On Saturday, I drove three hours east to Julia Creek as the town held a paddock to plate lunch to celebrate Queensland Week. But I had a second reason for going. That date June 4 marked the 150th anniversary of the death of Scottish explorer Duncan McIntyre, which Julia Creek was also commemorating on the day. McIntyre died in this region looking for the missing Ludwig Leichhardt and his elaborate grave is on the nearby property of Dalgonally. By a nice tie-in, Dalgonally is now owned by AA Co which supplied their 1824 Premium Beef for the paddock to plate lunch and the local historical society had put up a display at the venue celebrating McIntyre’s life.
Julia Creek is the administrative centre of McKinlay shire named for John McKinlay who was here in 1862, a few years before McIntyre, also searching for Burke and Wills Expedition. McKinlay’s report of “empty” pastoral land in the southern Gulf region prompted Victorian grazier Donald Campbell to set up an expedition in 1863 to take up the land (though no one sought the opinion or permission of the local Mitakoodi and Mayi Peoples). Campbell appointed Duncan McIntyre, a distant relative, to lead the expedition, accompanied by Duncan’s cousin Donald McIntyre.
Born in Scotland in 1831, Duncan McIntyre came to Australia as a boy of eight accompanying his uncle Archibald, who also brought his wife Elizabeth and five of his six children. Donald McIntyre was the sixth child, five years younger than Duncan, and he came to Australia 12 years later at the start of the goldrush. Donald Campbell was Elizabeth’s brother, and Duncan went to work for him at Glengower station in Victorian gold country where he impressed Campbell with his bushcraft, eventually leading to the Queensland assignment.
Burke and Wills had disappeared on their Melbourne to the Gulf journey in 1861 and the two McIntyres followed their trail up the Darling River, the Cooper Creek and up into the Gulf of Carpentaria. They eventually made it to the Gulf coast and then followed William Landsborough’s route south along the Flinders, Thompson and Darling Rivers in a five month journey.
Though they found no trace of Burke and Wills (that honour went to Alfred Howitt) it was in the Flinders River region in 1864 they made another intriguing discovery; two trees marked with the letter L. They also saw two stray horses in the area. Though it was likely the Landsborough expedition that blazed the trees, the McIntyres preferred to believe it was the earlier explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who left the inscription on his final journey in 1848. If so, it would be the first authenticated find from that expedition after Leichhardt, his men and all his animals disappeared without trace after leaving Roma. Donald McIntyre stayed on in the region at a property he named Dalgonally.
Duncan McIntyre, meanwhile, returned to Melbourne where he reported his find of the L trees. He was immediately commissioned by a ladies’ committee to lead another expedition this time to look for more traces of Leichhardt. On May 2, 1866 McIntyre wrote a letter to Campbell from the Gregory River region in the Gulf. “I started a search for further traces of Leichhardt and called at the Port (of Burketown) to get some rations.” McIntyre reported had he found no positive traces but “we have ascertained beyond doubt that whites are now, or have been, among the blacks within the last 10 years.” This timeframe did not fit with Leichhardt who was by then missing for 18 years but McIntyre reported children among the native population who were “almost white, with light blue eyes and red hair.” There were also rumours of a white man among a tribe “a day’s ride from here.”
Unfortunately for McIntyre, Burketown was suffering from a serious bout of tropical fever at the time with people dying daily. Though he camped well away from the place he was not immune, and grew more ill by the day. By the time he reached Dalgonally he was dying and he died at “the Grave Hole” on the property on June 4, 1866. One of his men, named Slowman, conducted the burial service (it is not known where Donald McIntyre was at this time). Slowman called McIntyre a great bushman adept at finding water. “In Mr McIntyre I had every confidence and would have gone anywhere with him,” Slowman said in a letter to the expedition backers in Melbourne. The Ladies Committee would later erect a huge Celtic cross above his grave.
Donald McIntyre began to build up the property in the years that followed. The area was first called Scorpion Creek but when the government surveyor arrived in 1870 to fix boundaries he took McIntyre’s suggestion to rename the watercourse to Julia Creek, named for both a niece and aunt of Donald Campbell (and not for Robert O’Hara Burke’s love interest Julia Matthews as is often assumed).
The town of Julia Creek (originally called “Hilton”) began slowly until the railway arrived in 1908 to serve the copper industry further west. The town grew until by 1930 it had a Japanese laundry, three banks, a blacksmith, a butcher, three cafes, two hotels, four stores, a school, an iceworks, a cordial factory and three churches. That same year the town became the administrative hub for the re-gazetted McKinlay shire. Today it is known for its pastoral and mining interests, with a big Dirt N Dust triathlon festival. There is a Duncan McIntyre museum but that focuses more on the region, than the man himself. The shire now markets itself, just as it was in McIntyre’s time, as the Gateway to the Gulf.