Voice of Real Australia: One hundred years of mining solitude

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John Campbell Miles (left) with friend Con Davidson in Mount Isa in 1963.

John Campbell Miles (left) with friend Con Davidson in Mount Isa in 1963.

Europeans have been in Australia for less than 250 years so there are no ancient settlements outside of the Indigenous context.

But even by European standards, Mount Isa in far north-west Queensland is a very new settlement and did not exists on maps produced around the time of the First World War.

The region was one of the last to go through the frontier wars and its fearsome warrior Kalkatunga people resisted invaders until they were finally defeated at Battle Mountain in 1884.

The rough hilly country west of Cloncurry was unsuitable for pastoral purposes and remained mostly off limits to Europeans until the 1920s.

Then one day in the steaming hot February of 1923, an itinerant mining prospector named John Campbell Miles wandered in to this inhospitable desert, "fit only for reptiles, horses and bearded men with Quixotic dreams".

Miles camped near a pool, brewed a billy of tea, pulled on his gnarled pipe and lay back.

He exhaled the last lungful of smoke and glanced around. On the tip of one jagged outcrop his eyes blinked at a silver shaft of light.

He plodded 800 yards to the rock which he smashed down with a farrier's hammer and shattered it into a honeycombed pattern of black and grey.

The weight of those fragments surprised Miles. He packed the samples into patched pockets and sent 10 specimens for evaluation to the government assayer in Cloncurry.

Weeks later Miles received the letter which told him he had found a mine from which he could coax some sort of living.

The analysis of his samples had shown the poorest contained 49.3 per cent lead and the richest 78.3 per cent.

With the help of a friend he pegged out the first leases on the field. The first load of ore left in two drays to begin the arduous journey to Duchess, where it was loaded onto a train for Cloncurry.

He named the area Mount Ida for a Western Australian gold field, but changed the "d" to "s" because he liked the sound of the name.

Mount Isa turns 100 years old in 2023.

Mount Isa turns 100 years old in 2023.

Mount Isa Mines began in 1924 and with it the story of one of the great mining cities of Australia, producing untold riches in lead, silver, copper and zinc, told in Geoffrey Blainey's 1960 classic Mines in the Spinifex.

Now 98 years old in 2021 Mount Isa is still a mining stronghold and is looking towards its 100th birthday in 2023.

There are plans for a year of centenary events and commemorations throughout 2023 and the mayor has suggested a visit by a member of the Royal Family.

But the most appropriate suggestion would be a new mining memorial to commemorate the 150 or so people who died over the years bringing the mineral wealth of the ground to the Mount Isa surface.

The proposer wants a memorial consisting of an architect-designed semi-circular wall with the names of deceased workers on plaques and a statue of an underground worker with a miner's helmet and cap lamp which would be illuminated and seen from any angle of the city.

It would be a costly, but bold, proposal that would offer not just a fitting memorial to dead miners but also provide a major tourist boost to a remote region.

I can't help wonder if John Campbell Miles and the ghosts of the Kalkatunga warriors on Battle Mountain would approve.

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