It’s not the racecourse at Eagle Farm that’s the big winner, it’s TradeCoast Central Heritage Park, an unexpected stallion in an industrial stableland.
Who would have thought? Three prime pieces of Brisbane history are hidden away among the factories and warehouses off Kingsford Smith Drive between the Southern Cross Way and the Gateway Motorway.
Making up the treble are three nationally-listed heritage sites.
Earliest, is the old women’s prison farm, followed by World War II Brisbane with the old aircraft engine testing stands, and Hangar 7, where top secret work was carried out to get a better understanding of the superior Japanese warplanes.
On top of all that, it’s also the site of the old Eagle Farm airport where the early aviators touched down from history-making flights and where passengers once hesitantly boarded their TAA and ANA flights in the days before flying was a commuter service.
There’s plenty of parking in front of the interpretative centre to begin a self-guided tour. This is made easy by using the free wifi to download three audio tours telling the story of the site as you wander.
Instructions to get started are inside the centre which has a huge photo from the Australia at War collection of the scene in 1944 when tents were massed at Camp Ascot (now Eagle Farm racecourse) and Camp Doomben (now Doomben racecourse).
There’s also a static display with stories and items such as manacles used at the women’s prison, the layout of the Women’s Factory and videos telling the various stories.
Outside, a wide balcony features the stories of the great aviators and gives a broad view of the whole site.
In 1920, Jack Treacy was the first person to land at Eagle Farm. It was little more than a cow paddock. His aircraft, the Queen of Sheba was bringing the popular silent film of that name to Queensland.
Bert Hinkler, landed in Darwin in February 1928, after completing the first solo flight to Australia in 15 days and two hours. He flew home to Queensland to a hero’s welcome at Eagle Farm.
Charles Ulm, in June 1928, completed the first flight across the Pacific from the US and landed at Eagle Farm to a hero’s welcome.
How this part of Eagle Farm looked in the 1830s.From there, it’s down to wander the heritage site, which begins with the women’s prison. The footings of the old cellblocks have been marked out and a path wanders across the lawn while scattered signs tell the story.
The old palisade gate, once made of pointed eucalypt stakes has been recreated in metal. This was the single gate that in the 1830s controlled all entry and exit from the prison yard.
Inside was the prison barracks, hospital, wash house, needle room and cookhouse. Cells were in the northwest corner of the prison yard protected by an additional fence.
Near the gates is the spot where, a century later, 26-year-old Amy Johnson came crashing in after her solo flight from England to Australia. Her hero’s welcome had been in Darwin five days earlier and fame preceded her arrival, so a crowd had gathered.
“Precisely where Amy crashed is unclear, but we know it was very close to this spot and if you had been standing here on May 29, 1930, you would have had an excellent view.
“It was a dramatic entrance. Her plane overshot the runway, tipped over a fence and somersaulted in the farm beyond. She emerged unhurt.”
Continuing on, the path winds around to the old Allison engine testing stands where locally refurbished aircraft engines were tested during World War II.
It’s something of a miracle that the old engine testing stands were not torn down at some point. In fact, their floor level illustrates how much the rest of the area has been built up – with fill from the Clem 7 tunnel as it turns out.
These sheds, built in 1942, were home to the “noisiest job in the war” and operated 24/7, much to the chagrin of residents in nearby suburbs. There is a button to push to sample the noise of the engines which could be heard as far as Lutwyche Rd.
Two enclosed brick structures built in 1943 were used for indoor testing. They were decommissioned but never demolished.
After the war, Eagle Farm again became Brisbane’s main airport and the old buildings were used to house the airport’s fire engines.
The path leads on back to the interpretive centre, and on through a tunnel to Hangar 7, the last remaining building from wartime Eagle Farm Airport.
It was built to discourage prying eyes as it was the base for the Allied Technical Air Intelligence unit, a top-secret unit crucial to the war effort in the Pacific.
Here Japanese aircraft salvaged from the islands in the north were pulled apart and rebuilt to learn their engineering secrets.
When the Americans went home, they left the best and most modern airport in Australia and the Commonwealth wasted no time in using the Eagle Farm site for Brisbane Airport, relegating Archerfield to light aircraft.
ANA and TAA established their operations and Brisbane boomed.
The airport was renewed and upgraded and eventually expanded to its present site nearby. Brisbane International opened in 1988.
The conversion to a master-planned industrial and commercial estate now known as TradeCoast Central is the latest layer to Eagle Farm, the centre of British settlement in Queensland and early and wartime aviation.
You just need to know it’s here.