Jun 17, 2020

A mining ghost town writ large in living memory

A mining ghost town writ large in living memory A book by retired geologist Andrew Cuthbertson described what it was like to live in one of the countrys' few uranium mines

A recently published ‘biography’ of the North West Queensland uranium mining centre of Mary Kathleen has breathed new life into what is now a ghost town.

‘Mary Kathleen Reflections’ is written by retired geologist Andrew Cuthbertson whose first days in the mining industry in 1981 were among the last for the on-again, off-again operation.  

Geologist and author Andrew Cuthbertson photographed in PNG in the early 1980s soon after leaving Mary Kathleen.

His intent is to inspire the imagination of tourists as they wander the empty streets of the township where houses and shops have long since been relocated to get a better idea of what an isolated, self-contained mining operation once looked like.

In many cases Mary Kathleen was the last of its type with a workforce and their families living on site, reminiscent of the dozens of small mining towns which dotted the Cloncurry district deep into the previous century. 

Today, mining operations throughout Australia are dominated by a fly-in and fly-out workforce.

Mary Kathleen was remote. When the mining operation began in 1957 there was no such thing as the Barkly Highway and it took more than three hours to get to Mount Isa only 53kms to the west along a poorly maintained dirt track.

But Mary K, as she is known by those who are familiar, gave him a break as a young geologist.

“It was an important career experience,” he said, “,because it gave me the opportunity to understand what an ore body looked like, how you evaluate it, and how to looked after it to maintain economic viability. 

“It was that training in the mine geology environment that I was then able to take into the wider world of exploration worldwide over a 40-year period. 

“I was able to look at exploration opportunities with the confidence to say, ‘yes, this project has the potential to make an economic mine.’ For me, it was a fundamental spark in hindsight as we look back on our careers.”

Andrew Cuthbertson, towards the end of his career. He has authored a memoir called ‘Reflections on Mary Kathleen’.

Mary Kathleen was a product of its time. Mining started in 1957 just a few years after the discovery of the deposit.

The initial demand for uranium came from the growing nuclear power industry in the United Kingdom and was encouraged by Australian government taxation concessions for uranium exploration and mining. 

The mine was put on care and maintenance in 1963 with the completion of a supply contract with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority.

For the next thirteen years Mary Kathleen stood silent before it came back to life for a further six-year stint in 1976 with the signing of new uranium supply contracts with US, West German, and Japanese power utilities. 

The mine closed for the second and final time in late 1982, and the mine facilities and township were dismantled, and the tailings dam rehabilitated by the end of 1984. 

What remains of the open-cut pit at Mary Kathleen. It cost $19m to rehabilitate the mine site.

More than 1,000 people called Mary Kathleen home in 1961 and it was complete with schools, cinema, post office, banks and a store. The population peaked in its second iteration, at 1,200 in 1981. 

There’s little left of Mary Kathleen today apart from some housing slabs and dilapidated roads and of course, the open cut pit.  

It was a metaphor for the passing of a mining culture warned Mr Cuthbertson.

“I’d like to say that the whole point of this book is to inform tourists and give them an insight to the lives of the miners and their families, and what it was like to live and work there. 

This slab which used to support the Mary Kathleen general store, is used here as a base for camping. Pic: Courtesy of the Campermate website

“Three generations of miners and families called Mary Kathleen their home and generally found it difficult to think the mine would one day close when the orebody was mined out.  

“But it happened at Mary Kathleen. Within two years of the mine closure, the entire mine and township structures had been carried off.”

The rehabilitation, which cost $19 million, was the first for a uranium mine in Australia and won an Institution of Engineers, Australia, Award for environmental excellence.