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A SHORT HISTORY OF THE DREDGING OF THE BRISBANE RIVER, 1860 TO 1910
by G. R. C. McLEOD
In 1823, when Lieutenant John Oxley, R.N., Surveyor General of New South Wales, was sent by Governor Thomas Makdougall Brisbane, in H.M. cutter Mermaid, to survey Port Curtis, Port Bowen and Moreton Bay as possible sites for convict settlements, the Brisbane River was unaffected by man. Its channel and bar were as nature had made them. Oxley found, in the area of Point Skirmish on Bribie Island, a man named Thomas Pamphlett. He and two companions, Richard Parsons and John Finigan (a fourth man did not sur- vive), had been cast away on Moreton Island after being lost in a gale off Sydney Heads. In their wanderings they had come upon a river emptying into Moreton Bay.
Oxley took a boat and on Tuesday 2 December 1823, entered the mouth of what he later named the Brisbane River. In September of 1824, Oxley in company with Allan Cunningham, then the King's Botanist in New South Wales, further explored the river. They described the bed of the river as mostly sand and shingle. Various shoals were noted. The depth of water on the river bar was about 5 feet at low water, with a tidal rise of about 7 feet giving a total depth at high tide of 12 feet. There were two bars, the outer one a wide bar of sand, shell and some mud, a mile out to sea from what is now called Luggage Point stietching north easterly, the inner one running from Luggage Point in a north easterly direction also.
Inside the bars, there was deep water of about 24 feet until a rocky area at Lytton was reached. Further upsfream were flats, called the Eagle Farm and Upper Flats, in the Pinkenba-Colmslie area. Above here the water was deep and clear as far as Seventeen-mile Rocks. Above the rocks were shoals and banks until the confluence of the Brisbane and Bremer Rivers was reached. The Brisbane River above the junction was too shallow for useful navigation. In the Bremer were snags and rocks, and a shallow channel up to the later site of Ipswich.
Any major changes which had taken place in the river channels prior to settlement were effected by the periodical floods. Once settlement began, and especially timber felling, farming and sheep grazing by the upper reaches of the river, erosion commenced and the floods carried top soil down the river. Mud and silt were deposited on the previously sandy banks and in the channels. As years passed this became a very important factor, but in the early history of the settlement it had little effect
The shallowness of the bar prevented reasonable movement of larger coastal and deep-sea craft except at the peak of high water, and when they entered the river they were prevented from reaching the site of the town by the Pelican Rock barrier at Lyt- ton, and higher up by the Eagle Farm Flats, or the Lower and Upper Flats. Consequently as the trade to the new settlement increased, special arrangements for incoming and outgoing cargoes had to be made. The initial development of the river was limited to finding a channel to cross the bar, and removal of snags in the upper reaches. Some of the coastal steamers came up the river to Brisbane, while others lay in the Brisbane Roads, the anchorage outside the river mouth, and were served by small tenders. The larger overseas vessels did not enter the river but were served by lighters and tenders. This presented problems, as the Brisbane Roads area was an exposed anchorage and the small craft were unable to work in bad weather. As all present users of Moreton Bay will know, the sudden development of high winds and choppy seas is common in the bay. For this reason it was desirable first to make a deep cutting through the bar to permit vessels to enter and anchor in the shelter provided by the Fisher- man Islands and Lytton. The original channel used was to the west of the present bar cutting, but was a sounded channel, not dredged, and subject to change, especially after floods.
This difficulty with a trade which was the only means of mov- ing goods and people to or from Brisbane was the cause of considerable discussion by the settlers, and in the last few years prior to Separation in 1859, suggestions were made that a dredge should be procured to allow a channel to be dredged across the bar. Much talk ensued but no action followed.
Following Separation in 1859, further moves were made, and in the Estimates for 1860, f.10,500 was voted, as part of additional expenditure, for the purchase of a steam dredge to be used in the harbours and rivers of the colony. The money was to be obtained as a loan from the Union Bank of Austialia, at 5 percent interest.
In Parliament on 12 September 1860, Mr. G. Raff moved that an additional sum of f.5,500 be allocated to purchase a tug and punts to service the dredge. This motion was lost in a division. Two days later. Raff moved that an immediate order be sent to England for a steam dredge so that work could commence, but after debate the motion was withdrawn.
Plans for the new dredge were ready in September 1860.
The order for the dredge was placed with P. N. Russell and Co. of Sydney and eventually it was ready for delivery. J. Cuthbert built the hull, Russell's the machinery. The Austialian Steam Navigation Company's vessel Yarra Yarra, on the run to Brisbane, was engaged to tow the dredge and an iron punt on thefr delivery voyage. The tow slowed the ship down, and she arrived in the Bay on Tuesday 29 July 1862. The dredge and punt were left at the bar and the Yarra Yarra proceeded in, being of shallow draught and up to the town. The new dredge was named Lytton.
The news of the arrival of the dredge produced comment in the newspaper The Courier. The population had waited so long for this event that The Courier suggested an excursion be arranged to the Bay for the residents to see for themselves that the dredge was not a myth. On Saturday 2 August just such an excursion was arranged. The Breadalbane paddle steamer carried passengers for a fee of 5/-, donated to a seamen's fund, and a large crowd attended. Comment was made on the unusual form of the dredge, for it was built with two hulls, joined by a false
bottom, this being removed to allow the bucket ladder to be lowered and put to work. The bucket ladder was driven by an oscillating steam engine of 25 h.p., with a flywheel weighing 6 tons. The hull was built of kauri pine.
After preparatory engineering work the dredge was put to cut- ting the new channel on 26 August 1862. The Superintendent of the dredge was Thomas Francis, who had been associated with the dredging of the Hunter River for 3 years. The line of the pro- posed channel had been set out by Lieutenant G. P. Heath, R.N., who had been appointed Marine Surveyor and later Portmaster. He had carefully inspected the bar and suggested a cut which proceeded from the inner bar in a direction a few degrees west of north. This required a cut of 6000 feet but Heath considered that such a straight channel was preferable as the tides should scour it and only minor maintenance dredging would be needed.
Raff's suggestion for the purchase of a tug and punts had eventually been followed. A steam tug was ordered in England, and punts were ordered to carry the dredged material, but neither tug nor punts were ready when the dredge arrived. The tug was of iron and engined by a A. & J. Inglis, but the punts were built by T. Winship at his Cleveland boatyard. While these items were being awaited, the steam tug Rainbow, owned by William Marshall, was chartered for the work.
The new steam tug was named Brisbane, and it left Greenock on 17 May 1862 under sail for Sydney and then Brisbane, commanded by Captain Dring. Arriving in Sydney on 17 October, the ship was then prepared to steam up to Brisbane. On her arrival the Brisbane displaced the Rainbow as tender to the Lytton. A further three wooden punts were ordered from T. Cuthbert of Sydney.
Francis proceeded with the dredging, but in November submitted a report to the Hon. A. Macalister, Secretary for Lands and Works, stating that he had found a previously unknown channel, to the west of the one he was dredging. This channel was shorter and, he claimed, more suitable to become the main shipping channel. A letter to Francis on 5 November instructed him to proceed with the channel as buoyed by Heath, but shortly after Macalister instructed him to change over to the channel he had suggested.
Heath submitted a report to the Treasurer in February of 1863 condemning this new channel as useless and insisting his plan was best. At the same time he criticised the wooden punts which had been bought. The three Brisbane built punts had proved to be useless. One had sunk with a load of mud, one was converted to a coal barge, and one was laid up in need of repair.
The result of the disagreement on the channels was a Select Committee of the Queensland Legislative Assembly. The members of the Committee were Mr. Charles Coxen, Mr. G. Edmondstone, Mr. G. Raff, Mr. A. Macalister and Mr. Sandeman. Some of the problem was due to a clash of personalities in the Parliament resulting from the overseas travel of the Premier, Mr. Herbert and disagreement on who should be Acting Premier. The Treasurer, Mr. Mackenzie, had resigned, and Macalister and his Department of Lands and Works were at odds with the Treasury. Macalister's sitting on the Committee, when it had been his instiuctions to Francis which had caused the dis- agreement seems to have been a little unusual.
The Select Committee heard evidence from several ship- masters, from Lt. Heath, Thomas Francis, and Mr. Macalister. It also received two reports, one commissioned by Macalister from Mr. Francis Napier of the N.S.W. Department of Public Works, and one from Capt. C. H. Richards, R.N., of H.M.S. Hecate, surveying at the time in Moreton Bay. Napier was well recom- mended and Captain Richards' qualifications were shown by his appointment shortly afterwards as Hydrographer to the Admiralty.
Without exception the shipmasters spoke in favour of Francis' proposed channel. They rejected Heath's points about potential shoaling and inability to adequately light the channel because of the curve in it. After Heath and Francis gave their evidence, Macalister appeared and the report of Napier was submitted. Napier favoured Francis' plan and gave four reasons; —
He thought Francis' route to be the natural river channel.
The current of the ebb tide set through it.
There was considerable economy in time and money in dredging this route.
The work was safer as the dredge was not working in exposed water.
Captain Richards reported in favour of Heath's plan, lauding his abilities, and gave his reasons: —
Heath's channel was stiaight.
It was unlikely to change.
It was easy to light for night usage.
Though much more difflcult to dredge reasons 1 to 3 made it more preferable.
The Committee reported on 8 September 1863 in favour of Francis' channel and this was the one on which work continued. To the time of the Committee the work had already cost f.40,585, of which f.34,000 was the cost of the dredge Lytton, the tugBrisbane, and the attendant punts.
Heath did not withdraw his opposition, and took the opportunity when giving evidence to another Select Committee enquiring into the Harbours and Rivers of the Colony in 1864 to denigrate Francis' channel again. He had the evidence of the floods earlier in that year to support him, and he gave figures for the silting of the channel by the floods. These were refuted by Francis but there seems to have been a question of deceit on his part which while raised was not flnally determined.
Dredging had sufflciently advanced that on 23 June 1864 the vessel Corinne of 400 tons, 11 feet 9 inches draught was towed in by the tugs Diamond and Brisbane and anchored below the Eagle Farm Flats. On 16 July the barques Lion and Atlantic passed through the channel at night in tow, at 11 feet draught. It transpired that this had not gone smoothly, as even under tow the Atlantic struck the bank and was stuck for a time. The pilot Mr. Bowles, was accused of being drunk and was recommended to be dismissed from the service.
By June 1865 vessels of 16 feet draught could enter the river and anchor within the inner bar near the police hulk Proserpine.
When the channel was completed in 1866 the cost was recorded as being f.15,947. After a start on day labour, a contract had been let to Francis to do the job for f.20,000, but how these two sums relate I have not yet determined. A later report shows he was paid f.14,522 for the channel dredging, and additional sums for other works.
A report at the end of 1867 stated that 950 vessels had been piloted in without major incident.
While the dredging of the bar was being planned and carried out other works in the river were also under consideration.
Lt. Heath had surveyed the bar, the Pelican Bank and the Upper and Lower Flats at Eagle Farm. Above Brisbane he had surveyed and reported on the Bremer River (24/4/1861), 17 Mile Rocks (12/6/1861), and the Cockatoo Shoal. A survey of the Red- bank Flats had also been done.
Vessels entering the river and coming up to Brisbane had to pass Lytton and the Eagle Farm Flats and it was obvious that channel cutting was necessary. The Brisbane-Ipswich trade was a most important one, being the start of the trade route to the southern interior of Queensland. Improvements to navigation here were also needed.
Heath had reported on the Bremer that it was not possible to do much more than deepen it a little by removing shingle from the bed of heavy basalt and trimming some of the rocks at the 5- mile and 1'/2-mile rocks, and removing boulders above the basin. This would give a depth of nearly three feet at low water, but suitable shallow draught vessels could move at high tide. At the junction with the Brisbane problems would arise with shoaling after floods. On the 17 Mile Rocks in the Brisbane River, he re- ported that some work had been done previously but this had only worsened the situation. He considered the rocks to be sandstone, and recommended the removal of the Southern rock.
The Select Committee on Harbours and Rivers considered Heath's evidence, and that of many others. They concluded that deepening of river channels was necessary but made no specific recommendations concerning the Brisbane River. They did find that the Francis Channel was satisfactory and commended Fran- cis on his work.
BRISBANE - IPSWICH
Despite their lack of specific recommendations, further works in the Brisbane were commenced. A contiact was let to John Petiie for work at the 17 Mile Rocks, and a breakwater was undertaken at the Brisbane-Bremer junction, to lessen the shoal- ing of the mouth of the Bremer. This work, supervised by the Engineer of Harbours and Rivers, was suggested to be carried right across the Brisbane, thus damming it but the suggestion was not carried out. The flrst flood would almost certainly have destioyed such a dam. Some of the stone breakwater can still be seen in place. Heath's recommendations for work within the Bremer were also being carried out.
A new dredge was ordered from P. N. Russell & Co. in Sydney. This vessel was to be smaller than the Lytton, to dredge to 12 feet depth, and to be used in the rivers of the Colony. It started work, with the name Bremer, in early 1865, but was soon tiansferred to the Fitzroy River where urgent work was waiting. Yet another dredge from Russell's was ordered, this time named the Fitzroy,with an attendant steam tug, the Mary. The Bremer had been bought without a tug, and the government had purchased the wooden paddle wheeler Hawk from James Campbell to do the work.
The Fitzroy, from April 1866, dredged a channel through the Redbank Flats, and then did other work in the river. There was little work for this dredge, and it was sold, with its attendant punts, prior to 1870.
The only work remaining to be done in the upper Brisbane was the dredging of the Cockatoo Shoal. This was begun by a small dredge built for the purpose from one of the punts, and called theCockatoo, in September 1874. After the work was done the dredge was laid up.
In 1866 Parliamentary opposition to the Brisbane-Ipswich dredging became evident and a motion to cease the work was presented, being passed but later rescinded. Heath had predicted that floods would shoal the channels, and this proved partly correct. He was much in favour of not dredging shallow rivers, but rather using harrows to encourage the water flow to move a little of the bed and deepen the river slightly, and to build suitable shallow draught craft to meet the conditions.
After the Cockatoo Shoal was dredged little more was done until the final removal of the 17 Mile Rocks in 1965. The reason for the cessation of work was the completion of the Brisbane- Ipswich rail line. Sporadic river trade continued, but the only major users were coal barges and the coral carriers of the Queensland Cement and Lime Company. It was for this trade that the 17 Mile Rocks were finally removed.
BRISBANE TOWN TO RIVER BAR
While Francis was dredging the bar channel, it was obvious that shoals within the river would need work also. Francis had been appointed Dredge Superintendent in 1861, but towards the later part of the job he took on a contract to complete the work, using the dredge plant already available. Added to the contract was a requirement to dredge a channel past the Fisherman Islands and across the Pelican Bank. The total paid to him for his work up to 5 August 1867 was f.25,222. The additional work was an obvious necessity otherwise deep vessels could enter the river but could not even proceed up the river as far as Lytton. Once the work was done, ships of 17 feet draught could reach Pinkenba.
Further, to allow ships up to the town, the Eagle Farm Flats had to be dredged. This was less urgent but was placed on the dredging plan.
Completion of the river mouth dredging in 1867, and shortage of money during a financial depression at that time, meant the dredge plant was laid up at Eagle Farm. Periodical inspection but no maintenance was carried out. In 1870, the Department of Lands and Works handed the dredge plant over to the Depart- ment of Harbours and Rivers, and immediate steps were taken to repair the dredge Lytton and its attendant tug Brisbane, together with the mud punts. Repairs took time, but work started at the end of April 1871 in dredging the Eagle Farm Flats, and the cut was finished in October of the same year. This meant a low water depth from the bay to the town of 10 feet 6 inches, allowing ships drawing 16 to 17 feet to reach the town.
Next Heath again pursued his aim of a stiaight bar cutting, repeating his reasons previously given, and quoting other advantages relating to the increasing size of vessels, increased tiade, and ease of dredging.
An ally for Heath arrived in May 1875, when William D. Nisbet took up the post of Engineer for Harbours and Rivers. He was an experienced man who set to work to develop the dredg- ing plant and to improve the river channels. It was during his term of office and that of his successor, Mr. E. Cullen, that the rapid expansion of the dredging fleet occurred, and the develop- ment of the harbours of Queensland was accelerated.
A few days before Nisbet arrived in the Colony, a tender for a new dredger was accepted. This was to be a large self-propelled bucket ladder dredge, and the tender of T. Wingate & Co. of Glasgow was accepted. The ship sailed out to Brisbane, and was fitted up here. It was specially designed for use in deepening the river channels to 15 feet at low water. Unfortunately, due to failure to observe the specifications and instiuctions, and dis- agreements with the builders, the ship did not function well after her arrival on 10 August 1876. A very detailed report of the defects was made, but in the end the Queensland Government had to meet the additional costs. The dredge finally got to work properly in January 1877, when it started the dredging of the Pinkenba Flats. In the middle of the year it started on the deepen- ing programme, to achieve 15 feet in the channels.
The Lytton had worked on the Francis channel in 1875, and later worked on deepening the berths at the town wharves.
To work with the Groper, which was designed for a high production capacity, 450 ton steam hopper barges were built by J. Walker & Sons, Maryborough. The first was the Schnapper, the second the Dugong, both finished in 1878. In 1879 a contiact for a third barge, the Nautilus, was let. R. Smellie & Co. of Brisbane built three iron hopper barges in 1877 for use with the Lytton.
In September 1877, Nisbet presented a paper entitled "Dredg- ing of the Brisbane River" to the Colonial Treasurer. This paper set out a plan for the development of the river which included several important points.
Among these were: —
The deepening of all channels to 15 feet at low water, allow- ing vessels of 21 feet draught to enter.
Straightening many of the river channels.
Closing side channels.
Building training walls.
Dredging a new bar channel in a straight line, preferring Heath's original line.
Using spoil to reclaim land.
The cost of dredging to July 1879, exclusive of plant had been f.87,052.16.2. To deepen the channels to 15 feet a further f.l10,000 was needed. Many of the suggestions were put into practice. Two new dredges were proposed. An order to be placed with Simon & Co. of Renfrew, Scotland, but this was cancelled and the contract given to R. Smellie & Co. for f.29,000 for one dredge. A two year building time extended to three years, and it was in March 1882 that the new dredge Octopus began working at the new bar cutting with the Groper.
The Lytton was repaired, re-engined and altered to dredge deeper, then sent to northern ports. A small clam dredger was built to do the wharf dredging.
While the new entrance channel was being cut the Francis Channel remained in use. The fact that after five years without dredging it was only nine inches shallower than its original depth showed that Heath's criticism on grounds of shoaling was not entirely justified.
In 1881 Walkers were building the second of the new dredges, the Saurian, together with a paddle tug, the Sea Horse.
Another overseas built dredger, the Platypus, arrived on 28/6/ 1884. Simon & Co., who had lost the contract for the Octopus,built this vessel. It was quickly sent to Townsville where urgent requirements existed. Walkers were at that time building yet another dredge, the Maryborough. The Saurian had been handed over on 23/11/1882 and after working in the Mary River had gone to the Fitzroy.
In this programme one more dredge had to be ordered. This was the Hydra, built by Evans Anderson & Phelan in 1885. In the same year Walkers Ltd. had the contract for five steam hopper barges. These barges were altered, to be used as auxiliary gun- boats, during construction, but later re-engined and re-boilered to their original design.
When the new entrance channel and the river channels were finished, much of the dredge plant was laid up. Again periodic inspections and maintenance were carried out. The floods of 1893 caused havoc when many of the vessels were swept away and had to be recovered from various situations down river.
Maintenance dredging had continued, and by 1891 the depth at the bar and at Hamilton was increased to 17 feet at low water, the other areas remaining at 15 feet. Soon after the bar entiance was deepened to 20 feet.
The 1893 floods shoaled all of the channels. The bar was reduced to 8 feet 6 inches, and the Eagle Farm Flats to 6 feet. Six- teen months of hard work returned the depth to 15 feet again. This restoration was done by the Hydra, Groper and Platypus. The small dredge Bremer worked in the upper reaches to the Bremer River.
The Portmaster, Capt. Almond, had rep>orted on suction dredges, presumably on the advice of the Engineer, in 1894, and later funds were granted for the conversion of one of the hopper barges to a sand pump dredger. This barge was the 450 tonBonito.
A new suction dredger, the Casuarina, was built by Fleming & Ferguson of Paisley and started work in 1897. The small clam dredger Tridacna was fltted with pump dredging gear in 1897 also, and a further dredger, the Cleveland, was acquired when the contiactors dredging between Gladstone and Rockhampton became insolvent.
Approval being given, the removal of the Lytton rocks was begun on 3/12/1896. Some work had been done here many years before. The old dredge Bremer was dismantled and used as part of the rock-drilling plant supplying the steam for the winches etc. A depth of 20 feet had been achieved by February 1898. Further deepening has been done since.
The hopper bucket dredge Willunga was purchased from the Melbourne Harbour Trust in 1897, but was planned mainly for use in northern ports.
THE RIVER IMPROVEMENT 1898-1910
The Portmaster submitted a plan for the improvement of the river in November 1898, to improve navigation and flood mitiga- tion. This report envisaged further dredging, new tiaining walls, and the cutting off of several of the points in the river, namely Gardens, Kangaroo, Kinellan, Norris and Bulimba Points.
This scheme was considered by Lindon W. Bates, an American dredging engineer who had experience on the Mississippi, Volga, Scheldt and Hoogly Rivers. He approved the scheme with minor alterations, and designed and supplied two new dredges to do much of the work. These dredges were the Hercules and theSamson. The Samson arrived on 16/3/1901 and the Hercules on llAI1901. They passed trials in May, but the larger vessel, the Samson,was never a success and was soon laid up. The Hercules worked well, though there were troubles with the floating pipelines used with these dredges.
With all of the fleet at work, the river improved rapidly, a depth of 24 feet being achieved by 1904.
A subsequent report by Lindon Bates in 1901 reviewed the improvements and made further recommendations. He advised pushing on with the removal of the restricting points in the river, for at that time only a small part of Kangaroo Point has been removed. He also recommended the closing and filling of the Boat Passage, a move which had been first mooted in the early 1860s but which met with strong opposition.
His major recommendation was that a new bar cutting, along the line at present followed, be made.
In 1908 the new cutting was begun. The dredge Maryborough worked at the outer end while the Hercules under Capt. Bishop dredged the inner end. Spoil from the Hercules was used to form Bishop Island on the banks previously called the East Banks. Work was finished on 1 October 1912.
Subsequent to this maintenance and development dredging continued, until the port has reached its present state. Major dredging is again underway to develop a new port at nearly the same place as the story started — at the mouth of the river.