A prime requisite of a thriving seaport, which, as a matter of progressive business desires to afford full facilities for ships requiring repairs, general maintenance and periodical overhaul, is the establishment of a graving or dry dock. Brisbane was but a small town of some 13000 in the early 1870's when the Government of the young Colony of Queensland considered that the means of fully repairing ships were necessary.
The decision was courageous, enterprising and revealed the general confidence which was also so markedly evident in Queensland's early days. In the year 1875, the annual volume of shipping arriving at the port of Brisbane was 289 vessels with a total tonnage of 93,783.
The neatly drawn survey plan of J. C. Burnett (Bio) dated 30 November 1853 shows at that part of the area where the South Brisbane Dry Dock is now situated, the endorsement “to be reserved", but no purpose of the reserve is shown. It became Section 40 and on the river frontage of the present Dock, a reserve was later designated as the Public Baths Reserve and consisted of 3 roods. Sidon Street ran from Vulture Street passing the corner (the Ship Inn Hotel) across Stanley Quay (later Stanley Street) almost down to the river frontage.
The Lower River Terrace ran behind the river frontage at Baths Reserve and linked up with Sidon Street thus forming a continuous thoroughfare to and from Kangaroo Point. A street also ran from Stanley Street at an angle of 45 degrees and joined that part of Lower River Terrace (near the river entrance to the Dry Dock). This street consequent on the building of the Dock, was re-aligned and reconstructed as Dock Street at an angle of 90 degrees to Stanley and linked with Lower River Terrace.
Early day ship repairing in Brisbane was carried out on several small slipways respectively situated at Lytton, Queensport (near T. Borthwick & Sons Ltd. Abattoirs), Kangaroo Point, and at the river corner of Petrie's Bight. The South Brisbane Dry Dock was designed by the Queensland Harbours and Rivers Engineer, William D. Nisbett, M. Inst. C.E. in 1875 and the contractors were the firm of J. & A. Overend.
A time of three years was given for the completion of the work and 250 men were employed. However, owing to several unforeseen difficulties, such as the collapse of the first coffer dam at the entrance, the unsuitability of local granite stone, the Dry Dock was not opened until 10 September 1881. The cost was £83,849 for the Dock, which was originally 320 ft long but was extended in the year 1884 to a length of 430 ft towards the Stanley Street end.
This extension was governed to some extent by the amount of land required for the proposed railway line to the South Brisbane Wharves. The line, however, was not built until 1894. The width of the Dock at the top is 79 ft. at the level of the keel blocks 53 ft. while the respective depths are 32 ft. from the dock top to the floor and 19 ft. on the entrance sill.
The bottom was formed by an inverted arch of freestone and cement 3 ft. thick abutting against the foot of the side walls, so placed as to resist any possible pressure from water rising through the porous rock beneath the Dry Dock. The floor rests upon this inverted arch and consists of concrete and granite crossed by large hardwood blocks laid at suitable distances.
A series of altars (steps) faced with freestone masonry backed by concrete and puddled clay, forms the sides of the Dock. Stair cases (two on each side) headed down provide access. Two side drains run into a cross drain immediately behind the entrance sill. This drain runs into a well on the eastern side, where the water is pumped out by centrifugal pumps into the river.
Lockyer Creek freestone was quarried at the midway distance between Murphy's Creek and Helidon (Queensland) about 77 miles from Brisbane. It was used for coping on both sides of the Dock, the quay walls and for the upper stones of the altars and steps.
The tests of the stone made showed absorption (of water) 3.7 per cent and a specific gravity of 2.45 per cent and thus a weight of 153 lbs. a cubic foot. It was considered that the results showed that this was a very favourable stone.
Regarding this freestone, it is worthy of record, that the large blocks used in parts of the Dock were probably the largest every quarried in Queensland. Measurements were 8 ft. 8 inches long, 4 ft. 3 inches wide and 2 ft. thick and of an estimated weight of 6 tons each.
The granite stone which was referred to in paragraph 3 of this article was quarried at Enoggera near Brisbane, was intended to be used, but it was found to be extremely hard. This hardness precluded the economical working and shaping of it into granite blocks and the contractors decided to import granite from Melbourne.
A compensation for the extra first cost of the freight by steamer from that distant port was effected by the large number of man-hours saved in working the Melbourne granite. Perhaps a silent reminder of the hardness of the Enoggera granite could be found in the fact that at the south eastern end of the Dock near the caisson, one only granite block was built into the coping and appropriately enough, next to the cast iron grill bearing the name of the contractors J. & A. Overend.
The disposal of the excavated rock material created an economic problem. One proposal was to transport this material by punt and dump it below the Hamilton Hotel area i.e., on the north bank of the river and the blind channel between there and Parker Island.
Another proposal submitted by the Brisbane Municipal Council was to utilize it in bringing several of the streets adjoining Stanley Street up from a light flood level. South Brisbane was at that time, included in the original area of Brisbane's first municipal boundary. The total quantity thus obtained amounted to 63500 cubic yards and the extent of its use is shown hereunder:
Melbourne. Street-12000 cubic yards; Hope Street -10000 cubic yards; Peel Street- 2000 cubic yards; Merivale Street-15000 cubic yards; Glenelg Street-8000 cubic yards; Russell Street 500 cubic yards.
In addition to the above named streets, a large quantity was used to raise the low lying portion of Stanley Street near Ernest Street. This last-named street was raised 6 ft. at the river end.
The barque Doon of 800 tons register was the first ship to enter the Dock for repairs. During January 1881, this barque was dismasted at sea. The work of re-masting the Doon was carried out by the firm of J. W. Sutton and Co. precursor to the engineering establishment of Evans Anderson and Phelan Ltd. Kangaroo Pt. Brisbane. Repairs to the Doon were extensive and amounted to the sum of £4000-a not inconsiderable figure in early day pre-inflation standards.
During the many years of the Dock's establishment full use has been made by the ships of Brisbane and those from overseas. However, as the length and tonnage increased as a general trend in world shipping progress, the use of the Brisbane Dry Dock has been restricted to the smaller type of vessel.
At the time the Dock was planned, and for many succeeding years, it was sufficiently large and was situated in the centre of the shipping activity of the port of Brisbane of those times.
However, as human knowledge and engineering skills have prophetic limitations, it would be unfair to the early planners to now condemn them for the inability to foresee the vastly changed conditions that have come in the world of shipping. The gross tonnages of overseas and of some coastal ships have, since the Dock was originally opened, increased by three or four times as much as they once were.
Lengths have shown proportionate increases while the very important factor of the vessel's depth and the consequent restriction it placed on a ship to navigate the Brisbane River all tended to contribute to the Dock being superseded by the construction of a larger one-the Cairncross Graving Dock-the work on which was commenced in 1942. This Dock was situated opposite the Hamilton Wharves area in deeper water.
The South Brisbane Dry Dock still carries on the repair and overhaul of ships of the tonnage it can accommodate. It was an even busier area from the mid 1880's when it had between the Dock and the building later known as the South Brisbane Municipal Library, the Stanley Street Railway Station. Seven passenger and mixed trains arrived daily from the South Coast line (then constructed as far as Loganlea) until the Melbourne Street line was opened on 21 December 1891.
Many moons have waxed and waned, many tides have ebbed and flowed past the South Brisbane Dry Dock since its opening day but it, and much of the original machinery and equipment now stand as a heritage monument to the decision of the Government of the day to build a Dock in Brisbane at a cost of £83849 when the population of the town was only 13000.