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Relic Hunting Old Town Sites in Northern Australia

By NQ Explorers


Much of remote Australia is dotted with the remains of “ghost towns”. The majority of these were mining towns, or were on former Cobb & Co coach routes that were bypassed by the growth of the railway network in the mid- to late 19th Century. The term “ghost town” can be a little misleading, as the majority of these locations retain scant physical evidence of their existence. In North Queensland’s “Mining Belt”, for example (which stretches almost 1,000km from the Great Dividing Range in the east to the Northern Territory border in the west), there are few old buildings standing, due to extreme heat, prolonged wet seasons, and the voracious termites.

What physical evidence that does remain includes concrete and brick foundations, mining equipment, and in the larger places, smelter and chimney ruins. The location and history of most of the larger centres are reasonably well documented, but the smaller places can take some finding in the bush.

The first point of reference for researching these places are the old town plans - but these can often be misleading. The reason for this is that most places started out as shanty towns, during gold, tin or copper “rushes”, with diggers living in tents along creek lines and adjacent to processing plants. By the time the Government Surveyors arrived to peg allotments and streets in neat predetermined geometric rows, the pattern of settlement was already well established. Hence some old plans, which looked great in the office of the Surveyor-General in Brisbane with their neat rectangular allotments and straight roads, in no way represent what remains on the ground today. Yet they can still be a helpful guide to the relic and coin hunter. 

This is where the powerful tool of Google Earth comes in, as it is easily possible to overlay the old plans on a Google Earth screen capture - and align the surveyed town allotments with the actual terrain.

But of course it is the field visit which is the most important - we always treat the first visit to a new site as a ‘reconnaissance’ hunt, not expecting any great treasures, but to get the ‘feel’ of the place and the way the town is laid out. The old plans may help to determine where the Government Precinct was located - this usually comprises the Police Station, Post Office, the School and in the larger towns, a Court House.Hotels, shops and places of entertainment such as ‘Billiard Rooms’ and dance halls can often be spread from one end of the town to the other, with no obvious order. Old photographs can be a great help here, as you can often pick out a natural landmark such as a prominent hill in the background to locate the actual spot on the ground today. Abandoned railway stations are a good starting point, as the old rail formations can usually be easily followed.

Several years ago, we planned on visiting a large (by North Queensland standards) ghost town which existed from the late 1880s until the mid-1920s. The town was built around a copper mine and smelter, and boomed during the high copper price period of the First World War, but faded in the ‘20s when post-war copper prices plummeted. The population peaked at around 2,000 and a large smelter with rail access was built to service mines in the area. Most of the smelter was dismantled and removed to a new location following abandonment of the town. The rail line was finally pulled up in the early 1960s.

On our first day out, armed with a comprehensive town survey plan, we travelled to the very remote, semi-arid location confident we could accurately locate the main business centre, 4 or 5 hotel sites, and railway station. The station was the easiest to find - the concrete platform remained insitu. Further south there was a large cemetery (testament to the harsh environment and hazardous working conditions in the smelter). But beyond the station and the cemetery, the layout of the town on the ground bore no resemblance to the Government plan. And as the site was spread over such a large area - several kilometres in fact - it wasn’t until the afternoon of the second day that we discovered the ‘main street’ (discovered by Colleen, of course). This comprised a row of shop and hotel foundations, a church and a town well. The finds started coming in thick and fast once we were more familiar with the layout of the town. But the point here is that a single visit to an old site rarely does it justice. With all the research and energy we all put into finding those new ‘undetected’ sites, making a single visit and ‘giving up’ because the finds were a bit ‘skinny’ makes no sense. Keep going back, and back, and you will discover new landmarks and features on each occasion, and the great relics and old coins and medallions, bottles and memorabilia will come to light.

The old town plans are a great research tool and starting point - but only the field visit and site survey, which may take many days on larger sites, will provide you with the information that will make your relic hunt that much more successful. The main thing is to get out there - go as often as you can and for as long as you can, and you will be rewarded!

Colleen & Warren
NQ Explorers