Mount Isa


The city of Mount Isa is located in north-west Queensland on the banks of the Leichhardt River. With a population of approximately 21,000, it is the major service centre for the area.

Mount Isa is situated on the traditional lands of the Kalkadoon people[1] who followed patterns of hunting and gathering, fishing and trade for many thousands of years before the arrival of the first Europeans[2]. Kalkadoon craftsmen were famous for the quality of their stone implements. Hand-crafted tools were traded by the Kalkadoon people with other Aboriginal groups across western Queensland, as far south as Birdsville[3]

History of Mount Isa

European contact

The first Europeans to visit the lands of the Kalkadoon people were the four members of the Burke and Wills expedition in early 1861. The expedition travelled northwards, to the east of Mount Isa, through to the Gulf of Carpentaria before returning south to Coopers Creek. Oral traditions of the Kalkadoon people recall that they watched the expedition from a distance but did not make contact with the explorers[4].

In December 1861, William Landsborough took a relief expedition into Kalkadoon territory searching for the lost party of Burke and Wills. Landsborough made peaceful contact with a small party of Kalkadoon men, presenting them with a tin pot and two glass bottles[5].

In 1867, a prospector named Ernest Henry discovered copper deposits in the Cloncurry area to the east of Mount Isa. Henry established his own mining company in 1868, employing a team of Cornish miners as his main workforce. Henry also hired local Aboriginal men and women to work in his mines and guide him to new mineral deposits. By the early 1870s, a number of copper and gold mines were operating in the Cloncurry area. In 1874, the first pastoral station in the region, Bridgewater Station, was established by the Brown brothers on the Malbon River[6].

The Kalkadoon people resisted the invasion of their lands by the pastoralists and miners and frontier violence occurred across North West Queensland from the late 1870s through to the mid-1880s[7]. A Native Police detachment was based at Cloncurry from 1883 until 1889. This detachment was instrumental in crushing Aboriginal resistance in North West Queensland[8]

After the arrival of the Native Police at Cloncurry, frontier violence in North West Queensland escalated. In 1883, Kalkadoon warriors ambushed and killed a Native Police officer called Marcus Beresford and wounded five of his Aboriginal troopers in the McKinlay Ranges[9]. James Powell, a prominent pastoralist with family connections to the English aristocracy, was also speared by the Kalkadoon in July 1884. In retaliation, large numbers of Kalkadoon men, women and children were killed at the hands of the Native Police and armed parties of pastoralists[10]

A last stand was made by the Kalkadoon against an expeditionary force led by Sub-Inspector Urqhart of the Native Police in September 1884. On a rocky hill near Prospectors Creek, Kalkadoon warriors hurled missiles at the Native Police and then levelled their spears and charged Urqhart’s men, before dying in a hail of rifle fire[11]. The area was later named Battle Mountain. A memorial to the Kalkadoon people killed at Battle Mountain was officially opened at Kajabbi by Charles Perkins and the Kalkadoon elder George Thorpe in 1984[12].

Aboriginal survivors of the frontier violence were drawn to fringe camps on the outskirts of settlements and pastoral stations across North West Queensland, where diseases such as measles were endemic[13]. Government assistance to the Aboriginal people in the late 19th century was limited to the occasional distribution of blankets and rations, at towns such as Cloncurry and Camooweal[14]. By the late 1880s, pastoralists in North West Queensland had begun to employ Kalkadoon and other Aboriginal people on their stations[15]. Since then, Aboriginal stockmen have continued to play an important role in the North West Queensland cattle industry[16]

In 1923, silver and lead deposits were found at Mount Isa by a prospector named John Campbell Miles. The mining company Mount Isa Mines was formed in 1924 after buying out the claims of the original prospectors[17]. A township developed alongside the mine and, in 1929, a railway line was constructed, connecting Mount Isa with Townsville[18].

In 1897, the Queensland Government passed the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897. Under this Act and subsequent Aboriginal Protection acts, the government appointed local protectors to districts across Queensland. Protectors exercised control over Aboriginal labour and savings accounts and were authorised to remove Aboriginal people to reserves and missions across Queensland[19]. The first Protector of Aboriginals to be based in Mount Isa was appointed on 13 February 1930[20]. Prior to this, Aboriginal people in the greater Mount Isa area had been regulated and controlled by the Cloncurry Protector of Aboriginals[21].

Between the years 1933 and 1967, there were 28 documented removals of Aboriginal people from Mount Isa. The majority of Aboriginal people removed from Mount Isa were admitted to Palm Island, with smaller numbers taken to Woorabinda and Cherbourg. Between the years 1892 and 1968, large numbers of Aboriginal removals also occurred in areas neighbouring Mount Isa, with 208 people removed from Cloncurry, 39 from Camooweal, 5 from Duchess and 4 from Dajarra[22].

During the depression years of the 1930s, there was little economic growth at Mount Isa[23]. With the outbreak of World War Two, Mount Isa became an important depot for the transport of supplies to the Northern Territory. Large numbers of Australian and American servicemen were stationed in the town to work on the construction of the Barkly Highway[24]

In the late 1940s, a mining boom occurred at Mount Isa. Mount Isa Mines became one of the largest mining companies in Australia. The company substantially improved the town’s infrastructure in the 1950s. As a result, Mount Isa grew to become the regional centre for the entire North West Queensland area[25]. In October 1951, an area of about 15 acres located in the Cloncurry Gold and Mineral Field in the county of Rochedale, parish of Haslingden, was officially gazetted as an Aboriginal reserve to be used by Aboriginal people of the Mount Isa district[26].

In 1958, this reserve was cancelled and a new Aboriginal reserve comprising of about four acres, situated on the Mount Isa - Duchess Road in the Parish of Heywood, was officially gazetted[27]. The position of Aboriginal Protector of Mount Isa ceased on 28 April 1966, after the passing of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Act 1965 (Qld). Since then, the Department of Aboriginal and Islander Affairs and succeeding departmental agencies have maintained a regional office in Mount Isa[28]. Other social reforms and changes of the 1960s, including mechanisation, improved transport and communications and changing operating arrangements in the grazing industry, together with payment of social welfare and award wages for Aboriginal people, led to the movement of many Aboriginal people from remote stations into the regional towns of north-west Queensland[29]

By the early 1970s, Aboriginal groups from the Northern Territory, Mornington Island, Boulia and Camooweal were regularly visiting and camping on government reserve land at Mount Isa. The Mount Isa City Council administered two reserve areas named Yallambee and Orana Park, which were the location of Aboriginal camps, containing large numbers of temporary, improvised dwellings. Orana Park housed an estimated population of 150 to 200 people in 1971[30].

A number of social welfare organisations were established in Mount Isa in the 1970s, with the aim of assisting the local Indigenous community. These organisations included the Injilinji Youth Centre and Pre-School (formed in 1972)[31], the Jalanga Co-op Housing Society (formed in April 1975)[32] and the Kalkadoon Aboriginal Sobriety House (formed in 1977/1978)[33]. Housing conditions and facilities gradually improved at the Yallambee and Orana Park reserves, and at a third area named the Wulliberri reserve. During the course of the 1970s and 1980s, mining dormitory buildings were donated to the reserves and new hostels and houses were constructed by the Queensland Government[34]. In 1981, the Yallambee and Orana Park areas were officially gazetted as ‘Reserves for Departmental and official purposes under the corporation of the Department of Aboriginal and Islanders Affairs’[35].

Local government

On 10 February 1914, the Shire of Barkly Tableland, based in Camooweal, was incorporated on an area previously managed by the shires of Burke and Cloncurry. It was spelt ‘Barclay’ until 1919. Between 1923 and 1963 the district was administered by the Cloncurry Shire Council. As a consequence of the growth of Mount Isa as a mining and population centre, an Order in Council dated 15 December 1962 established the Shire of Mount Isa, effective from 1 July 1963. Mount Isa was declared a city on 1 June 1968, and the Mount Isa Shire Council became the Mount Isa City Council.

End notes

  1. Doyle on behalf of the Kalkadoon People #4 v. State of Queensland (No.3), Federal Court No, 1466.  For a discussion on Indigenous groups in Australia see N Tindale, Aboriginal tribes of Australia: their terrain, environmental controls, distribution, limits and proper names (Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1974) 173 ; R E M Armstrong, The Kalkadoons. A Study of an Aboriginal Tribe on the Queensland Frontier (William Brooks & Co., Brisbane, 1980) 40-41.
  2. Armstrong, above n 1, 44-61; S E Pearson, ‘In the Kalkadoon Country, The Habitat and Habits of a Queensland Aboriginal Tribe’ (1949) 4, 2 Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 197-198; Author unknown, ‘The Kalkadoons and their Food’, The Queenslander, 2 November 1895, 839.
  3. Armstrong, above n 1, 61-63; Pearson, above n 2, 202-204.
  4. Pearson, above n 2, 198
  5. Armstrong, above n 1, 72
  6. Armstrong, above n 1, 84-88; C. Lack, Henry, Ernest (1837-1919) (Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2013) at 10 April 2013.
  7. Armstrong, above n 1, 90-94, 116-145; E Furniss, ‘Timeline History and the ANZAC Myth: Settler Narratives of Local History in a Northern Australian Town’ (2001) 71, 4 Oceania, 282.
  8.  Further information about the Native Police is available from: J Richards, Native Police (Queensland Historical Atlas, 2013) at. Comprehensive studies on Native Police detachments have been completed by L.E Skinner, Police of the Pastoral Frontier: Native Police 1848-59 (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1975) and J Richards, The Secret War: A True History of Queensland’s Native Police (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2008).
  9. Author unknown, Title unknown, The Queenslander, 10 February 1883, 205; Author unknown, Title unknown, The Queenslander, 7 April 1883, 548; Queensland State Archives, Justice Department, JUS N91, 83/59 official inquest investigating the death of M. Beresford; D.J. Langdon, ‘A Lonely Place to Die’ (1995) 15, 13 Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 643-648; Armstrong, above n 1, 130-132.
  10. Author unknown, Title unknown, The Queenslander,16 August 1884, 253; Queensland State Archives, Justice Department, JUS N108, 84/415 official inquest investigating the death of James Powell; Armstrong, above n 1, 136-139.
  11. Armstrong, above n 1, 140-145; Pearson, above n 2, 199-200.
  12. Furniss, above n 7, 290.
  13. Armstrong, above n 1, 150-158; Author unknown, Title unknown, Cairns Post, 4 January 1890, 2; Queensland, Annual Report of the Northern Protector of Aboriginals for 1900 (1901) 7.
  14. Queensland, Annual Report of the Northern Protector of Aboriginals for 1899 (1900) 3.
  15. D May, From Bush to Station. Aboriginal Labour in the North Qld Pastoral Industry (James Cook University, Townsville, 1983) 56-57; Armstrong, above n 1, 176.
  16. H Wharton, Cattle Camp. Murrie Drovers and their Stories (University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1994) 1-21, 71-88.
  17. N Kirkman, Mount Isa: Oasis of the Outback (James Cook University, Townsville, 1998) 4-5.
  18. Kirkman, above n 17,17-19.
  19. R Kidd, The Way We Civilise (University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 2005) 47-48.
  20. Queensland, Queensland Government Gazette, Vol.CXXXIV, No.36, 1930, 522; Queensland State Archives, Agency Id 10537, Protector of Aboriginals, Mount Isa.
  21. The first Aboriginal Protector of Cloncurry was appointed in March 1898, see: Queensland, Queensland Government Gazette, Vol.LXIX, No.74, 1898, 902.
  22. Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, Community and Personal Histories Removals Database (access restricted).
  23. D Perkins, Outback Insights, A Social History of North-West Queensland (Mount Isa and District Historical Society, Mount Isa, 1996) 29-31.
  24. Kirkman, above n 17, 73-75.
  25. Kirkman, above n 17, 86-89; P. Memmott, ‘From the Curry to the Weal: Aboriginal Town Camps and Compounds of the Western Back-Blocks’ (1996) 7 Fabrications, 20.
  26. Queensland, Queensland Government Gazette, 6 October 1951, vol.1, 384.
  27. Queensland, Queensland Government Gazette, 18 October 1958, 550.
  28. Queensland State Archives, Agency Id 10537, Protector of Aboriginals, Mount Isa.
  29. L McDonald, West of Matilda, Outback Queensland 1890s-1990 (Central Queensland University Press, Rockhampton, 2001) 67-68; Furniss, above n 7, 282.
  30. Memmott, above n 25, 20-21; Queensland State Archives, SRS 4379, Item Id 1237713, Orana Park 1970-1973, Letter 6/2/1971.
  31. Queensland State Archives, SRS 4379, Item Id 1237656, Wulliberri Hostel File (1985-1989) undated Report on the Injilinji Youth Centre c.1988; Queensland State Archives, SRS 4379, Item Id 1237715, Annual Reports (1975-1978), Annual Report DAIA Mount Isa Regional Office, 1974- 1975, 2.
  32. Queensland State Archives, SRS 4379, Item Id 1237715, Annual Reports, Annual Report DAIA Mount Isa Regional Office, 1974-1975, 3.
  33. Queensland State Archives, SRS 4379, Item Id 1237681, KASH File Pt.2 (1981-1986), Undated Report on the History of DAA Direct Grant Funding to KASH.
  34. Memmott, above n 25, 21; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (Qld), Beyond the Act: Queensland Aborigines and Islanders, what do we want? (Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Action Aboriginal Corporation, Brisbane, 1979) 197; Queensland State Archives, SRS 4379, Item Id 1237715, Annual Reports, Annual Report DAIA Mount Isa Regional Office, 1980.
  35. Queensland, Queensland Government Gazette, 28 June 1980, No.76, 1598-1599; Queensland State Archives, SRS 4379, Item Id 1237714, Orana Park File, Letter 20/10/1981.