New Zealand Scows: Whangaroa, Curlew, Tramp, Hawk and Zingara.
Only the Alma Doepel survives today.