I’ve become increasingly fascinated with the old abandoned mines and ghost towns of North West Queensland such as Mary Kathleen and Mt Frosty. Many, like Kuridala, briefly flowered in the early 20th century with small vibrant towns attached only disappear just as suddenly when the copper boom ended in the early 1920s. I’d taken the rough road to Kuridala before but at the time did not realise another equally interesting old copper mine lay a further 25km down the same road. Mount Elliott and Kuridala led parallel existences and were fierce rivals but both are now deserted. As at Kuridala I was apprehensive I’d find it given the lack of signposts in an isolated area, but just like Kuridala I found it thanks to a prominent chimney.
The copper field at Hampden (Kuridala) was discovered in the late 1890s and the investment of Melbourne capital prompted the discovery of other fields near Cloncurry. In 1899 a hermit gold fossicker named James Elliott blasted a few trenches and found rich red oxide of copper on the conical hill that became Mount Elliott.
As Geoffrey Blainey puts it in Mines in the Spinifex, Elliott was an old man with a past masked in tragedy. He had been sentenced to death for robbing and murdering a Chinese man before the real murderer confessed on his deathbed. Now his luck finally turned. He sold his interest to Fort Constantine pastoralist James Morphett but the Federation drought forced Morphett to sell to mining promoter John Moffat. Moffat financed the exploration of the ore body which by 1907 had 45,000 tonnes of rich copper ore ready to be mined.
That was the year the mine was floated on the London market and the same year James Elliott died. Years later novelist Randolph Bedford said Elliott claimed to have found an even larger lode – at Mount Isa. Whether it is true or not, the Mount Isa lode would not be discovered for another 16 years.
The 1907 London price for copper was £87 a ton, the highest price for 30 years, and the Cloncurry fields pulsed with life. The railway extended west from Richmond to Cloncurry and there were calls to extend it another 115km to the Hampden and Mount Elliott copper fields. A new town called Selwyn sprung up to service Mt Elliott and horse teams hauled boilers and mine machinery as well as stores and corrugated iron for its buildings.
The general manager of the mine WH Corbauld altered the furnace and erected three converter shells ahead of the arrival of the first train in August 1910. Blainey said the smelting works with their iron roofs were an impressive sight, “flashing in the sun, three tracks of railway running through the spinifex, and the stacks of firewood piled high for the boilers.” In four months the furnace extracted £125,000 of copper and gold. The copper was the richest in the Commonwealth and the gold was richer than many Victorian fields.
Mount Elliott’s wealth was in the upper zone with enough ore for five years of mining. Beyond that was lower grade sulphide ore and Corbauld needed a central treatment plant to make it pay. But Mt Elliott and Hampden could not agree on merger terms and remained fiercely competitive in gobbling up nearby smaller mines.
In 1912 Mount Elliott bought up the Hampden Consols mine on their rival’s boundary with its large deposit of sulphur, iron and copper which made it an ideal smelting mixture. Every week the trains loaded with Consols ore under the nose of the Hampden plant despatched it 30km south to Mt Elliott. In 1913 the Consols mine caught fire and the loss hit the company hard when its rich reserve was rapidly depleting. After a workers’ strike against contract rates, Mt Elliott closed for seven weeks putting 900 out of work.
The London-based owners bought up nearby Mount Oxide, Great Australia, Dobbyn and Crusader mines. The First World War sent the copper price through the roof so the poorer ore of Mt Elliott became profitable. The company deepened the mine, improved the smelter and bought a fire refinery south of Townsville. In 1917 they doubled the length of the furnace to smelt a larger tonnage of low grade ore.
Living costs were high in Selwyn, amenities were few and the possibility of strikes were always high as was flash flooding in summer. By 1918 Hampden Kuridala had eclipsed it in prosperity yet Mt Elliott continue to make a profit. Corbauld laid a post-war master plan for it to become a world class “copper camp”.
But rapidly falling copper prices put paid to those plans. Mt Elliott re-opened in 1919 after a Christmas strike but within two months were forced to dismiss 650 workers. They left for the coast never to return. The smelters never re-opened. “The blast of the mine whistle was not heard in the valley again,” Blainey wrote in 1960. “All that now remains of Mount Elliott are ransacked smelters, a railway siding, a post office in a creaking tin shed and one house.” By 1961 the railway closed over graziers’ objections there were no worthwhile roads in the area. Now even the post office and shed are gone and nothing remains of Selwyn except a cemetery. The roads remain poor. However Mount Elliott remains a working mine and the old mine was added to the Queensland Heritage Register in 2011 for its “potential to provide important information on aspects of Queensland’s history particularly early copper smelter practices and technologies, the full range of activities peripheral to those base operations and, importantly, the people who lived and worked in this complex historic mining landscape”.