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A brief history of Dent Island Lightstation

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3. A brief history of Dent Island Lightstation

3.1 Australia’s lighthouses

Since Governor Lachlan Macquarie ordered the building of a lighthouse at South Head near the entrance to Port Jackson in 1816 (and was criticised by his superiors in London for the cost), providing aids to navigation has been the business of Australian government agencies. It was a costly undertaking to build and operate lighthouses, but lighthouses reduced the risk of shipwreck and the cost was worthwhile. Up to the present time the cost has largely been paid by the operators of ships, through various schemes of dues, levies and charges.
Each of the colonies developed its own particular types and systems of lighthouse operation, reflecting the volume of shipping, the value of trade, the local building materials and the local navigation hazards. The earliest lighthouses were built in New South Wales — others in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia came later.

When the colony of Queensland separated from New South Wales in 1859 there was only one lighthouse in the new territory: Cape Moreton Lighthouse, a stone tower completed in 1857. The new colony, with no railways and only a few rough roads, depended on coastal shipping, despite the difficulties of navigating a coast set behind the Great Barrier Reef. From separation in 1859 until federation in 1901 the Queensland marine authorities built an impressive set of lighthouses, which demonstrate remarkable frugality and technical innovation. The type of timber-framed, iron-sheeted lighthouse tower (of which the 1879 Dent Island lighthouse is a typical example) is a local Queensland invention.

When the Australian colonies federated in 1901, it was decided that the new Commonwealth government would be responsible for coastal lighthouses. This arrangement came into effect after the necessary legislation was passed in 1912, a survey of existing lighthouses was conducted by Commander C R W Brewis RN, and a bureaucracy was established. The transfer of Queensland lighthouses to the new Commonwealth Lighthouse Service began in 1915. The Commonwealth Lighthouse Service headquarters was in Melbourne, and the design of new lighthouses became more standardised around the country, though regional depots (including one in Brisbane which was responsible for the coast between Torres Strait and Cape Moreton) still maintained some local character.
Since 1915 various Commonwealth departments have carried the responsibility for lighthouses. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), established under the Australian Maritime Safety Authority Act 1990, is now responsible for operating lighthouses and other Commonwealth aids to navigation, along with its other functions.

3.2 Lighting the Queensland coast

One of the first appointments made by the Queensland colonial government after separation from New South Wales was a marine surveyor, Captain George Poynter Heath. Between his appointment in 1859 and his retirement in 1887, Heath was responsible for supervising the opening of 13 new ports, establishing 33 lighthouses, 6 lightships and 150 small lights and marking 450 miles (724 km) of the inner route through the Barrier Reef (Gibbney 1972). Captain Heath advised a parliamentary select committee that set out the beginnings of the policy for developing lighthouses along the Queensland coast.
In 1864 the select committee recommended erecting lighthouses at Sandy Cape and Bustard Head. Selection of these two sites reflects the importance at that time of the ports of Maryborough and Rockhampton. The government acted on this recommendation, and its agents in England procured two complete lighthouses in ‘kit’ form, with towers of cast iron segments which were bolted together on their sites. The two towers were manufactured by different foundries in England, though their designs were similar. Both were equipped with lantern houses and optical apparatus manufactured by Chance Brothers & Company, the major English lighthouse equipment maker. The Bustard Head lighthouse was first lit in 1868, and Sandy Cape in 1870. These fully imported cast iron lighthouses were effective, though costly.

map of lightstations in the great barrier reef region pre-1900

Figure — Major pre-1900 lightstations in the Great Barrier Reef region (Source: GBRMPA)
Having pressed for the Sandy Cape and Bustard Head lights, the select committee members added that they did not ignore the fact which this enquiry has impressed upon them, that there is before the Government of Queensland the much larger and more serious task of so lighting what is called the Inner Passage within the Barrier Reef, that not only the trade to our own rapidly increasing ports may be protected, but that much of the trade with India, China, and other countries to the North of this Continent may be diverted from the Western to the Eastern line of Passage (Select Committee 1864). With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 the shipping route along the Queensland coast became even more important.
The Queensland government, though its funds were very limited, pressed ahead with the development of a system of lighthouses and other navigation and port facilities. Successive governments used this infrastructure to encourage expansion of trade, at the same time as they responded to requests by ship operators. The development of the shipping route through the Torres Strait, and on to the Suez Canal, put Queensland ports closer to European markets than the old route that added Queensland onto the end of a long journey around Australia’s southern ports.
Architects in the Queensland Colonial Architect’s office, in particular the skilled, innovative and practical Robert Ferguson (1840–1906), developed an innovative design for lighthouse towers. The first of these new timber and iron composite lighthouses was built on Lady Elliott Island and lit in 1873. Following the success of the Lady Elliott Island lighthouse, others were built at Cape Bowling Green (first lit 1874), Cape Capricorn (1875), Low Isles (1878), and North Reef (1878).
The government kept up this rapid progress of lighthouse building by letting a contract for the construction of a pair of identical lighthouses — one at Cape Cleveland to mark the entrance to Cleveland Bay and the port of Townsville, and the other at Dent Island, the subject of this heritage management plan. Both of these lightstations were finished and operating in 1879.
Development of the system of navigation lights continued. Similar iron-plated, timber-framed lighthouses were built at Flat Top Island (1879), Archer Point (1883), Double Island Point (1884), Pine Islet (1885), and Booby Island (1890).
Following the success of the composite lighthouses, the government architects developed an even more economical type of construction, using light gauge corrugated galvanised iron sheeting rather than riveted iron plating, and built a series of smaller lighthouses. Towers of this second type were built at Goods Island (1886), Grassy Hill (1886), Bay Rock (1886), Sea Hill (1895), Caloundra (1896), Gatcombe Head (1900), and Bulwer Island (1912).

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