A trip to Ballara, Hightville and Wee McGregor tramway tunnel

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With not many scheduled events on the end September long weekend, I had a bit of time to do some exploring. I had been down the Fountain Springs track half way between Mount Isa and Cloncurry a couple of times. I had checked out the old mining town sites at Bulonga and Ballara but I had never been up to Hightville. I’ve been fascinated by the region’s ghost mining towns ever since I went to Kuridala, especially by how brief their moments of glory were, around the short-lived copper boom of the First World War. Hightville had a similar story to Ballara and Kuridala, and was linked to both by rail. So I was keen to head there and also check out the Wee McGregor mining tunnel (photo above taken outside the tunnel sometime during the First World War).

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But I needed two goes to find it. My first attempt was Saturday afternoon where in a mad moment of energy, I decided I would park the car at the Ballara turn-off and walk the three kms I thought would take to get me to my destination. Ballara possessed copper ore but the more valuable lode was at Wee McGregor further up in the hills. The Hampden Co bought the McGregor mines in 1912 and carted the ore to Kuridala for smelting. The photo above is of the passenger platform at Ballara looking west towards the mine.

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The company lobbied the government to build a railway though the state was wary about supporting a venture that did not seem to have longer term prospects. In the end they compromised with the Wee McGregor Tramway Agreement Bill of 1912. This would be a no frills, lower standard line from Malbon to Ballara and then a two foot gauge tramway up to the mine. Ballara was surveyed in 1913 and had a store, hotel, baker, butcher, police station and post office.The photo above is taken a few hundred metres west of Ballara and shows the ore transfer ramp with the main line on the surface and ore tramway on the top tier.

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Above is the graffiti-strewn remains of one of the many bridges on the tramway. The broken and stony nature of the terrain gave tramway builders adequate rubble to construct embankments and bridge approaches.

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It was a beautiful walk through magnificent scenery with not another soul about and after a couple of kms I came to the Hightville cemetery. Six miners and labourers are buried there between 1912 and 1918. I was fascinated by the cause of deaths “asphyxia by powder fumes”, “bucket fell down shaft” and “accident (sic) drank ant poison”. Another died of heat exhaustion and I hoped that wasn’t an omen as I checked my rapidly depleting water bottle on a hot afternoon.

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I made it to Hightville a couple of kms later but there was little evidence left of the old town. The first ores at Wee McGregor were found in 1904 and the McGregor Hotel was erected in 1909. With Hampden interested in the area’s ores Hightville was surveyed in 1913 and named for its location on the high ridges. Like Ballara, Hightville also had a post office, school and hotel. The company decided Hightville was not suitable for a rail terminus and after the McGregor Hotel burned down in 1914 there was an exodus to the new settlement at Ballara.

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The tunnel was a further 0.9km along but I took a wrong turn and had to turn back for my hour long walk back to the car having got closer to the Wee McGregor mine (mine loading bins pictured) than its tunnel. The excavations into the slopes are from modern mining. In 1975 Eastern Copper Mines used an acid leaching process to clean out the last of the reserves.

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I returned on Monday, this time stopping first at Bulonga, also on the Fountain Springs trail, further north just 5km from the bitumen. Bulonga had its own mine, and township. Copper was discovered in the Corella River in 1905 and after a few changes of ownership the new Corella Copper Company built a smelter in 1913 which took ores by traction engine from the Ballara area for treatment.  The Rosebud Weir on the Corella was built in 1914 to supply water to the township but smelting was stopped due to a lack of water in 1916. Then a heavy 1917 wet season inundated the mine and Corella Copper closed its doors putting an end to Bulonga and its hotel, store and bakehouse. The town was also home to the Afghans who carted ore from Ballara on their camels.

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I kept driving this time all the way to to Hightville where I re-examined the sign there and read important information I missed the first time – “follow red star pickets to the tunnel entrance”. Finally noticing the pickets (see sample photo above) it was an easy walk to find the tunnel.

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Construction of the tramway through hilly terrain took most of 1914. It needed nine bridges from Ballara to the mine and a tunnel under the dividing range. The tunnel is 100m long, 3m wide and 4m high and was built by a gang of nine men hired on a flat contract rate plus dynamite costs. At either end are concrete-formed entrances but the interior is undressed.

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Inside was a slightly eerie feeling with bats swirling overhead though it was cool relief from a hot day. The light from either end (especially the western end where the sun was shining) meant a torch was not required.

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From the western end, the tramway took a winding 1.4km route to reach the mine. The ore trucks were loaded from a bin and taken in two separate rakes because one haul was too much for the loco. The full train with the loco in the centre was joined for the downhill run back to Hightville. The trams also took Ballara children to Hightville School until safety concerns with this caused the school to be moved to Ballara. Around 15,000 tons a year of ore was carted to Kuridala between 1915 and 1919. Traffic plummeted when Wee McGregor closed at the end of 1920, its ores no longer needed for Kuridala’s dying smelter. The tramway line and rolling stock were removed in 1921 and the loco ended up at a sugar mill.

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A reward for my personal exertions was a final detour to the end of the Fountain Springs track and a refreshing dip at the Springs themselves. The large split in the Fountain Range makes for a picturesque entrance to the permanent waterhole which is surprisingly deep and cool in the centre.

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