In many ways Kidston has had an unusual history, according to James Cook University historian Jan Wegner.
“Kidston was established surprisingly late,” Dr Wegner said.
“The three gold-bearing hills later known
as Wise’s, Mack’s and North’s Knobs, a few kilometres from the Copperfield River, are part of the Etheridge goldfield which began in 1868.
“Yet it took until September 1907 for prospectors Charles Mack and William Barry to report finding gold in the gullies draining the hills. They had been working the area for around a month in secret until Mack went on a ‘drunk’ at the nearby mining town of Lucky Creek and showed off his gold.”
Not surprisingly, Mack’s haul of gold set tongues wagging.
“A rush set in to the ‘Oaks’, named for the nearby Oaks outstation of Carpentaria Downs station,” Dr Wegner said. “This was alluvial gold, and excitement was intense about the ‘best little rush since the Palmer’.
“Miners flooded in from all parts of the north and by May 1908 there were 1400 people on the Oaks rush and an estimated 430,000g of gold had been won.
“As usual, the newspapers warned miners against coming, as the area was too small
to support many, and the gold-bearing dirt needed to be carted to the river for washing.
“As usual, the newspapers were ignored. John Campbell Miles, the later discoverer of Mount Isa, rode a bicycle 2400km on punctured tyres stuffed with grass, and many others struggled over the steep range from the nearest port of Cardwell, with their possessions in wheelbarrows.”
According to Dr Wegner, within a few months the field was dependent on dry blowers, used to extract gold particles from the soil without using water, the first time these machines had been used extensively in Queensland.
“One witness said they were ‘almost as thick as flies in a sugar basin’,” Dr Wegner said.
Even stranger, she said, was the fact that the majority of the miners were pro- temperance.
“There were no ‘grog shops’ until April 1908 and the residents actively campaigned against allowing pubs on the field, delaying their appearance until October,” Dr Wegner said.
“There was a progress association by February 1908, also unusual for a gold rush.
“It helped the town get a school by July as miners brought their wives and children to the field. As the town settled down after its rush days, it became more respectable, with stores, halls, a telephone service, an ambulance and a dam to improve the water supply.
“This did not stop its many passionate Labor party supporters getting into fights at elections, ‘even the ladies getting into holts’, or some of the town dodging the census collector for fun in 1911.”
Dr Wegner said while the alluvial gold didn’t last long and the population declined, some miners were already working small veins, or leaders, and crushing their stone by hand in ‘dolly pots’.
“Rich results caused a second, smaller rush to peg claims on more leaders,” she said.
“The field badly needed a crushing battery but the only possible place for a mill was the river bank, which the shire council had declared a sanitary reserve to protect the town’s water supply from miners’ camps.
“Sense eventually prevailed and by the end of 1909 there were two small stamp batteries working.
“By that time the ‘formation’ that the leaders were in was also being crushed, ushering in the third stage of Kidston’s mining history, open- cut mining by small companies.”
Dr Wegner said Kidston’s geology was unusual for the Etheridge area.
“Instead of large quartz reefs, Kidston had a breccia pipe containing small veins of mineralised quartz, so that it paid to take out all the rock hosting the veins,” she said.
“The ore was low-grade and needed cheap treatment, and the government helped out by supplying a state battery in 1922.
“Not even this could stop company mining becoming uneconomic by 1925 and the field reverted to small miners, while the town declined to a handful of people. The battery closed in 1950 and is now heritage-listed.”
Kidston’s fourth mining stage began in 1979 when Kidston Gold Mines took up the area, with production beginning in 1985 on a scale that dwarfed the earlier open cuts.
“It was one of the earliest mines in Australia to use the fly in-fly out system,” Dr Wegner said. “The mine closed in 2001 and is now the first former gold mine in the world to become a source of non-polluting energy, using the pits and dam for a pumped storage hydro project.
“True to form, Kidston is still unusual.”
Historic images presented with this story are from the Reverend Frederic Charles Hall Photographic Collection, accessible from the James Cook University NQHeritage@JCU website. JCU Library gratefully acknowledges the support of Kenwyn Arthur Hall (grandson of the photographer).