There’s a whole world underground that most of us never even think of exploring!

The discovery of that “void” under Adelaide Street while digging up for the Cross River Rail project (causing peak hour chaos) begs the question, what else lies beneath our roads?

Sometimes the name of the road provides a clue, such as Creek Street in Brisbane City, named for the filled-in creek over which it was constructed. 

Often, though, the only visible signs of what lies underneath roads are manhole covers and stormwater drains.  Not terribly exciting, but history reveals that underground water pipes and drainage have existed for thousands of years.

Going Underground

The ancient Romans pioneered a plumbing system that was a legendary achievement in civil engineering.  Wealthy Romans had hot and cold running water as well as a sewage system that whisked waste away.

In more recent times, tunnels for drainage and infrastructure that lie beneath our cities have been put to surprising uses.

Consider Paris, for example.  It has underground tunnels that date back to the  13th Century.  By the 17th Century however, the city’s cemeteries were overflowing, so a solution had to be found.  It’s hard to believe, but the answer was to put the dead bodies in these tunnels or ‘catacombs’.  In all, it’s estimated that 6 million people were buried in the tunnels.

Paris, New York, London!

Meanwhile, New York’s subterranean tunnels were used to move cows without interrupting traffic at street level.  The expansion of railroads in the 1800s saw increased cattle movement from holding pens in New Jersey to slaughterhouses in Manhattan.  Traffic was so heavy that, a “cow tunnel” was built beneath Twelfth Avenue, which is rumoured to exist to this day.  Bizarre!

Across the Atlantic ocean, London’s rapid growth caused the River Thames to be used as an untreated sewer.  Disease ravaged the city, and the resulting health crisis led to the creation of the London sewerage system, one of the first modern sewer systems that is still in use today.

Back to Brisbane

Brisbane’s own sewerage system wasn’t developed until the 1960s, when Lord Mayor Clem Jones set an agenda for sewering the city within the decade.  The classic thunderbox sheds in Brisbane backyards gradually disappeared as pipes were laid underground.

But there is evidence of underground drainage in Brisbane much earlier.  When City Hall was refurbished in 2012, excavation revealed an intact stone drain dating back to the 1850s.  Other fascinating artefacts were also uncovered – a cobblestone street and horse stables from the same era.

These days, tunnels beneath our roads carry water pipes, stormwater drains, and services such as telecommunications, gas, and electricity. And repairing them is no longer an issue – often there isn’t even any need to dig, thanks to technology such as CCTV drain cameras!