There is a clutch of low-slung buildings behind the famous old windmill on top of the hill at Spring Hill which could easily be overlooked as some boring depot for the council works department.
But not so. Take the time to investigate and you will discover the intriguing Spring Hill Reservoirs, for these rather ordinary timber buildings are merely a cover.
Below them are brick chambers where the Phantom of Opera would look right at home. In fact, that’s not entirely improbable as it is used by the Underground Opera Company for performances.
The story is this.
The rapidly growing colony needed water so in 1863, the municipal council, took on the rather ambitious job of damming Enoggera Creek (the first water storage to be built in Queensland and the second in Australia) and gravity feeding water into a city reticulation system.
Ambitious because it would be able to provide water for a year to 200,000 people, five times more than were living in Brisbane at the time.
Four years later, and Brisbane had a water supply. (It was extended to South Brisbane in 1870).
The problem was that the mains didn’t supply the elevated area so the Water Board decided to build a small service reservoir on top of Windmill Hill (Wickham Terrace) near the windmill.
The first contractor began building in concrete, changed to brick but never finished the job. The Water Board took it over and on February 21, 1871, it was complete and filled with water.
It took 69,000 bricks to build the reservoir which was 18m by 9m and 4.1m deep. It could hold 570,000 litres of water.
The outer walls were 35cm thick and inside, it was divided into nine squares by arched brick walls, which make it look so interesting today.
The reservoir was filled overnight for 10 hours ready to feed down into the township the next day. The site was fenced and a cottage built nearby for the inspector to watch the water quality.
This helped the people in the city no end, but parts of Fortitude Valley were missing out so in December 1872, the walls were raised 60cm to increase capacity and an additional main was laid from Enoggera Dam.
At this time the reservoirs were still uncovered (certainly wouldn’t have met today’s swimming pool regulations!) and there was a growing fear that animals might fall into them. Leakage was an even bigger problem.
In 1889, the original reservoir (now 18 years old) was cleaned, painted and cement washed on the inside and clay lined on the outside. But it didn’t stop the leaks.
Nevertheless both reservoirs remained in use for almost another decade until they finally stopped being used in 1898.
Eight years later they were brought back into service to ease the city’s ever growing demand and a roof was finally put over them.
The old reservoirs continued to supply water to the city for another 55 years when the main from Enoggera Dam finally collapsed.
By now, they had only a small part in supplying the city and couldn’t service the high-rise buildings that were cropping up so they were decommissioned on September 3, 1962.
Brisbane City Council undertook restoration work in 2009, which allowed more public access but their redevelopment potential is limited by poor access, fire risk and ventilation.
Visitors can walk around them and if you’re lucky, you might get a peek inside or book early and you can get inside the larger reservoir for the opera.