Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Brisbane Floods of 1893

The meandering Brisbane River is believed to be several million years old, and as such, is one of the oldest waterways of the world. It flows from above Lake Wivenhoe, which is nearly 60 km inland, across rural areas and then through the Brisbane metropolis, before emptying into Moreton Bay.

The Brisbane River was once an important trade and transport link, but the old wharves and shipyards have mostly disappeared, and the main parts of the river within the CBD now form a picturesque tourist attraction, lined with parks and walkways.

There are numerous tributaries feeding into the river, including the major waterways of the Stanley and Bremer Rivers, as well as a number of smaller flows, such as the Lockyer, Enoggera and Breakfast Creeks.

This fairly complex catchment reacts in different ways to heavy rain. The creeks tend to rise quickly and then fall just as rapidly when the rain eases, a process which might take less than 24 hours. However, the Brisbane River itself responds in a much slower fashion, and may take two or three days to peak, and then remain in flood mode for a week or so.

Given the right conditions, the river can turn from a tranquil flow into a raging torrent flooding the surrounding countryside, and because of the slow response time, can cause inundation for an extensive period.

Floods in the Brisbane area are certainly not a rare event, with some 37 flood incidents being recorded since 1841. However two of the worst happened in 1893, and more recently, 1974.

In February 1893, a tropical cyclone moving north of Brisbane generated a large cloud band across south eastern Queensland and this produced tremendous rains across the area. As the downpour increased, local reports told of the Aborigines coming in from all round the district and camping at One Tree Hill (now Mt Coot-tha). They warned the local residents of a massive flood developing because “the fish had left the Bay and the ants were climbing high into the trees” – sure signs of big trouble to come. Their advice turned out to be perfectly accurate.

The Brisbane River burst its banks and flooded prodigiously across the city, “covering areas of the town that had never been flooded before.”

Houses were torn off their foundations and were carried off downstream. An eyewitness account in the “Queensland Times” stated that “Debris of all descriptions – houses, haystacks, factories, sheep, ships, snakes, bullocks, timber - all went floating down the river.”

Above: The Victoria Bridge was cut
by the raging floodwaters.
(Click on image to enlarge)
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Much of the debris piled up against the Victoria Bridge, which eventually buckled under the pressure and broke up. Refugees moved to high ground and huddled together, waiting to be rescued by boat. The “Times” further reported that “Houses on all the rising ground were completely packed with human beings, and an empty building, after Saturday afternoon, was not to be had for love or money”.

The flood eventually reached a height some eighteen feet above the previous record in 1890, before eventually subsiding. But the toll was high; eleven people had drowned, including seven miners when the Eclipse Colliery at Tivoli was flooded.

Above: Flooding along Queen Street
inundated the area to a depth of nearly two metres.
(Click on image to enlarge)
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Property damage was massive, including hundreds of houses destroyed or damaged, as well as significant loss of livestock. The overall damage bill was estimated to have been in excess of two million pounds (four million dollars), which was a colossal sum in 1893.

Above: Classic brewery advertisement:
"When the great flood wet
great grandpas feet,
Castlemaine XXXX wet his whistle".
(Click on image to enlarge)

Reference: Australia's Natural Disasters, Richard Whitaker, New Holland Publishing

ISBN 1877069043

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