Esk, a rural town in the Brisbane Valley, is 65 km north-west of central Brisbane and about one-third further via Ipswich. It is situated on the former Mount Esk pastoral run, one of several stations taken up in the early 1840s on the inland side of the D'Aguilar Range.
Gold, copper and other minerals were prospected in the Brisbane Valley, and in 1872 small mines were worked at Eskdale (north-west of Esk), Cressbrook Creek (west of Esk) and elsewhere. The nearest place of European settlement was the Travellers' Home Hotel at Sandy Creek, which joins Esk Creek. The town of Esk was surveyed nearby, but named Sandy Creek at first, and then Gallanani, which persisted at least until the 1881 census. The Mount Esk school had been opened in 1875.
When the mining commenced there had already been substantial subdivision of the pastoral runs for farm selections. Scots, English and some German and Scandinavian families were prominent selectors. They were able to earn early income from timber cutting as there were good millable trees, including cedar (cut out by 1900) and hoop pine. The cleared land was good for fattening cattle and for dairying.
When the railway was extended from Ipswich and Lowood (1886) there were two sawmills operating and a local dairy industry ready to take advantage of improved transport of dairy produce. The year the railway opened also saw the opening of offices for the Esk local government division. By the end of the 1880s Esk had Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic and Anglican churches, a primary school and a Masonic lodge. A school of arts was opened in 1891. The town was more fully described in 1903 in the Australian Handbook:
The Handbook omitted mention of Esk's Lutheran church (1900), and the publication came a few months before the opening of the Esk butter factory and the first agricultural and pastoral show. Dairying would become an important industry, with condensed milk factories at Lowood, Toogoolawah and Colinton. The Esk factory had 176 suppliers in a few years and 210 suppliers by 1910. Rebuilt in 1927 after a fire, the Esk factory achieved higher throughputs as the condensed milk factories withdrew (refrigeration lessened the demand for preserved milk) and operated profitably until the 1950s.
The forerunner of Esk's Stanley Memorial hospital began with a nursing home in 1907, and the memorial building was opened in 1926. Education was diversified with the commencement of a Convent school (1923) which continued until 1965 when the numbers of dairy families declined and there was a drift of population away from Esk. The loss of dairying was accompanied by a decline in mixed cropping, as farmers often grew maize, onions, potatoes and lucerne as well as running herds. The Esk butter factory closed in 1973 after contending with reductions in butter prices, competition from European dairying and two bad drought years.
As well as having the shire offices, Esk had a wide range of tradespeople and retail stores before World War II. There were also five hotels. Modern shops felt the competition of supermarkets at Gatton and Ipswich. From five hotels, there were two in 2001.
The racecourse has ten meetings a year and the Show Society celebrated its centenary in 2004. There are also the district's hospital, a visitor information centre, a primary school and golf, bowls and swimming venues. The Presbyterian and Anglican churches (1875, 1889), the Esk Record office, the Club Hotel and the war memorial (1921) are listed on the Queensland heritage register. The railway line closed in 1993.
Over 280 mm of rain fell in the Brisbane River valley, causing the Redbank and Sandy Creeks to burst their banks on 10 January 2011 and flash-flood Esk. Most of the main street was awash. It was the first such event within living memory. The roads to Kilcoy and Hampton were impassable for six weeks because of wash-aways.
Esk's census populations have been:
Ruth Kerr, Confidence and tradition, Esk, Esk Shire Council, 1988