This signpost is pointing the wrong way, the Kuridala road is 90 degrees clockwise from the direction indicated. I missed the turnoff first time as the sign was partially obscured from my vision. But the person who gave me the directions said “you can’t miss the chimneys”. He was right, the huge chimneys were easy to spot and though wrong I knew that last turnoff was probably the way there.
Kuridala was a mining (copper, silver and gold) town which briefly flowered in the early 20th century but is now completely abandoned. The chimneys of the smelter still dominate the remote landscape about 65km south of Cloncurry, in north west Queensland. I was in Cloncurry the day before for the mayor’s lunch to celebrate the town’s 150th birthday. Copper mining is a crucial part of the Cloncurry story and Kuridala played its part, continually coming up in mentions in speeches at the lunch.
At the lunch I was seated next to one of the local cops. He told me that on his days off he enjoyed fossicking for minerals, especially at Kuridala. It was the third or fourth mention of the town I’d heard on the day and an idea started to gel. I was due to drive from Cloncurry to Dajarra the following day for a rodeo and I asked the cop how far Kuridala was from the Cloncurry-Dajarra Rd. About 40km, he said, and told me about the chimneys. I was sold.
Care needs to be taken when fossicking due to unmarked open mine shafts. Copper was discovered at Kuridala in 1884 (not long after Ernest Henry found the first copper at Cloncurry). Kuridala is an Aboriginal word meaning eagle hawk, though experts are unsure which language it comes from. The area had several name changes in quick succession in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was first known as Gulatten, then Hampden (the name of the copper company on the field). Probably because of the influx of German miners it was renamed to Friezland but the First World War was not a good time for German names and was renamed Kuridala in October 1916.
No one now lives at Kuridala but many people died there. There are over 360 graves in Kuridala cemetery. At its peak the town supported six hotels, five stores, four billiard saloons, three dance halls and a cinema, two ice works and one aerated waters factory. But it was a brief peak.
The two big iron chimneys dominate the landscape but they are part of a considerable amount of remains of the smelter-works including a blast furnace and concrete engine mounts. The Hampden Smelter opened in 1911 and over three years treated 85,266 tons of ore with an initial dividend of £140,000 in 1913.
The smelter made money servicing the Empire war machine from 1914-1918, despite marketing, transport and labour difficulties. The Hampden Cloncurry Company declared big dividends: £40,000 in 1915, £140,000 in 1916, £52,500 in 1917 and £35,000 in 1918 for almost half a million pounds of revenue. The smelters treated over a quarter of a million tons of ore in the war, averaging 70,000 tons annually. The company built light railways to its Wee MacGregor and Trekelano mines and installed a concentration plant in 1917. A year later they erected an Edwards furnace to pre-roast fine sulphide concentrates from the mill before smelting.
At the end of the war the British government dropped copper price controls which put the Hampden Cloncurry Company in difficulties. They postponed smelting until September 1919 and they lost heavily during the next season relying on ores from Trekelano mine. The smelter treated 69,598 tons of ore in 1920, but they had to halt all operations after the Commonwealth Bank withdrew funds on copper awaiting export.
Like other Queensland companies struggling after the war, they turned to the Theodore Labor government for assistance but got nothing. Negotiations for amalgamation occurred in 1925 but failed, and in 1926 Hampden Cloncurry offered its assets for sale by tender. Mount Elliott acquired them all except for the Trekelano mine. The company was de-listed in 1928.
The population of Kuridala peaked at 2000 by 1920, but reduced to 800 by 1924. A year earlier, a new field at Mount Isa had opened up and the bakehouse, the hospital, courthouse, one of the ice works and picture theatre moved there followed by Boyds’ Hampden Hotel (renamed the Argent) in 1924. Other buildings including the police residence and Clerk of Petty Sessions house were moved to Cloncurry.
By 1928 all bar one family had packed up and gone. In nine years of smelting Hampden Cloncurry had been one of Australia’s largest mining companies producing 50,800 tons of copper, 21,000 ounces of gold and 381,000 ounces of silver. It helped create the metal fabricating company, Metal Manufacturers Limited which established a major works at Port Kembla on the back of their Kuridala success.
The Tunny family lived on at Kuridala fossicking the Hampden and Consol mines from 1932 until 1969. A post office operated until 1975 and the last inhabitant, Lizzy Belch, moved into Cloncurry about 1982. Today it is farmland and cattle wander through the works in search of feed. These two water tanks reminded me of the smoke stacks of the Titanic, an apt metaphor for Kuridala and from a similar vintage.
The Queensland Heritage register notes the Hampden Smelter as an important archaeological resource. It says its rare, early water-jacket blast furnace is the only surviving example of its type in Queensland. “A large, intact and well-formed slag dump at the site is second only in size to the dump at Chillagoe Smelters,” the register said. “Archaeological examination of the smelter works will provide an understanding of the technology and practices in early copper processing in Queensland.”