So many years, so many eyes, so much terrain: the search for Tasmania’s mineral wealth was an odyssey that spanned much of the 1800s. In the latter decades of that century, ragtag crews of raggedy men were measuring and pegging claims, and scratching for riches in the surface of the earth.
When the wealth finally appeared on the island’s west coast, it wasn’t as expected.
Traces of gold appeared at an alluvial claim on a mountain above the Queen River, and optimism rose to unprecedented levels. “Everyone who saw the ironstone, matted with fine gold that glistened after showers of rain, was impressed with the mine,” notes historian Geoffrey Blainey. The government geologist Gustav Thureau – who was not always right – rattled off his theory on the mine, describing it as eroding volcanic mud at last shedding its gold and sharing it with men. “Begorrah!” the soon-to-be-famous Irish miner James Crotty is said to have exclaimed, “It’s all gold, I tell you!”
But it wasn’t. It was mostly something else, in fact, and the Mount Lyell mine became the richest copper mine in its day. The mine managers recruited an American metallurgist from the fields of Colorado and employed him to erect his innovative system of smelting to extract as much copper from Lyell to sell to the world.
Among the handful of towns which appeared in a cluster around the generous geology of Mount Lyell, none compared to Queenstown. “No Tasmanian town had grown so rapidly,” according to Blainey, who was later commissioned to write a history of Mount Lyell. There were pubs galore; vibrant displays of entertainment visited the area frequently; unforgettable characters spilled out onto the streets.
In Queenstown today, the brilliantly eccentric Galley Museum gives anecdotes on the experiences of those glory days. A snapshot of the neighbouring miners’ town of Gormanston in 1910 is accompanied by this caption: “Miners and their lovers were having a hell of a good time. Young married miners and their wife battling to get a home together and flat out producing babys.”
But the humour of this note hints at the tremendous tragedy that was just around the corner for the Lyell community in 1912, when an entire shift of miners was trapped in the depths of a shaft. While many escaped, 42 men perished. Beyond the fatalities, the community was distraught. While bodies were trapped in the shaft, so too were families stuck in a state of unknowing.
A photograph in the Galley shows a large crowd milling around the newsagency of A.A. Mylan, on Orr Street, trying to discover the latest news. “Women showed bravery,” a newspaper article reported during this distressing period, “but there were many sobbing...How long must we wait to know the worst was a pathetic question asked by many.”
It was eight whole months before the last bodies could be retrieved from the mine.
Most of these women would indeed discover their beloved was among the deceased. Louisa Scott, for example, would soon face the reality of having lost her young husband Leonard, the father of their six-week-old daughter Violet.
Eugene Felix McCasland, whose family was back in New South Wales, had become engaged to a young lass in the Linda Valley; for the funeral of her betrothed, she made a shroud of brown material, with a white cross over the chest.
Other men had only their mates to mourn them – like the Austrian-born Valentine Bianchini, who had time to write a will in his notebook before dying.
Henry Dawson was one of the survivors, but had been trapped for five days: he didn’t return to mining, but instead moved to Melbourne and married a city girl. Unfortunately only a couple of years later, he was killed on a Flanders battlefield.
Mount Lyell’s longevity is comparable to few other mines in Australia. Only a handful of years ago, two more young men died in a collapse there, however, once more leaving the local community shattered. The Mount Lyell mine is currently closed.
“Mining towns are ephemeral by nature – as elusive as the minerals they pursue,” writes Tasmanian novelist Brett Martin. “There is no continuity, no history, no real confidence in the future...Nothing is embedded, nothing is certain.”
But this impressive community has yet to give up its resolve; here in the wet and misty west, Queenstown remains where so many other towns have gone to ruin. Attached to a part of the world that is like no other, the people of Queenstown are adapting again to varying conditions, each of which is far from easy.