Wednesday 13 May 2015

Chillagoe and a bit of a History Lesson

How many photos can you take of a historical smelter site?

  123, what the heck 123! 
I think I got carried away. 
I usually do but is my insurance against the fact that I might not see that place again.
Good thing for you that you don't have to look at all 123, just a select few (still too many).

First stop in Chillagoe was the information center to find out about the caves in the area. You can even do self guided ones.

Next stop was the smelters.

It wasn't far from town. Actually signage was really good making everything easy to find.

Three chimneys can be seen, very easily, among the remains. They are the roaster chimney at the front, the powerhouse chimney in the middle and up on the hill there is the main chimney.

The roaster chimney
 So now for a bit of a history lesson. I took the information from the signs around the area which I have to admit I didn't actually read at the time. 
Actually, I think Mr Sparky (Mr Let's Move It We Are Taking Too Long) spent more time looking at these than me and found the statistics on signs interesting like that 1901 and 1943 the Chillagoe smelters treated 1 250 000 tonnes of ore (copper, lead, silver and gold). I think maybe it was because he used to work at the Townsville copper refinery. He does share my interest in history but you would never find his head in a book to find it out. This out and about way is more his style and I have to say way more fun than any history class.

Mining in North Queensland started during the 1870s but the Chillagoe area was left pretty much alone until the 1880s when copper, silver, lead, zinc and gold were discovered. There were already tin mines at Herberton and Irvinebank and had been gold rushes at the Palmer River and Hodgkinson.

John Moffat who was a tin mining magnate bought leases in the Chillagoe area and small mines and smelters popped up all over the place.

 William Atherton established a pastoral lease, Chillagoe Station, to provide beef to the area.

The only transport for the ore, machinery and supplies on extremely rough terrain was by bullock and horse teams as well as camel trains. 
Looking around I could see how hard the landscape was and couldn't even begin to imagine the hard work and time it would have taken to do anything.

The powerhouse chimney
In the late 1890s John Moffat managed to get the investment needed for a large scale mining development on the Chillagoe copper field. They were able to raise the money to buy up mining leases, build a smelter and construct a private railway from Mareeba to Chillagoe, connecting Chillagoe to the port of Cairns. 
Now that would have made transport a fair bit easier. It is a shame that transport system has been left to decay in the dust rather than being used.

The main chimney - 34m tall & 2.7m internal diameter at the base

When the rail was completed and the smelter opened in 1901, John Moffat and entrepreneur James Reid had spent over half a million pounds on construction. This made it the largest mining development in Queensland at the time.

Chillagoe smelters employed over 1000 people at their peak and by 1908 Chillagoe had a population of over 1500 people and was home to 10 pubs. I am glad they got the important information in there. 10 pubs, that is 150 people per pub. Pretty good, hey?

The smelter closed in 1914 at the outbreak of WW1. There was a shortage of ore and many complex minerals. Also the project had been over capitalised. 
People don't learn from history, do they, as over capitalisation (spending more money than what the value can ever be) happens all the time.

The smelters remained closed during the war and ownership was transferred to the Queensland Government. They were closed again in 1927 but were opened again in 1929 and used as part of the welfare policy to create jobs in depressed mining districts. They smelters then operated until 1943. By then other smelters had been built closer to other ore producing areas such as Mount Isa and most of the buildings and equipment from Chillagoe were sent to other mines or sold off in 1952.

The Chillagoe Smelters never made a profit in their working life but they did create thousands of jobs and had a significant effect on the development of heavy industry in north Queensland along with the development of the transport system. 

Now days there are just a small zinc mine, some marble quarries and around 200 people along with between 600 and 1000 caves in the area. Oh and I believe just 1 pub.

I do like seeing history in the flesh but it also makes me feel a bit sad for the loss of what has been. It isn't any more obvious than out here the boom and bust part of life. What were once booming towns are now dots on the map or wiped from the map entirely. It is a huge reminder that mining won't be there forever and neither will the people.

It is a tough land, one filled with challenges and the stories of those who have taken it on.

Oh, what a reminder that this often harsh yet beautiful land has its fingers well and truly wrapped around my heart. Now all I want to do is head west again, argh.

A photo from one of the information boards.


  1. Beautiful landscapes and images.. Enjoy your day!

  2. I remember hearing about mining when we were in Cairns in March!

    1. @Jackie, yes there was heaps of it and without it maybe Cairns wouldn't be, or not be what it is now. I hope you enjoyed Cairns. Thanks for coming by.

  3. I had to stop laughing about your first sentence before I could settle down to read the interesting post. Ah the joys (and sorrows) of a digital camera. And it's so hard to throw them away.

    Did not know about the smelters in your area ... That must have been very hard and dirty work. It's interesting so many artifacts and structures remain.

    1. @Sallie I guess that is the awesome part about digital, you can take as many photos as you want but like you said ... So hard to cull. There was a huge amount of mining up here in the past. All that is left now are the relics. Dirty work, I bet!

  4. Q: How many photographs can you take?

    A: how many memory cards do you have?

    Seems to be the way I work!

    Looks like a great place to expire - I'm off to find out more!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

    1. @Stewart love your theory. Expire ... Possibly, explore ... Definitely! Animal life was a little short in supply but it is pretty dry at the moment. I did see rainbow bee eaters there too but they were way more active than the ones on my previous post.

  5. @Felicia, yes it was a great place to check out. Thanks and thanks for coming by.

  6. I love places with history. I'm glad you shared.

  7. Howdy..Thank you for sharing these photos and history!!!I have just discovered my nana's old passport and it says her place of birth was Chillagoe (Not Yamba as I was led to believe) Anyway long story short.. I know that she was born in 1905 and the family were bullock drovers! So I thought I'd google to see what info I could find on Chillagoe history and Woooahlah your blog!! she may have been born in Yamba but perhaps registered in Chillagoe!!! more investigation required but this helps heaps :) so thanks again

    1. How interesting! Maybe she grew up in Yamba, when they were home and was born in Chillagoe, while they were traveling away. There is certainly a long way between the two places and who knows how long it took to travel back and forwards.I'm glad this old blog shows up somewhere and also happy you found it interesting. I would love to go back there for a visit. Good luck with your investigations!


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