Charters Towers, the town they call ‘The World’ was born to the sound of thunder and flashes of lightning.
Hugh Mosman, George Clarke, John Fraser and horseboy Jupiter had been prospecting away to the south of what is now Charters Towers when their horses scattered during a fierce thunderstorm. It was while searching for the horses next morning that the first Towers gold was discovered. The discovery point was just near the modern day intersection of Mosman Street, Rainbow Road and Black Jack Road and was at the end of the year 1871 or the very beginning of 1872.
The party returned to Ravenswood to register their find which they named Charters Towers.
Charters: for W.S.E.M. Charters, the Gold Commissioner - the big man from the Cape (Charters was said to be about 6'6" tall and weighed some 20 stone).
Towers: because of the conical shaped hills in the vicinity of the discovery.
A rush of ‘fortune seeking men’ quickly followed and a small settlement named Millchester formed on the water at Gladstone Creek. By the end of 1872 some 3000 souls inhabited the new field. The alluvial men left early on for the Palmer River discoveries but the hard rock miners remained, seeking the gold in the deep veins underground. Charters Towers rather than Millchester soon became the main settlement.
The goldfield did not reach its peak of gold production until 1899. During the period 1872-1899 the place changed from a rough settlement with bark and calico buildings to a thriving City of some 25,000 inhabitants.
The City, by that time, had properly formed streets, some wonderful houses and many grand public buildings lining the two main streets. A plentiful supply of water for domestic and other purposes was pumped to the town from a Weir in the Burdekin River about 9 miles to the north. Underground electricity was also supplied to parts of the main town area.
Literally 100's of shafts were sunk during the lifetime of the field and the ore raised was processed through many large Treatment Batteries. It is estimated that 6,000,000 ounces of gold was won in the first 40 to 50 years of the life of the Towers.
All religions were strongly represented on the field and in 1890 the miners could quench their thirst in no less than 65 hotels registered on the field.
Sports, music and the arts all had fantastic followings. It was said that everything you might desire could be had in the Towers. There was no reason to travel elsewhere for anything. This is why the town became known affectionately as ‘The World’.
The decline of mining following World War I saw the population shrink and the town become the supply centre or hub of the Dalrymple Shire as well as the educational centre for students from all over North Queensland.
The Europeanisation of North Queensland began officially when the land district of Kennedy, north of Cape Palmerston, was opened for pastoral settlement in January 1861. Thousands of years of occupation by groups of Aborigines preceded this overture (including that by the Kudjala people). Material evidence of that long holding around Charters Towers is scant although their descendants perpetuate this phase as a living history.
European knowledge and interest in the lands of the Burdekin stemmed from Ludwig Leichhardt’s passage along the Burdekin River while making his way to Port Essington in 1844-5. His and subsequent reports of the land from the likes of the Gregory Brothers and the Allingham family effected further investigation prior to the official opening by the new colonial government of Queensland.
Principal architect of this interest was George Elphinstone Dalrymple who led a privately funded survey and “take over” of the Burdekin Watershed in 1859-60. This and his subsequent work for the government deemed him to be named Father of North Queensland. Those who stocked their runs with sheep and later cattle, used Bowen as their coastal outlet. This was supplemented by ports at Cleveland Bay (Townsville) and Cardwell, these being opened for northern land holders in 1864. The inland township of Dalrymple on the Burdekin River was established at the same time as a staging point for those on the west bank and beyond.
These settlements together with the run holders soon faced an economic impasse as local markets for products proved too small and grander markets were too far away. In 1865 a group of Townsville business men decided the discovery of payable gold would swell their economic hopes through an influx of people. They offered a discoverer’s reward and in no time reports were made of gold on the Star River. The Colonial Government too, introduced a reward system for gold discoveries and this too was followed with better discoveries on The Cape River in 1867, the Gilbert River and at Ravenswood both in 1869. Not that reward was the sole driving force. Richard Daintree, some time part owner of Maryvale Station who went on to become North Queensland’s first government geologist, was instrumental in the finds on the Cape and on the Gilbert through his experiences as a geologist.
As a find by chance, the Ravenswood Goldfield sustained the greatest hope. It stretched mining interest across the Burdekin with discoveries on the Broughton River watershed in late 1871. Three outside prospectors, Hugh Mosman, George Clarke and John Fraser in the company of an aboriginal horseboy, Jupiter Mosman, came into this area in December 1871. But with fortunes fading, they were attracted to a cluster of conical and square topped hills to the north. They soon camped on the other side of the largest of these hills and made a discovery of gold in the outcrop of the North Australian reef:
"Masses of quartz were strewn about the surface, which we at once saw were very rich, and when afterwards crushed they yielded 3 oz. and upwards to the ton."
Within a few days they found ten other rich reefs. On the 26 January 1872, Mosman applied to Gold Commissioner W.S.E.M. Charters at Ravenswood for a protection area. The discoverers went on to name the place in his honour.
"Such is the name which Mr Mossman’s camp [sic] has been christened. It is situated about 15 miles from the Broughton township and is certainly the most remarkable and promising old field ever opened in Queensland. It is the general opinion that the whole country from Jessop’s and Dumaresq’s camp on the Broughton to 4 miles beyond the main camp on the Fifteen mile will be auriferous and already some 60 or 70 prospecting areas have been pegged out. Mr Mossman [sic] the prospector of the field has certainly a name of wealth on his claim, and deserves the prospects before him for his perseverance in opening up such a promising field, and by his gentle-manly conduct in giving all information and assistance to miners and parties visiting the place, has gained the good prospect and respect of the whole community. He has three distinct payable reefs running through the ground, with outcrops showing an average width of four feet, but in many places they are much wider, and there must be many hundreds of tons of surface stone that will pay splendidly to put through the mill." (Ravenswood Miner:17/02/1872)
The rush to the place was immediate with men from the south of the colony arriving as early as March. By the end of the month, 25 claims were laid off as far north as the St Patrick, south east to the Washington and west to the North Australian. A business area with better access to a permanent water supply was marked out as well on a low ridge north of Mosman’s Camp with its main thoroughfare named Mosman Street. Here the first storekeepers, blacksmiths, butchers and hoteliers went to work.
"For a long time the buildings, business and private, were of a typical new goldfield variety - calico or bark - and leading hotels were constructed of saplings stuck into the ground and lined with calico, the whole being covered with iron."
Water was needed to crush the gold bearing rock as well. So when the first machine areas were pegged beside Gladstone Creek, another township quickly developed. It was soon named Millchester and was centred along a ridge above the confluence of Gladstone and Buchanan’s Creek. Buchanan’s was the first crushing machine at work there and was quickly followed by Plant and Jackson’s mill, the Venus. Superintendent Commissioner Jardine took temporary charge of the gold field at the end of 1872 when Charters’ administration floundered. In the resolution of events Jardine declared Millchester the site of government and directed the goldfield’s courthouse and Commissioner’s office be erected there as well as the telegraph to terminate there. It was here that the first Northern Miner was printed and the first banks and assayers did business as well. It was the site of the gold field’s first school.
But within two years Charters Towers held greater favour with the people and it became the dominant township. Businesses from Millchester re-established there with those who had missed out on a Mosman Street frontage finding themselves on the track to Millchester. The track soon became a street and was named Miner and eventually Gill. Charters Towers weathered the lure of the Palmer Rush in 1873, and it became clear that the Towers was to have a long life. The first buildings of calico and bark gave way to formed timber constructions. The trees and boulders, once a part of Mosman and Gill Streets, were cleared. A plethora of committees, clubs, and sporting groups were founded to give the gold field community the beginnings of a vigorous sporting, social and cultural life.
In 1877 there was sufficient self confidence for the residents to petition for self government as a Municipality, on the basis that: "the town contains fifteen hundred inhabitants and is one square mile in area ... buildings of a superior description are being erected almost daily." The Municipality of Charters Towers was declared in June 1877 with John McDonald elected as the town’s first mayor.
In 1880 a new Mining Warden, Philip Frederic Sellheim was appointed to oversee the administration of the rapidly developing Gold Field. Sellheim had a vision for the way that the field might develop. As the mines went deeper, it was clear that more capital would be needed for machinery. The demand for capital was beyond the resources of the local residents. Sellheim opened his Annual Report for 1880 with the following words -
"It has been proved now beyond any doubt that the quality of stone does not deteriorate here at the deeper levels...but to develop the ground efficiently and economically more capital than can be well spared from other local enterprises will be required. I trust the time will not be far distant when Charters Towers will receive more attention from Southern Capitalists....One of the effects of the completion of the Railway will be in all probability, be more frequent visits from speculators."
The Railway reached Charters Towers from Townsville in December 1882 and the immediate result was another step forward in communications, together with a vast improvement in transportation. The two day trip to Townsville by coach was now a thing of the past. Companies were now being formed in Charters Towers and firms of share brokers established themselves in the Mosman Street - Gill Street area. Warden Sellheim welcomed these developments and noted that the yields from Towers shares must attract the required capital to the field. Each year production was rising and in each of those years more capital was invested into mining and milling.
By 1885 the share brokers had formed themselves into a ‘Mining Exchange’, providing the residents of Charters Towers with the opportunities to be speculators as well as investors in the share market game. This involvement in the financial affairs of the town by working miners was a prime force in the stability and rapid development of Charters Towers.
By 1886 the local entrepreneurs were ready for the English investors to make their rush to the field. The quest for capital took place at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 in London. In the Queensland Exhibition, a Walkers stamper was set up and daily crushings of ore were offered as a demonstration of the good sense of investing in Charters Towers. The results were instantaneous making a flood of money available for the future development of Charters Towers. A typical case was the ‘Day Dawn Block and Wyndham’ where 442,000 one pound shares were fully subscribed in London with a further 56,500 shares issued fully paid to the vendors making the issued and paid up capital 498,400 pounds. The previous capital for the company had been a mere 24,000 pounds. In the flurry to float companies, there were more dubious deals than good ones. Warden Sellheim thundered his disapproval at those who would give Charters Towers a doubtful reputation.
Local confidence in the mining industry went to an all time high. The residents could see no end to their prosperity as the town citified and urbanised. Many of the timber buildings which had replaced the original shanties in the 1870’s were demolished to make way for the brick rendered Victorian buildings still in evidence. Most of the public buildings that still grace Gill and Mosman Streets were built in the period 1883 to 1893.
In 1892 cyaniding was introduced to the gold field superseding other methods such as the use of pyrites. This new process leached more of the gold from the ore, giving in most cases a further ounce of gold for each ton of ore mined. The millions of tons of tailings that had been stock piled since the beginning of the field were now available for re-treatment.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Charters Towers gold mines and mills were producing their maximum yields. Over a hundred poppet legs rose above the town and the quality of life was unexcelled in Colonial Queensland. All this had happened in a period of twenty five years. In 1897 the Editor of the Northern Mining Register wrote:
"Streets of fine shops and residences have sprung up, cold air stores, telephones, electric light, gaslight, electric fans and other adjuncts of an up to date civilisation are employed, and 20,000 souls now sleep nightly within a radius of 4 miles of the spot where the prospectors pitched their first camp a little over 25 years ago. The three workers of that time have increased to 4,000 with nearly three quarters of a million pounds worth of machinery to aid in the hunt for gold."
PEAK AND DECLINE
The peak gold yield was in 1899 which like all apexes whispered the beginnings of the end of mining at Charters Towers. Thirteen years later mining was effectively at an end. In between much of the town continued with blinded belief in its future. It was a period of development and progress which is worthy of discovery.
All history extracts are generously supplied by the:
Charters Towers and Dalrymple Archives Group
PO Box 1232
Charters Towers QLD 4820
Telephone: C/- Charters Towers Excelsior Library 07 4761 5580
For a full listing of publications available for purchase contact the Charters Towers and Dalrymple Archives Group.