The South Brisbane Dry Dock is one of the last remaining vestiges of the establishment of the colony of Queensland. For the first 70 years of settlement (1820's to 1890's) the people of Queensland were almost entirely dependent on maritime transport for the movement of freight and passengers. The construction of a Dry Dock was proposed in the early 1870's and was approved in 1875 at an estimated cost of $150,000 for the dock and $12,000 for the pumping equipment. J. Overend was awarded the contract and construction commenced in 1876. Granite had to be imported from Melbourne and Helidon sandstone was used to assemble the altars. The completed dock was 313ft (95.4m) long and 60ft (18.3m) wide and the excavated material was distributed as fill around South Brisbane. In 1887 the dock was extended to 430ft (131.1m) due to the increasing size of vessels.
Two centrifugal pumps with sufficient capacity to pump the dock dry in 3 to 4 hours were installed. They were powered by coal fired steam boilers. The iron caisson was built in situ in the Dry Dock in 1880 and the sluice valves and penstock casings were manufactured in Maryborough. The Dry Dock opened in 1881 with the barque Doon the first vessel to be docked on 10 September. Complaints about the smoke from the boilers resulted in their replacement with new boilers in 1907 and then electric motors were installed for the pumps in 1923.
The use of the dock by ships fluctuated during the years subject to economic conditions and improvements in land transport. The dock was also used as a swimming pool by the Queensland Amateur Swimming Association after its formation in 1899. The strategic significance of the dock came to the fore during World War 2 when the Port of Brisbane served as a major Allied base. 47 RAN vessels and 94 US Navy vessels (including over 50 submarines) were serviced in the dock during the period 1939 to 1945. The opening of the larger Cairncross Dock in 1944 resulted in the gradual decline in activity at the South Brisbane Dry Dock. The Dry Dock closed in 1972 and the Queensland Maritime Museum was given permission to occupy the site in April 1973. The Museum opened to the public in 1979 and HMAS Diamantina was placed in the Dry Dock in 1981.
In 1998 the caisson failed and the dock flooded, lifting Diamantina clear of its keel blocks. The Queensland Government undertook a project to replace the caisson with a river wall in July 2005. The work involved the dredging of the dock and its approaches, demolition of the existing caisson, construction of a new concrete river wall and cleaning of the dock. Diamantina is now resting on new, elevated keel blocks in the Dry Dock and the Museum now conducts guided tours of the bottom of the Dry Dock.
Construction of the river wall was completed in September 2006 and the refurbished dock was officially opened by The Hon. R. Schwarten MP, Minister for Public Works on the 21 November 2006.
The Museum's long term plans include restoration of the pump house and boilers for public viewing. Certain sections of the original caisson will be retained as part of an interpretative display of the Dry Dock.
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