Min­ing for towns, or trou­ble

Min­ing Towns: Mak­ing a Liv­ing, Mak­ing a Life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

By Erik Ek­lund UNSW Press, 298pp, $49.99 By Paul Cleary Black Inc, 224pp, $24.99

THESE fine books are must-reads for any­one in­ter­ested in the his­tory of min­ing in Aus­tralia and the present re­sources boom. As the na­tion and our var­i­ous gov­ern­ments strug­gle with the ef­fects of the min­ing bo­nanza — on work­ers, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties — it is use­ful to con­sider how past gen­er­a­tions coped. Hence Erik Ek­lund’s his­tory, which fo­cuses on six Aus­tralian towns es­tab­lished dur­ing past min­er­als booms.

In the late 19th cen­tury Bro­ken Hill in NSW, Mount Mor­gan in Queens­land and Queen­stown in Tas­ma­nia emerged. The com­pany-dom­i­nated Mount Isa in Queens­land was founded in the 1920s while the coastal community of Port Pirie in South Aus­tralia and the com­pany-de­signed Kam­balda in Western Aus­tralia came into their own in the 1960s.

It is Ek­lund’s task to ex­plain how, in these six dis­tinctly lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, in a rel­a­tively brief pe­riod, or­gan­i­sa­tional and civic struc­tures were es­tab­lished in the face of harsh con­di­tions in iso­lated lo­ca­tions.

The most fas­ci­nat­ing places dealt with in Min­ing Towns are Mount Mor­gan and Mount Isa. In 1882 the Mount Mor­gan gold­mine, 39km south­west of Rock­hamp­ton, be­gan pro­duc­tion. A syn­di­cate of six that in­cluded the three Mor­gan broth­ers and Rock­hamp­ton­based in­vestors, in­clud­ing lo­cal so­lic­i­tor Wil­liam Knox D’Arcy, over­saw op­er­a­tions.

While the mine soon es­tab­lished links to Sydney and Mel­bourne, its Rock­hamp­ton cap­i­tal base was a dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture of the first 20 years of ex­is­tence. Al­though in its early years the mine was pri­mar­ily worked for its gold, Mount Mor­gan was soon cel­e­brated as the rich­est gold and cop­per mine in Queens­land. It pre-dated Bro­ken Hill and, within a few years, Mount Mor­gan fi­nanciers in­vested in Bro­ken Hill, while Bro­ken Hill wealth was in­vested in Mount Mor­gan shares. Al­most 1000km from the coast, and with a dif­fi­cult semi-arid desert en­vi­ron­ment to man­age, Mount Isa is one of the largest min­ing towns in Aus­tralia, a tes­ta­ment to the ex­tent and rich­ness of the sil­ver, lead and zinc-bear­ing ore and the sub­stan­tial cop­per de­posits that lie be­neath it.

As Ek­lund ex­plains, large num­bers of Mount Mor­gan work­ers moved to Mount Isa in 1929. Their mine had closed and Mount Isa was start­ing up, with work avail­able at the mine, on the smelters and the rail­way line.

With the ex­pan­sion of the mine in the 1950s, Mount Isa be­came one of the most pro­duc­tive and mech­a­nised mines in the coun­try while the town (now a pro­vin­cial city) boasted a strong and set­tled lo­cal community. These days, in com­par­i­son with Mount Mor­gan, whose pop­u­la­tion is 11 per cent Abo­rig­i­nal, 15 per cent of Mount Isa’s pop­u­la­tion is in­dige­nous, many of whom are de­scen­dants of the proud Kalka­doon war­riors who in the 1880s had fought fiercely against the white in­vaders.

As the 21st-cen­tury min­ing boom pro­ceeds, tem­po­rary camps and fly-in, fly-out work­ers are in­creas­ingly part of our iso­lated re­gional

Wil­liam Knox D’Arcy, sec­ond right, and other

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