Riversleigh fossils. Mt Isa museum.
Image by denisbin
Mount Isa Township.
Like Broken Hill Mt Isa is an isolated outback town created because of a mineral discovery in 1923. It was part of the Cloncurry Shire council until it was declared a town with its own local government in 1963. Today it has a population of around 20,000 people but at its peak in the 1970s it had 34,000 people. The city area encompasses a huge unpopulated area making Mt Isa the second biggest city in Australia in land area! The town is basically a mining company town like Broken Hill but unlike Broken Hill and other mining centres in Australia it is such a long way from the coast and port facilities. No mining town is further from the nearest port than Mt Isa. The port of Townsville is almost 900 kms away and the capital Brisbane is over 1800 kms away.
Pastoralism came to the Mt Isa region in the 1860s and 1870s when much of outback QLD was occupied by graziers. The region was known for its mining as the Cloncurry copper and goldfields were not that far away and to the south of Mt Isa was the Duchess copper mine and township. (In 1966 the only major source of phosphate was discovered at Duchess mine.) The rocky outcrops and ranges of the area were attractive to prospectors hoping for another great mineral find after the great finds at Cloncurry in 1872.
An itinerant mineral prospector named John Campbell Miles was camped on the Leichhardt River looking at rock samples in late 1923. He found promising samples and took them to the government assayer in Cloncurry discovering that his samples were 50% to 78% pure lead with copper as well. The QLD government investigated the deposits further as Miles named the field Mt Isa. Businessmen in Cloncurry saw the potential of the area for mining. In January 1924 the Mount Isa Mines Ltd Company was floated beginning their search for investment capital to develop the site. Douglas McGillivray of Cloncurry was a major investor and his funds permitted the new company to acquire mining leases for the relevant areas. Miners flocked to the area and by the end of 1924 a small town had emerged with tents, and a few wooden buildings from other towns in the region. Mt Isa then had a school room, a water supply from the Leichhardt River and stores, hotels and an open air picture theatre!
But it was to take another 10 years before large scale mining began. MIM (Mt Isa Mines) continued to purchases additional mining leases and they searched overseas for capital as the first leases cost them £245,000. On top for this was the cost of underground explorations, drilling, metallurgical tests and plant construction. By 1932 MIM had spent around £4 million with no production, returns or profits. But the size and potential of this project was not underestimated by anyone. In 1929 the QLD government extended the railway from Cloncurry ( it reached there in 1910) via Duchess to Mt Isa. By this time the population was around 3,000 people. Mined ore was carted by road to the smelter in Cloncurry. The township had progressed too with a town planned by the Company with tree lined streets on the river, with a dam for a water supply on Rifle Creek. The mine operations were on the western side of the River and the town and businesses on the eastern side of the River. The Catholic Church opened in 1929 and the Company built a fine small hospital for the town. As the Great Depression hit MIM stopped spending on the development on the town and concentrated on the mines. By this time profits were repaying interest on the loans but the company did not return a dividend on investments until 1947.
The fortunes of Mt Isa Mines changed in the 1930s as Julius Kruttschnitt, a native of New Orleans was appointed mine manager in 1930. He obtained additional financial investment in MIM from the American Smelting and Refining Company and the first reruns on lead production occurred in 1931. By 1937 under Kruttschnitt’s guidance the almost bankrupt company of 1930 was returning profits by 1936. This manager was known for always wearing a collar, tie and suit regardless of the Mt Isa temperatures. He played sport with the miners, his wife contributed to town events and he worked on better housing for the workers. He retired from the MIM in 1953 but remained on the Company Board until 1967. At this time Mt Isa Mines became the largest single export earner for Australia and MIM was the largest mining company in Australia. Kruttschnitt died in 1974 in Brisbane. He received many Australiana and international awards for his work in mining engineering and metallurgy. He really put Mt Isa on the map.
During World War Two the mine concentrated on copper and ceased lead and silver operations as demanded by the war needs. Until this time the mine had concentrated on lead production. Labour shortages were crippling during the War years but the mine continued. Many American troops were stationed here too and the Mt Isa Hospital had an underground hospital built in case of air raids. No bombing attacks were experienced and the hospital was mainly used by nurses on night duty catching up on some sleep in the relative cool underground but the hospital still remains and is operated by the National Trust. It is unlikely that we will have free time when the underground hospital is open to visit it.
After World War Two the fortunes of Mt Isa changed remarkably. Lead prices trebled after the War from £25 per ton to £91 per ton and hence the MIM was able to pay its first dividends in 1947. Workers received a lead bonus to make their wages higher and about three times the amount of average wages in Brisbane. The population of the town doubled in the early 1950s just before Kruttschnitt retired from around 3,000 to over 7,000. It doubled again by 1961 when the population reached 13,000 and it doubled again by 1971 when it reached 26,000. New facilities came with the bigger population- an Olympic size swimming pool, some air conditioning in some buildings, bitumen roads, less dust, more hotels and employee clubs, including the Marie Kruttschnitt Ladies Club! Miners’ wages doubled during the Korean War. It was during this period the rail line from Mt Isa to Townsville became the profitable ever for the Queensland Railways. It was the profits from this line that led Queensland Rail to develop and rebuilt other lines and introduce the electric Tilt train etc. MIM discovered more and more ore deposits and firstly doubled and then trebled production in the 1950s. Mt Isa surpassed Broken Hill as Australia’s biggest and wealthiest mine.
New suburbs were built by MIM, the town became the centre of local government and the Company built a new dam for a water supply on Lake Moondarra with importer sand for a lake shore beach. As more stores opened in Mt Isa Mount Isa mines closed its cooperative store. A large new hospital was opened in 1960; the Royal Flying Doctor Service transferred its headquarters from Cloncurry to Mt Isa; and the town had a new air of prosperity and modernity. The calm soon broke. There was a major split between the Australian Workers Union, an Americana union agitator called Patrick Mackie and the Mine management over pay and profit sharing ideas. All work at the mine stopped during a bitter dispute that lasted eight months. The Liberal Country Party government which included Joh Bjelke Petersen (he was a minster and not premier in 1964) used the police to restrict the activities of the AWU and the Mackie Unionists. Many miners left the town as they could not survive without work and it took some time after the dispute resolution for the mine to restart full operations. Mining restarted in 1965.
Ten years (1974) later MIM financially assisted with the construction and opening of the new Civic Centre. Mt Isa’s population reached its maximum of around 34,000 and the future looked bright. As the ore quality declined the town population declined but MIM found new ways of extracting copper and lead from lower grade ore. The city continued to exist until MIM sold utu to Xstrata in 2003. Since the then town population has been slowly increasing. The local federal MP is Bob Katter who is proposing to create a new conservative party for the next federal election.
Mount Isa Mines Today.
In the 2001 Census over 20% of Mt Isa’s workforce was employed in mining. The town mainly survives because of the Xstrata Mines which took over the previous company, Mount Isa Mines (MIM) Ltd in 2003. Xstrata has invested 0 million in the mines since its takeover. Xstrata today employs over 3,000 staff and 1,000 contractors in the mine. Xstrata is a large multinational mining company with its headquarters in Switzerland and its head office in London. It has mines in Africa, Australia, Asia and the Americas. It miens coal, and copper primarily in Australia at places as far apart as Mt Isa, McArthur River zinc mine in the NT, Bulga coal mine and Anvil Hill coal mine in NSW and Cosmos nickel mine in WA.
Apart from the mines itself Mt Isa has other infrastructure: a power station (oil fired); an experimental mine dam; and various buildings and works such as the winding plant, shaft headframe etc. Most importantly for the township it also has the copper smelter works. The ore is further processed in the Townsville smelter after transportation to the coast. The Mt Isa smelter produced over 200,000 tons of copper in 2010 and smelted lead and the concentrator refines the ores of copper, zinc, lead and silver. Across all its mines in Australia Xstrata employs almost 10,000 people second only to its workforce in Africa. Xstrata also operates the Ernest Henry copper, gold and magnetite mines 38 kms north of Cloncurry. This group of mines is expected to employ around 500 people on a long term basis. All the ore from these mines is treated in the concentrator and the smelter in Mt Isa. The Isa smelter and concentrator also handles the silver, lead and zinc from the George Fisher( Hilton) mines 20 kms south of Mt Isa. The stack from the smelter, erected in 1978, stands 270 metres high and can be seen from 40 kms away.
Outback at Isa Discovery Centre and Riversleigh Fossil Centre.
This centre was opened in 2003. The Riversleigh Fossil Centre moved into the complex; a purpose built mine called the Hard Times mine was dug and opened to give visitors an underground mine experience; and the Isa Experience Gallery opened with an Outback Park outside. The complex also operates the Visitor Information Centre. The Isa Experience Gallery uses multimedia approaches to bring the history and Aboriginal culture and mining background of Mount Isa to life.
Riversleigh World Heritage fossil site is 250kms north of Mt Isa on the Gregory River on an isolated cattle station. The fossil site covers over 10,000 hectares and is now included in the Lawn Hill national Park. It has been a protected site since 1983 and was declared a World Heritage site of international significance in 1994. But why? Sir David Attenborough explains:
Riversleigh is the worlds’ richest mammal fossil site dating from 15-25 million years ago. The massive number of fossils discovered here are generally imbedded in hard limestone which was formed when freshwater pools solidified. This happened at time when this part of Australia was a rich rainforest area, rather than the semi-arid grassland that it is now. The fossils cover a period of 20 million years helping scientists understand how Australia, its climate and animal species changed. Most of what is known about Australia’s mammals over 20 million years was learnt from bone discoveries at Riversleigh, and the most significant ones were found in just one hour!
It is the mammals that we find the most fascinating today with large mega-fauna from prehistoric eras the most amazing. But there have also been finds of birds, frogs, fish, turtles and reptiles. The finds have included: the ancestors of Tasmanian Tigers (thylacines); large meat eating kangaroos; huge crocodiles; giant flightless birds; the ancestors of our platypus (monotreme); ancient koalas and wombats; diprotodon; giant marsupial moles and bandicoots; around 40 species of bats; and marsupial “lions”. The site has yielded a complete skull and teeth of a giant platypus and the various thylacines have added to our previous knowledge of just one- the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger.
Scientists have dug over 250 fossil rich sites at Riversleigh finding hundreds of new species. Who has heard of: dasyurids, cuscuses, ilariids and wynyardiids? I have no idea what they were. Other strange discoveries have been: ‘Thingodonta’ (Yalkaparidon) – an odd marsupial with skull and teeth like no other living marsupial; Fangaroo- a small grass eating kangaroo species with giant teeth; the Giant Rat-kangaroo, (Ekaltadeta) that ate meat( perhaps the Fangaroo); and the Emuary, (Emuarius) which was half emu and half cassowary in features. The Fossil Centre in Mt Isa has some reconstructions of some of these fossil animals of prehistoric times.