Queenstown, its hills stripped of timber to fire the local copper smelters and permanently denuded by the noisome sulphurous fumes which belch from the smelters, is a surreal nightmare. Its river is polluted. It has the appearance of a deserted moonscape. Yet beyond the reaches of its devastation lie undulating hills covered in the morning mists. In winter its skies are still heavy with dark, low clouds which are such a distinctive part of the climate of the western coast.
By any measure Queenstown is one of the wonders of the world. It is a profound reminder of humanity's capacity to destroy and pollute and, in that sense, it deserves to be seen by everyone.
Located 256 km west of Hobart and 180 km south of Burnie, Queenstown is a copper mining town. The area was first explored by Charles Gould in the 1860s but its inhospitable environment deterred settlement and it wasn't until 1881, when Cornelius Lynch found gold in a creek near Queen River, that prospectors and miners began to move into the area. Many of the miners came from the Pieman River diggings to the north. They travelled down the coast to the port at Strahan and walked inland to the diggings.
Two years later three miners - Bill and Mick McDonough and Steve Karlson - discovered the rocky outcrop known as Iron Blow. The find was opened in 1883 and by 1888 the Mount Lyell Gold Mining Co. had been formed. It operated out of a town called Penghana. The area has been mined continuously over the past 110 years. There was little alluvial gold and consequently heavy equipment was required. An eight stamp battery was brought in in 1889 but the gold deposits had been exhausted by 1891. It was then that the mining company turned its attentions to copper. A new company, Mount Lyell Mining Co, was formed and the first smelters, created by an American metallurgist Robert Carl Sticht, were in operation by 1895. The following year Penghana was destroyed by fire and a new settlement at the present site of Queenstown was established.
The copper smelters wreaked havoc on the surrounding landscape. Not only did the sulphur fumes kill off plants in the area but the eleven furnaces required vast quantities of timber and the mining company simply cut down the forests to fuel the fires. It has been estimated that hundreds of men were employed as timber cutters and that over 3 million tonnes of timber were cut down between 1896 and 1923. At its peak the furnaces were consuming 2,040 tonnes of wood each week. The combination of timber felling, the sulphur fumes and the heavy rainfall in the area (which washed away the top soil) ensured that by 1900 the whole valley looked like a desert.
The establishment of Queenstown in 1896 saw the construction of a hotel and a general store. Three years later a railway from Strahan (it is located on the coast 41 km away) was completed and in 1901 the Empire Hotel, which still stands, was completed. It was a suitable symbol of the town's increased prosperity.
By 1903 the local mining companies (Mount Lyell and North Lyell) had combined and Queenstown had become the area's major mining centre. By 1914 a hydro-electric scheme had been completed at Lake Margaret and by 1928 a major refinery had been opened. The first road (prior to that all traffic had been by sea from Macquarie Harbour) to Hobart was opened in 1932.
Mount Lyell Mines continued to operate the mine until 1972 when they were taken over by the Renison Gold Company. In 1995 the mine became part of Copper Mines of Tasmania (CMT - Mt Lyell). It still operates today but is always in danger of fluctuating prices in the world copper market.
In recent times there has been an argument about the reforestation of the hills around Queenstown. Some locals, quite correctly, have claimed that the denuded hills are a tourist attraction. Others have felt that the rainforest which characterises the area should be encouraged to regrow.
Things to see
Visitor Information Centre
Lyell Tours on Duffield Street operate as the Tas Visitor Information Centre. They can be contacted on (03) 6471 2388. They can arrange tours of the mines and advise of trips around the town and the hinterland.
There is an independently owned and operated site devoted to Queenstown athttp://www.queenstowntasmania.com. Check it out.
Copper Mines of Tasmania (CMT - Mt Lyell) - Tours
Lyell Tours operate a number of tours of the mines. There is a surface tour (lasting about 1 hour) which runs at 9.15 a.m. and 4.00 p.m. and the underground tour, lasting 3 1/2 hours starts at 8.30 a.m. and 1.30 p.m. There are strict controls on the underground tour. It cannot take children under the age of 12 and it caters from groups between 2 and 6. It is wise to book for the tours in the summer months. Contact (03) 6471 2388.
Mt Lyell No 3 Engine at the Miners Siding (a Bicentennial Project)
The first railway in the area travelled from Strahan to Queenstown and was opened in 1896. It used a rack and pinion system and was known as the ABT. This historic ABT engine, which is now located opposite the Gallery Museum and near the Queen River, is a vital part of the town's heritage. It is part of a Bicentennial Diorama. At periodic intervals a strategically located pair of loud speakers let out a loud toot-toot and then proceed to make steam engine noises. The Engine has now been restored, along with the Mt Lyell No 1 Engine that was housed at the West Coast Pioneer Museum at Zeehan, as part of the Rebuilding of the ABT Railway as a tourist railway, and both are now working on the re-built line. The Miners siding site is soon to be re-developed and its main display item will be a Jumbo Underground Drill Rig.
There is a brochure titled 'The Walkabout Queenstown' published by the Project Queenstown Committee. The town is now a classified historic town and it is not surprising that the brochure lists 25 locations (all within easy walking distance of each other) which take the visitor past most of the town's significant buildings.
At its height Queenstown was home to 14 hotels. The Empire, at 2 Orr Street, is one of the finest still standing. Completed in 1901 it has a beautiful handmade blackwood staircase.
Located in Queenstown's first brick hotel, the Imperial (1898) (corner of Driffield and Sticht Streets), the Galley Museum was established by Eric Thomas. As the brochure explains: 'there are in excess of 800 photographs displayed in seven rooms. All have been collected by Mr Thomas with a great amount of detail typed under each photo. The photos cover the history of the West Coast from the establishment of Mt Bischoff at Waratah to the development of Queenstown and Strahan.' For more information check out: http://www.queenstowntasmania.com/Galley_Museum_Page.php
Views of the Valley
No visit to Queenstown is complete without getting some kind of overview of the damage done to the valley. The best vantage points are on the Queenstown-Hobart road which winds down into the valley and offers spectacular views of the devastation. The other popular lookout is known as Spion Kop and is located in the centre of town - follow the signs on Hunter Street.
Gormanston had a population of 1,760 in 1901. Today there are about ten families still living in this historic mining town. Located 6 km from Queenstown (ask at Lyell Tours for directions) it was the original mining settlement being established in 1881 by miners and growing rapidly with the discovery of Iron Blow. In 1884 the first post office on Tasmania's west coast was built here and in 1897 it was so important that it was the base for North Lyell Copper Co.
Once a prosperous mining town Linda is now a ghost town. It is located 8 km from Queenstown and is well worth a visit by people interested in seeing how towns, once they have outlived their usefulness, simply die. Linda was the site of a serious underground mining disaster when, in 1912, a fire killed 42 miners. Its last hotel, the Royal, closed in 1952.
Lake Margaret Power Station
Australia's second oldest working hydro-electricity station (the one at Moorina is older) lies north of Queenstown in the Yolande River Valley (ask at Tourist Information for directions). It was completed in 1914 and still contains machinery from that period.
1 Driffield St
Queenstown TAS 7467
Telephone: (03) 6471 2388