Towards Charters Towers

dinosaur eats cat
Kronosaurus eats cat, Richmond.

My Catholic upbringing makes me a glutton for punishment. The latest manifestation of masochism was another road trip from Mount Isa to Brisbane via the coast out and the inland back, all up a 4000km trip mostly on cruise control.

This time I did the coastal part of the triangle first. I had decided night one would be in Charters Towers. There were a number of reasons to choose CT about 800km from Isa and 140km inland from Townville.

I was getting some coastal time over the next few days so a day inland wasn’t the end of the world. In fact it was the World, with Charters Towers having that very nickname and I went there not remembering how it got it.

But first stop was half way – 400km to Richmond. There I met Dr Patrick Smith the wonderful, but sadly departing soon, paleo at Kronosaurus Korner. Dr Smith took me back about 105 million years when this part of Australia was part of a giant inland sea. That’s why this part of the world is so good for fossils, they survive longer in wet places.

The museum is named for a 10-metre badass Australian marine version of T Rex. Kronosaurus basically ate everything that got in its way. Alarmed mothers criticise Dr Smith for naming such a lovely place for such a horrible creature. He blames American paleo HA Longman who named the animal in the 1920s. I wrote about all this here. Dr Smith was great fun and very knowledgeable and it’s no surprise bigger museums in Sydney want him back. He’s going places,  even if sometimes it’s back 100 million years in the past.

ct14But I was going someplace too and I reluctantly turned down an offer to go to a dig site as I still had another 400km to drive. And on I went to Charters Towers.  Charters itself is in Gudjal country, a people who lived across the region but they had their favourite places – along the Burdekin and Broughton Rivers, in the lagoons of basalt country and west to what is now White Mountains National Park on top of the Great Dividing Range. I always stop at White Mountains to enjoy the astonishing view.

CT is the centre of the current seat of Dalrymple, about to be demolished in recent Queensland seat changes and merged with most of the seat of Mount Isa in the new seat of Traeger (named for Alfred Traeger who invented the pedal radio used by the Flying Doctors.)  It will be a big country to traverse.

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It was gold that first brought European settlers to Gudjal.  In late 1871 Hugh Mosman, George Clarke, John Fraser and their Aboriginal boy Jupiter were prospecting when they lost their horses in a storm. In their search they found gold instead and registered their find as “Charters Towers”.  The Gudjal were squeezed out as 25,000 Europeans crammed the region in the years that followed, all eager to get rich. The town itself got rich quick and around 60 ornate Victorian buildings in town are now heritage-listed. One of these is City Hall, built in 1891 and originally housing the Queensland National Bank and now one of the homes of Charters Towers Regional Council.

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The Australian Bank of Commerce was designed in classical revival style by Scottish emigrant architect Francis Stanley and built in 1891. Originally called the Australian Joint Stock Bank, it was the largest bank in Queensland with 19 branches. It was taken over by the Australian Bank of Commerce in 1909. After a 1931 merger with the Bank of New South Wales in 1931 it became a private building. In 1992 the Shire of Dalrymple bought the building and opened it as The World Theatre in 1996.

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This is the geographical and commercial heart of Charters Towers. the junction of Mosman and Gill Streets. The population has decreased considerably since the goldrush days but over 8000 people still call it home.  and there is plenty of traffic around when I come through around mid Friday afternoon. The town seems prosperous on the back of three key industries: mining, agriculture and education (the town is home to several boarding schools).

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At its peak Charters Towers was second only to Brisbane in importance in Queensland and was a thriving financial centre with its own stock exchange. Built in 1888, the Stock Exchange Arcade traded from 1890 to 1916, when it was shut down due to diminishing goldmine returns and decreased population. The Arcade fell into disrepair but was saved from demolition in the 1970s and transferred to the National Trust. Heritage listed since 1992 businesses, cafes and an art gallery still call it home.

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After admiring the buildings it was time for a walk to Towers Hill.  Looking up at the lookout on top of the hill is the water tower with the wording “The World”. It its heyday, it was said that everything you might desire could be had in Charters Towers. There was no reason to travel elsewhere for anything. Charters Towers was The World. The walk to the top has been improved in recent years with a new 800m recycled plastic boardwalk completed in June 2014. I forgot to take a photo of the track.

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But I did take a photo of this signage on the walk promoting the town’s heritage. Never mind the garish red, but this photo was taken when CT was The World and Tower Hill’s 57-metre high chimney dominated the landscape.  It was needed in the 1880s when goldmining reached the water table and a new way was needed to cover the gold from pyrites (the iron sulphide “fool’s gold”). The pyrite works plants concentrated and retreat the tailings from the mills. They were roasted slowly in a large reverberatory furnace to expel the sulphur from the pyrites and to oxidise their base metals to reduce absorbable chlorine. They added salt, then chlorine and water and it formed a solution of gold chloride. They furnace-fed via gravity over three hours. When in 1901 the manager David Brown found out his salary was to be reduced he shot the company chairman and was hanged at Boggo Road gaol. The chimney became known as “Brown’s Folly”.  Like Brown it met a grim end, demolished in 1942 as a hazard to wartime aircraft.

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That Second World War has left it’s mark on Charters Towers, barely one hundred miles from the bombed front line at Townsville. Charters Towers was an important back-up site for the army with a new airport built and several units stationed there. Tower Hill was an important observation point and exercise ground. The army left unexploded munitions to go with the mines abandoned by earlier explorers to make this a treacherous environment for anyone going off-piste. But one of the old bomb shelters have been transformed into an interpretive centre complete with five minute movie about CT’s role in the war.

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The view from the top is impressive looking out east to the town centre and the Burdekin river beyond slowly winding its way towards the coast near Home Hill.

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The view south from Tower Hill. Mount Coolon (I think) in the distance.

 

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Abandoned bits of the old pyrite works on Tower Hill.

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When I walked back into town, I found a lot of people standing around the pavements and SES staff guarding the road which was closed off. I asked one of the SES what was happening. “There’s a parade coming”.  He was not wrong. There was a parade coming.

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After the band and a few floats advertising a music festival there were two guys on horses waving to the crowd. Lo and behold the one on the near side to me was local federal MP and national identity Bob Katter, now 72. He was loving every minute of the attention. Katter on a horse in his home town, I thought, you couldn’t make this up.

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The floats were celebrating the 40th anniversary of Charters Towers Country Music Festival on that weekend, a fact I had been blissfully ignorant of. All roads led to the local civic centre for an opening concert that night. But I was buggered after my Catholic day of driving and went to bed early.  Adventures tomorrow lay ahead in Bowen and I needed a good night sleep for that.

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