THE FITZROY RIVER AND ITS EARLY FLOODS
by A. E. Herman
The Fitzroy river and its tributaries drain a vast expanse of country.
Captain Cook, in the Endeavour, sailed along the eastern coast. On May 26,
1770, anchored in and named Keppel Bay, and Flinders, in the Investigator,
anchored in the Bay, ascended Sea Hill, named Broadsound and found The Narrows,
but failed to discover the great river coming down from the far interior of the
The streams that feed the Fitzroy flow through some of the richest grazing and
agricultural lands in Queensland. Fresh water continues to some five miles
(8 Km) past Yaamba, the old northern crossing 21 miles (33.8 Km) by road and 34
miles (54.7 Km.) by river from Rockhampton. Here tidal influence
The country drained by the Fitzroy River is estimated to be 55,666 square miles
(144,174 square Km.) of which 54,800 square miles (141,932 square Km.) is
upstream from Rockhampton and because it drains an immense area it must, of
course, carry enormous quantities of water at times.
The rivers in the Fitzroy watershed traverse 3050 statute miles (4910 Km.).
Formed by the junction of the Dawson and Mackenzie and subsidiary streams, the
Fitzroy, at its highest flood level, discharges many times the quantity of the
River Murray flood waters. The Fitzroy next to the Murray and its
tributaries, is the largest and most important river in Australia.
The Fitzroy and minor tributaries is 463 miles (745 Km) in length, Dawson and
Tributaries 762 miles (1227 Km), Mackenzie and tributaries 714 miles (1150 Km),
Nogoa (tributary of Mackenzie) and tributaries 592 miles (953 Km0, and Isaacs
(tributary of Mackenzie) and tributaries 519 miles (836 Km).
Distance from the mouth of the Fitzroy to the junction of the Dawson and
Mackenzie is 152 miles (245 Km), to the junction of the Isaacs and Mackenzie 232
miles (374 Km), to the junction of the Comet and Nogoa 332 miles (535 Km), to
the head of the Dawson 480 miles (773 Km), to the head of the Isaacs 400 miles
(644Km), and to the head of the Nogoa 538 miles (866 Km).
In times of flood the water spreads out in a huge lake above The Gap through
which a torrent over 80 feet (24.4 metres) deep roars. It thus prevents
the sweeping down of huge volumes of water which would be disastrous in the
The Gap is 25 miles (40.25 Km) above Yaamba and the Gogango Range 60 miles (96.6
Km) further up stream.
FIRST FLOOD IN 1859
What may be designated the first flood in the Fitzroy River,
in the memory of white man, occurred in the beginning of 1859, some months after
the Canoona rush, and at a time when the now settlers could, but badly put up
with the interference. The late Captain M. L. Rundle, Harbour Master, and
Pilot (later Captain) C. Hayes, took good care that the height should be
properly recorded and erected a gauge at the foot of Derby Street, at the High
No other records appear to have been kept of that year and the mark on the
official gauge showed that its greatest height was about 1 foot (300 mm) below
the big flood of 1864. If that is correct the flood must have been very
high in all the settled places around the new town, and it is somewhat strange
that no more particulars in regard to saving isolated settlers are on record.
THE FLOOD OF 1862
The flood of 1862 appears to have been the first instance in
which the vagaries of the floods of the Fitzroy came into serious notice.
It appears that it was only the Dawson and some of its tributaries that
experienced the deluging rainfall, and the Mackenzie, Isaacs and Connors Rivers
contributed very little to the flood that passed Rockhampton.
That year the heavy rain came late, at the end of March and beginning of April.
In Rockhampton and its surrounding suburbs and also in a south-easterly
direction the downpour was marvellous beyond all precedent. Mr. A.
Wiseman, who was then Commissioner for lands for the district, kept a record of
this rainfall. It was estimated that nearly 24 ins. (610 mm) fell in about
39 hours. The gauge showing as follows:- March 30 at 9 a.m., 1.23 ins. (31
mm), March 31, 12.45 ins. (316 mm). It rained all the last day and then
ceased. The Yeppen Lagoon rose 18 feet (5.5 metres) above ordinary level
and Mr. E. R. Carpenter, who was then building what was known for many years as
the Long Bridge, had his sawmill and dwelling submerged.
All the valley between Gracemere and the Athelstane Range was rapidly inundated
and the few houses along the lower Dawson Road were flooded out. At that
time Mr. and Mrs. Pearson, who had previously been hotel keepers in Sydney, kept
the Sportsman’s Arms Hotel, just at the turn of the made road that crosses the
swamp that leads to Maudsley Bridge across Scrubby Creek. This hotel once
very popular with carriers has been closed for many years.
The water rose so rapidly in the hotel that Pearson, his wife and family,
thought themselves lucky to be rescued in time by a boat. The water was
four feet deep in the house. Another rescued man in that vicinity was John
A. Watt the well known butcher of those days. A great number of sheep,
cattle and horses were drowned and other damage done.
Away to the south and south-west “the flood gates of heaven” had also been
opened in an astonishing manner, particularly on the watersheds of the Dee, Don,
Callide and others which all join before reaching the Dawson. In the
neighbourhood of Rannes the rain seemed particularly heavy and whole country
from there to the Dee River, a distance of fourteen miles (22.5 Km), was under
water to a considerable depth.
At Rannes the river rose to a height in excess of 40 feet (10.2 metres) and at
Knebsworth, a crossing of the Dawson below its junction with the Dee, the Dawson
rose 30 feet (9.2 metres) above its ordinary level. The Upper Dawson
strange to say was not flooded to any extent, which shows how partial the
rainfall was on that occasion, and also that the Dee River and its tributaries
were largely responsible for the flood in the Dawson River itself.
As travellers are well aware much of the country between the Don and the Callide
is subject to flood. The bed of the Don is narrow and the surrounding
country flat in places, and in times of sudden heavy rain it is not a pleasant
locality to be caught in as the water is apt to rise from 6 feet (1.83 metres)
to 20 feet (6.1 metres).
The flood waters from the rivers named had all to pass Yaamba and the sudden
rise of the Fitzroy there caused no little consternation to residents. A
correspondent of the “Rockhampton Bulletin” apparently incensed that so much
water should have appeared in the river somewhat unexpectedly, wrote as
follows:- “Yaamba, April 5, 1862, - An unprecedented flood in the Fitzroy
River has so far established the high water level of this township, and it would
be well that surveyors, who are paid for the job, would again inspect some of
the farms only recently laid out on Alligator Creek. By sounding with a
lead line they might find grass at two fathoms (3.66 metres). I am glad to
say that thus far we have no serious casualties to report. “Traffic is
at a standstill”.
If the statement in the letter quoted is correct either the flood of 1859 was
not so high, or the flood water that passed the town must have been chiefly
local and did not pass Yaamba at all. It must not be forgotten that
Alligator Creek which junctions the Fitzroy below Yaamba occasionally brings
down enormous quantities of water which fall on its watershed nearer to the
These particulars seem to show that it is only on rare occasions that such
enormous quantities of rain fall on all the tributaries of the Fitzroy as to
bring all the flood water down at the same time. Thus if the Dawson and
its tributaries are flooded there is a chance of these waters getting away
before the floods arrive from the Mackenzie, Isaacs, and those branches which
collect the flood waters further north.
There is also the protection given by “The Gap” the narrow valley of the
Fitzroy River, above Yaamba, through which the flood waters can only flow in
restricted quantities. This gap may almost be regarded as a dam, and
probably had something to do with the waters of the Dawson flowing against the
stream in the flood of 1875, the gap was helping to back the flood up.
It is obvious that the floods of 1862, though so disastrous in places, was
nothing like any of the big floods which have since been experienced and as no
mention appears to have been made of its height in front of the town it may be
assumed that the point reached was less than tat of the flood of 1859.
Every year residents were gaining more particulars as to what parts of the town
and country was subject to flood, and thus able, to a limited extent, to take
measures to protect themselves, and to make provision for getting away in case
of sudden need.
WET SEASON OF 1863
Every summer since 1856 when the Gracemere Lagoon was said to
be dry at Christmas - a happening only once repeated since - there had been a
rise in the waters of the Fitzroy River which has been designated a flood though
but little inconvenience had been caused except in a few localities.
Therefore, when early in January rain set in, the inhabitants thought the wet
season had started again.
However, the rainfall was inconsiderable during the bulk of the month, and it
was only in the last few days of January that rain came down in a heavy manner
that usually accompanies those summer rains. Heavy weather from the south
east blew for some days and the gale was so fierce in Keppel Bay, that the Jane
Somerville, a schooner, was blown ashore on one of the islands. A strong
fresh was in the river and the steamer, Queensland, recently purchased in
England for the Queensland Steam Navigation Company, dragged her anchors where
she was held up in the centre of the river. Fortunately no damage was
done, and from the precautions taken, she was able to ride out the gale.
The height of the flood waters was some feet below that of previous years, and
in February what flood there was began to recede. Both February and March
were productive of spasmodic downpours but the surplus water all got away
without causing anxiety or doing much damage. The most heavy rain in
January fell on the watershed of the Dee and Don rivers. In Rockhampton
the fall of rain in January was just over fourteen inches (356 mm). The
continued showery weather during the first three months of these years and the
intense humidity made the weather almost unbearable. The streets and roads
were in a deplorable state, for up to this time no efforts had been made to
FIRST GREAT FLOODS 1864
The hot weather of the summer of 1863-4 had started early,
and in November the heat had been so great that in one day three case of
“sunstroke” had occurred on the wharves to men employed there.
THE FIRST FLOOD
The rain started on Christmas Eve and did much to destroy all
hope of the anticipated fun the hundreds of new chums were expecting under
conditions reverse of those they were used to in the old lands. The rain
fell all night and next day making the outlook anything but cheery. Day
after day it was the same, storms came up followed by heavy rain, and then the
weather would clear for some hours only to be followed by other storms of rain.
In this uncomfortable way the weather continued for a few weeks, sometimes
keeping fine for a day or two.
The streets were in an awful state, the soft surface having churned up into
liquid mud. Some of the new chums had brought out stylish hessian
leggings, doubtless for hunting purposes. These were a god send in these
dreadful streets but most people had to trust to “dog poisoners” or
Wellington boots. When the sun shone out the steaminess of the atmosphere
was almost unbearable.
In the country there were no slushy streets, but creeks and rivers were flooded,
and causing a lot of loss of different kinds, though as the rain was not
continuous much of the surplus water ran off without rising to any great height.
This state of things continued for about a month dating from Christmas Eve.
About the last week in January the rain began to descend incessantly and
continued for a week. This rain had changed things from mud to water.
The river was also rising over the wharves and as the rain continued the river
was being watched anxiously and there was no news from up country, the electric
telegraph being a luxury yet to come.
The rain early in February was unimportant, and by the 10th of that month the
river apparently had reached its maximum height - 5 feet (1.65 metres) over the
wharves - and it was hoped the worst was over. No such luck, for the next
day the rain started again and it was not long till the Fitzroy again began to
rise. All this time the river had over flowed its banks at the Eight mile
Island and flowed down the course of the lagoons at the back of the town leaving
Rockhampton practically an island. There was a lot of distress among the
settlers, and those surrounded by water were some of them loath to leave their
homes, cattle and horses to the mercy of the deluge.
In some cases there was destitution and sickness and there was a good many cases
of death by drowning. These were instances of people caught between two
creeks without means of making a fire or without having anything to cook.
Fortunately the weather was warm or many would have perished from such exposure.
Carriers and travellers, to and from up country were in a woeful plight, and
teams, horses and bullocks, in many instances, were in great danger, and many
seemingly were irretrievably bogged. Among others, John McPherson, who was
then carrying had a team of sixteen yoked bullocks carried away by the current
of the Mackenzie River. These later were seen passing the front of the
town, and rising up and down as though still alive and struggling against their
On February 20th, the flood reached its height, and according to Pilot Haynes
had passed all previous known heights, surpassing that of 1859. So far as
can be gathered no official records were kept of the falls of rain, and though
Dr. Callighan usually kept a record it was not official and rarely published.
The flood in the river remained stationary for a few days after February 20th,
and then began to recede and in a short time things began to assume their normal
appearance. Light rain fell at intervals but not enough to effect the
flood waters so it was thought that the wet season was over.
The rains in connection with the first flood of 1864 were by no means confined
to the Central District of Queensland. Away to the north there had been
some tremendously heavy rain and the Burdekin River had risen 20 feet (6.1
metres) above normal level, it was equally bad in the neighbourhood of Mackay,
and the country to the west. At Fort Cooper and other stations in that
vicinity the floods had washed away and drowned thousands of sheep. At
Mackay, itself, the wind had been terrific and numbers of houses had been
stripped of the iron and other damage done. Mackay experienced another
such terrible visitation many years later, when the damage done was terrific.
THE SECOND FLOOD
By March 4th, the flood had practically disappeared and the
hot sun was drying up the country rapidly. While this hopeful state of
things was cheering people up, their spirits were again cut down by rain again
setting in and continuing daily for nearly a week. These rains were
general and of course after a few days the river again began to rise, by March
16th, the rain ceased locally but the river continued to rise and the water from
flooded up country rivers came down. It was already on that date 11 feet
(3.35 metres) over the upper wharf and nearly up to the height of a few weeks
That day (March 16th) was bright and clear with a good breeze and everything
gave promise of clearing up fully with pleasant weather ensuing. The very
next day there was a complete change for the worse, a fierce south easterly gale
set in suddenly. The wind blew all night with terrific force and the rain
again descended in torrents. It was a miserable night and daylight was
The morning was to show much more distressing circumstances for the wind and
rain continued without the slightest abatement and it was discovered that
portion of the roof of the “Bulletin” office had been carried by the furious
storm across Denham Street and on to the then vacant ground, now covered by the
Police Station. A big stream of water was flowing steadily out of the
front door of the building after having washed through the composing room
upstairs. This was the old Bulletin office that is now a portion of James
Stewart and Company’s premises opposite the Post Office. The short
leading article of the next day is here reproduced. It was written by the
editor and proprietor, Mr. W. H. Buzacott and was dated March 19th, 1864.
“A roofless building, exposed to the high wind and pitiless rain is not the
most convenient place for literary or typographical composition. Yet,
owing to an unfortunate accident, such are the circumstances under which this
days issue has been published, and to difficulties thus superinduced we trust
our readers will charitably debit all short comings. Oppressed by a
violent storm, and visited by a flood that threatens to overstep considerably
the height attained by the February inundation we do not expect will exhibit
such interest in affairs removed from their own sphere of action and this belief
materially lightens our labours by limiting our choice of subject. Blurred
and blotched by “Heaven’s distilled” - deafened by the shrieks of the wind
and flapping of corrugated iron - our letters and our thoughts turn alike in
watery vein and restrict speculation to the probable duration of the present
unfavourable weather. In the meantime the rain pours down, and the wind
beats, searching every crevice, prising every defective nail, and unroofing
flimsy edifices and fine weather verandahs.
“The town bears the appearance of a wet Sunday, shopkeepers not thinking it
worth their while to open their shops. The low lying streets are covered
with water, sea gulls disport themselves on the only macadamised road and play
around the puddles in Quay Street. As for the river it flows majestically
onwards, rising in its restless height each hour, and submerging the frail
tenements on its borders. Communication is cut off between customers and
producers even in the town - how much worse then it must be in the country, we
leave to the imagination of our readers. The butcher, the milkman, and
others whose business involves daily calls throughout the suburbs can scarcely
face the storm and the situation of the miners on the Peak Downs (food supplies
had been cut off) is in reality parallel, to a limited extent by the residents
in the outskirts of the municipality. Under such circumstances patience is
the only remedy, cheered by the conviction that the present visitation may be
the last for the season.”
The paper that day was got out with extreme difficulty. Every person was
wet and miserable and only with great difficulty were the kerosene lamps kept
alight and enough type set for the issue.
On the next day there was an opportunity to look around the town. The city
was truly in a terrible state. The river had risen to 13 ft 6 ins (4.11
metres) on the gauge at the upper wharf, and the flood was 20 ins (510 mm)
higher than on the 20th of the previous month. There was great distress in
all directions, the flooded out people, who had been rescued by boats, were
accommodated in the gaol and the Church of England. As news gradually came
in from outside places it was found that a great number of people had built
their homes with almost total disregard of floods and these homes were feet deep
in water. The poor people were glad enough to obtain a temporary shelter
in the gaol, which up to that time had not yet been opened.
The river at Yaamba had risen up unprecedented heights and was at one place 2 ft
(610 mm) over the banks, much of the township was submerged and the majority of
the inhabitants had congregated at Mr. P. F. MacDonald’s Yaamba Station which
was clear above the water.
The news from up country when at length it came to hand showed that the country
was in very bad state. At Rolleston, or the Brown River township as it was
then named, the Brown River was three quarters of a mile (1.2 Km) wide and at
Knebsworth crossing the Dawson River had reached heights 12 ft (3.66 metres)
greater than previously known. The tale was much the same from other
localities, the flood was greater in extent and covered the land to a greater
depth than all previous records. The loss of sheep, cattle, and horses was
great. Settlers houses had been submerged or swept away but fortunately
there were few fatalities.
The flood in Rockhampton reached its greatest height on March 19th, when its
depth on the gauge was 14 ft 4 ins (4.37 metres) over the wharf. The
rainfalls reported by Dr. Callighan were:- January 3.21 ins (81.5 mm), February
15.15 ins (385 mm), part of March 11.75 ins (298.5 mm). Total 32.51 ins
(826 mm). Probably another 10 ins (254 mm) for March would not overstate
On two occasions the velocity of the flood waters in the Fitzroy River was
officially logged. In 1875 by Captain Boel, who made its speed about 8
½ Knots per hour (15.7 kph), and in 1890 by Pilot Haynes who found
the speed to be 8 ¾ knots (16.16 kph) from the second cylinder of the
Towards the end of march the waters began to recede rapidly. After two
floods in one season the people were glad enough to see the streets and roads
dry once more, though the bad smells in connection with drying up brought fevers
and other illnesses. Thus ended the remarkable and long remembered flood
There was also a flood in 1875 but particulars are not available.
From 1875 there was no flood till 1890, a period of fifteen years, when 55 ins
(1397 mm) of rain fell during the first three months of the year. On April
7th of that year the flood had exceeded the flood of 1875, and two days later
one of the cylinders of the bridge gave way.
In February 1893 there was another flood, though not equalling what may be
termed a big flood.
In 1896 Rockhampton had the highest flood up to that time. On February
10th it was six inches (152.4 mm) higher than the flood of 1890 and broke all
known records. At Yaamba the river was 14 ins (356 mm) over all previous
On Sunday, January 20th the effects of a cyclone could be felt in
Rockhampton. There was heavy wind accompanied by sharp bursts of rain.
As the night wore on the conditions rapidly become worse. The wind
increased in violence and the rain poured in torrents. Occasionally there
was a lull and then the hurricane seemed to gather increased intensity and the
rain to fall down the harder. At daylight on Monday the scene was a very
wild one. In different parts of the town portions of buildings, unable to
stand the strain, went with a resounding crash. Mostly the damage was
confined to awnings over the footpaths. Several places were unroofed
including portion of St Pauls Hostel and one of the grandstands at the Show
Grounds. Some idea of the force of the cyclone may be gained when it is
stated that the solid brick coping on top of Mr. H. J. Harris’s store, at
North Rockhampton crumbled like matchwood.
In some districts the path of the hurricane could be clearly traced, swathes
being cut in the timber, cyclonic conditions prevailed all through Monday night.
On Tuesday the cyclone showed signs of losing strength but intermittent bursts
showed that it was a force still to be reckoned with. It was not until
Tuesday night that it blew itself out. The force of the cyclone was felt
far inland and it deluged with rain a tremendous area of Queensland from the
coast to the far interior, far beyond the Thomson River.
between Sunday 20th and Thursday 24th nearly 22 ins (559 mm) of rain were
recorded, almost ten inches (254 mm) in one period of twenty four hours and
eighteen inches (457 mm) in forty eight hours. The rainfall then
slackened, but it continued to fall intermittently for days after. The
total rainfall for January in Rockhampton was 34.36 ins (873 mm) - a record
With all this heavy rain the river rose rapidly. In fifteen hours the
water raced up the gauge and during that time showed a rise of 4 ft 2 ins (1.26
metres). Then it slackened somewhat but still rose steadily. On
Wednesday, 23rd January, between ten and eleven o’clock in the forenoon the
gauge at the High Level Wharf indicated 29 ft 4 ins (8.94 metres) above low
water of ordinary spring tide or 1 ft 1 ½ Ins (343 mm) above the
highest point in the previous most serious flood, namely that of 1896. It
had reached its limit. This was supported by the fact that the water
towards Gracemere dropped a couple of feet in the course of the day and that the
water surrounding the Rockhampton water works had been receding since one
o’clock in the afternoon.
On the morning of the 23rd January the flood waters were still flowing
strongly over both sides of the northern end of the Fitzroy Bridge. The
overflow at the North Street end of the Alexandra Bridge was a few feet deep,
while the water covered nearly the whole of Bolsolver Street and extended from
the railway to the show grounds, being well up into the trees inside Victoria
Park and fully 12 ft (3.55 metres) in depth in the lowest part of the road.
The water at the intersection of East and Derby Streets was from 18 ins (457 mm)
to 2 ft (610 mm) deep. In front of Messrs Denham Brothers premises it was
knee deep. The water was almost level with the floor of the New Market
Hotel. In this area fully twenty boats plied, some coming right up the
flooded gutters and footpaths to Mr. E. N. Symond’s shop at the corner
of East and William Streets.
The water went down slowly, so slowly in fact that four days after the gauge
read 27 ft 5 ins (8.36 metres). In the meantime there had been further
heavy rain, which extended all over the district. On the night of Sunday,
January 27th the Fitzroy once more started to rise.
On the 29th in the morning the record of the week before was equalled, that at
midnight, it had been exceeded by 2 ft (610 mm). Slowly the river rose, the
flood waters finding their way into places where they were least expected.
At two o’clock on the morning of February 8th the waters reached their highest
- 31 ft 11 ins (9.73 metres). Then it fell slowly, but four days after the
flood was as high as that of 1896.
Rockhampton was an island, cut up into a number of smaller islands. The
water extended from the Athelstane Range to the Berserkers.
In regard to the refugees, provision was made for these at St Pauls school room,
Soldiers Rest and Recreation Rooms, the School of Arts, St Patrick’s School
(from which they afterwards had to be removed owing to its being isolated), the
Technical College, Allenstown School, and the buildings at the Show Grounds.
During the height of the flood the motor launch, Valkyrie, 27 ft (8.23 metres)
in length, with a 10 ft 6 in (3.2 metres) beam, driven by a six horsepower
Perfection engine, and drawing eighteen inches (457 mm) of water unloaded had no
difficulty in coming round the corner at East and William Streets to premises of
Tucker and Nankivell, undertakers, following the line of the channel, with
twenty passengers. The same launch took on board small oil engines at the
intersection, and in the course of the day, under instruction from the City
Council, transported one of these to the waterworks to lift the water out of the
pump wells. A telephone repairer accompanied Mr. Bedford to establish
telephone communication with the works. So deep was the water that the
Valkyrie just touched one of the telephone wires at the Yeppen Crossing.
A pier was erected at East Lane at its intersection with William Streets and
from here boats plied regularly to different parts of the city and suburbs.
There was a regular service to Depot Hill via Denham and William Streets.
The Fitzroy Bridge survived the terrific strain implied by the flood waters as
millions of tons of water dashed against the cylinders. Measures had to be
taken to prevent the approach at the Criterion Hotel cutting away and the top
side of the approach had to be sand bagged. A careful watch had to be
maintained here. The effort to save the approach were entirely successful.
The municipal authorities had no map of the area of the municipality that was
under water in the flood of 1896 but a map of 1890 shows clearly the area
inundated. The flood of 1893 covered 46 acres (18.63 hectares) of streets
in the town side of Stanley Street, but a rise of 4 ft 2 ins (1.7 metres) in
1918 submerged 148 acres (60 hectares).