Tapping into the great forests of the north

While Brisbane Tuff from the quarries around Kangaroo Point and Windsor kept the stonemasons happy building early Brisbane, it was the sawmilling entrepreneurs of the north coast, now the Sunshine Coast, who supplied the timber.

Rivers and lakes were the highways into the thick scrub and dense forests where cedar, beech and pine were eagerly sought.

William Pettigrew, James Campbell and McGhie, Luya and Co became household names in the timber industry.  Pettigrew, a Scot, had arrived at the Moreton Bay settlement in 1849.

Working as a surveyor in the district and aware of the abundance of timber, he built Brisbane’s first steam sawmill in 1853. Until then, timber had been cut by pit sawyers.

Other mills he built and owned were at Dundathu on the Mary River, the Union Sawmill at Maryborough and Maroochydore on the Maroochy River.

His Brisbane mill burnt down twice and was rebuilt both times.

The great floods of 1893 and 1898 also meant serious losses at all mills.

Pettigrew’s Maroochydore mill was dependent on logs rafted down the Maroochy River and its tributaries. It opened the same year as the railway link, 1891.  

Pettigrew owned or had interests in a fleet of ships that delivered supplies to the northern settlements and returned to the city with timber.

Memorable among them were Elizabeth, a schooner, the Granite City, a schooner refurbished as a stern-wheel paddle steamer and renamed Gneering and Tadorna Radjah and Tarshaw,  built to negotiate shallow river mouths.

By 1900 his empire had collapsed and the mill sold to James Campbell and Sons who removed the machinery to their Brisbane mill in 1903.

Smaller sawmills were established on tributaries of the Maroochy River.

The millers also owned ships to transport timber to Brisbane and return with supplies for the settlers.

Pedlar and Heddon, on Paynter Creek, owned the Laura Belle, Mitchell and Sons on Petrie Creek owned Sylvania and George Etheridge, Lucy.

On the Noosa River, McGhie, Luya and Co established Elanda Point sawmill in 1870 and developed their own shipping service.

Timber was delivered by small flat-bottomed paddle steamers known as timber droghers.  The Black Swan, Elandra and Alabama towed punts of sawn timber through the lakes to Tewantin, where the sawn timber was loaded on to the steamer, Culgoa bound for Brisbane. Culgoa made regular trips for 20 years until it was wrecked on the Noosa River bar in 1891.

On the cold morning of July 29, 1873, one of the worst disasters  in the history of Noosa hit the sawmilling settlement at Elanda Point.

 Mill workers were warming themselves before one of the mill’s boilers at about 8.30am when it was noticed that the boiler was beginning to bulge. They did not get clear before the explosion wrecked the boiler room. Five men were fatally injured. It is said they still rest on warm Elanda Point overlooking Lake Cootharaba.

The sawmill closed in 1892 although remnants can still be found on the banks of Lake Cootharaba.

D.L.Brown’s Arakoon and Dath Henderson’s Adonis also regularly carried timber to Brisbane. Passengers to Gympie continued the journey by coach. Drayloads of sawn hardwood were taken to Gympie for the mining industry.

James Campbell arrived in Brisbane in 1853. Like Pettigrew he was a sober and industrious Scot and established a building supplies business, the beginning of his empire.

He built his first sawmill at Capalaba and the second of 10 sawmills on Coochin Creek in 1881.

Previously, timber from the Blackall Range was hauled to a rafting ground on the creek, made into rafts and steered downstream to Pumicestone Passage.  Little steamers or schooners towed the rafts from this sheltered waterway to Campbell’s Brisbane wharf. Campbell owned a fleet of ships. Many of them were delivering timber from the Mooloolah and Maroochy Rivers, Bribie and Coochin Creek on the Sunshine Coast to Brisbane.

A new paddle steamer, Mavis, delivered timber from 1883.

Sometimes, valuable cargoes of logs were transhipped in Moreton Bay for southern states or overseas.
Savvy with business, Campbell relocated the Coochin Creek mill machinery to establish a mill at Albion in Brisbane in 1890, as he realised the ever-expanding railway would change the way timber was transported.
Agricultural produce was also transported to Brisbane, including maize, potatoes, arrowroot, bananas, sugar cake, tallow, hides and hay.  

The great forests and the methods of transport along the waterways of the Sunshine Coast are long gone while Brisbane port itself, has gradually moved downstream from the city centre to the river mouth.
Little evidence of these mills or wharves remains in 2015.

Image: Stone support for the flywheel of William Pettigrew’s Maroochydore Sawmill photographed in 1963. Courtesy Queensland State Library