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3.4. A manned lightstation

Dent Island was occupied and used by Aboriginal people over many thousands of years and was also occupied and used by the holders of various licences and leases, as is outlined in Section 4.3, but for long periods the lightkeepers and their families were the only people on the island. The lighstation was manned between 1879–1987.
Lightstations were staffed by men who were selected for their competence and reliability. It was expected that they would be married, and houses were provided so that their wives (and children, if they had any, as many did) would have appropriate accommodation. Larger lighthouses, like Sandy Cape on Fraser Island, had three keepers and a sufficient number of children to justify the appointment of a school teacher. At Dent Island the task of teaching children probably fell to their parents. The isolation of life at the station is poignantly illustrated by the presence of children’s graves at the station. One of these is marked with a plaque recording the death of Carrie Biss on 3 April 1885 at the age of 3½ years. Caroline’s death certificate records the cause of death as convulsions, and she was buried by her father, Head Lightkeeper Edwin Biss, and Assistant Lightkeeper G R Bellairs (Blackwood 1997).

dent island lighthouse in 1917.

Figure — Dent Island Lighthouse, 1917
Photograph of the tower, looking southward. Note the managed landscape, with the ground cleared around the tower and the native hoop pines kept clear so that the light remains clearly visible from the passage. As was normal during daylight hours, canvas curtains have been hung in the lantern house, so that the lens cannot concentrate the light from the sun and damage the lamp. (Source: AMSA).

3.4.1 Upgrading the lighthouse

When the Australian colonies federated in 1901 it was agreed that coastal lighthouses should become a Commonwealth responsibility, with states continuing to provide harbour lights. The Commonwealth engaged Commander C R W Brewis, a retired British naval surveyor, to report on the condition of existing lights and to recommend improvements. His reports set a course for the newly established Commonwealth Lighthouse Service that took over existing lighthouses in 1915. Dent Island Lightstation, along with the other coastal lights between Cape Moreton and the Torres Strait, was managed from a Commonwealth Lighthouse Service depot in Brisbane. (The establishment of the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service is outlined in Reid 1988).
The lighthouse service followed Brewis’s recommendations and upgraded the light source at Dent Island in 1920 by replacing the wick burner with a much brighter pressurised burner with an incandescent mantle (Blackwood 1997). Around 1925 a Chance Brothers mercury float pedestal was installed. This improved the efficiency of the apparatus, but required an adjustment to the lantern base to accommodate the increased height of the focal plane of the lens above the floor (Commonwealth Lighthouse Service 1925).
dent island lightstation overlooking the great barrier reef marine park taken in 1915, photo angle taken from the marine park.

Figure — Dent Island Lightstation, c. 1915

Dent Island Lighthouse overlooking the Whitsunday Islands off the coast of Queensland, photograph commissioned by the Queensland Government Intelligence and Tourist Bureau and published in the book Views seen from Queensland Railways distributed at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, 1915. (Source: State Library of Queensland ).

3.4.2. Improving the facilities

A cyclone hit the Whitsunday region in early 1917. A Brisbane newspaper reported that …no damage had been done to the lighthouse. The dwelling houses, however, required attention, and the outhouses had been flattened by a very severe hurricane. … Trees were uprooted, and the islands in the vicinity looked as desolate as if they had been swept by fire (Anonymous 1917). The damaged buildings were repaired and, at various times, the facilities on the station were adapted and improved.
In 1922 lighthouse service engineers surveyed the site and prepared a sketch of a derrick crane on the rocky cliff near the water’s edge, and a tramway leading up the hill to a spot near the keepers’ houses (Commonwealth Lighthouse Service 1922). Without such a facility it must have been a laborious business to manhandle supplies up the track from the little cove where small boats could land. Tins of kerosene, boxes of groceries, and household effects would all have had to be carried up a hill too steep for a horse and cart. It appears that the project did not proceed.
Electric lighting was introduced for the houses and to power radio equipment, with batteries charged by a diesel generator set in a small engine room building next to the lighthouse. Exactly when these changes were made has not been established, but it probably happened in the 1930s or 1940s, and the station certainly had the generator set and radio-telephone by 1951 (Commonwealth Lighthouse Service 1951). Meanwhile the lighthouse remained lit by kerosene and driven by clockwork.
The keepers had to wait until after the Second World War for any substantial improvements. In March 1952 a visiting engineer recorded that the station was well kept, but noted that the eight horsepower diesel generator engine had undue vibration. The author noted: Houses in bad condition, particularly floors, plates + verandahs and recorded a shortage of water in the second half of the preceding December (Commonwealth Lighthouse Service 1951).
The engineer also wrote: New house, store shed, crane winch and tramway to be erected here. These improvements were made, but not immediately. In December 1953 the houses were deteriorating rapidly, and the same observation was noted again in September 1957. In May 1958 the contractor for new houses … expects to have first house up by end July (Commonwealth Lighthouse Service 1951).
The two new houses, the derrick crane, the winch house and the workshop were probably completed by around 1960, although the available documents do not provide precise dates.

photo taken of the dent island lightstation overlooking the great barrier reef marine park in 1950. photo angle taken from the marine park.

Figure — The lightstation, c. 1950

Undated photograph showing the original keepers’ houses, with the engine room in place. Note the absence of any crane or trolley way. There is a rudimentary roof across the chasm in the cliff, presumably for protecting stores and a small boat. (Source: AMSA).

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