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Mount Isa, QLD

Famous silver-lead-zinc mining town known as the 'Oasis of the Outback'.

Mount Isa is the largest township in western Queensland. It is a mining town with an air of self-confidence and vibrancy. Mining is the town's raison d'etre and though it dominates the skyline and the local economy, Mount Isa does not feel like a just another outback mining town. It is a centre with quality accommodation, good restaurants, and enough activities to keep even the most enthusiastic visitor busy for a week. 
Mount Isa proudly claims to be the largest city in the world. The argument is that the city extends for 43,188 square kilometres, and that the road from Mount Isa to Camooweal, a distance of 189 km, is the longest city road in the world.
The attractions in the area are genuinely unusual: it is still possible to go on an underground mining tour; to visit an Underground Hospital created during World War II; to see what Mining/Company Town accommodation was like in the 1930s; and to visit the remarkable Lawn Hill National Park.

Location

Mount Isa is located 1,823 km north-west of Brisbane via Toowoomba and Longreach. It is 904 km west of Townsville, 160 km from the Northern Territory border, and 356 metres above sea level.

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Origin of Name

John Campbell Miles, who found the deposits of silver, lead and zinc which lead to the formation of Mount Isa, named the settlement in 1923 after a Western Australian goldmine at Mount Ida. He never explained why he changed "Ida" to "Isa".

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Things to See and Do

Outback at Isa
This is an excellent, one stop destination which offers the visitor a Visitor Information Centre (for bookings and brochures); the opportunity to book for the Hard Times Mine Tour; an Outback Park; the Isa Experience; the Riversleigh Fossil Centre and a cafe.

Isa Experience
This unusual exhibition explores the essence of Mount Isa - its cultural diversity, its history of mining, its Kalkadoon Aboriginal culture, its daily life through a combination of theatrette presentations, exhibits and an outback park (with a lagoon and waterfall and paths around the lagoon) and the Mount Isa Fish Stocking Group Hatchery.

Hard Times Mine Tour
Mount Isa is one of the few mines in the country where visitors can still take an underground tour. The tour runs seven days a week and can be booked at the Visitor Information Centre. The tour guide is a person who has worked as a miner for most of his life. Visitors are provided with overalls and cap lamps and descend into the mine in the Alimak Cage. On the journey the guide tells the history of mining and the problems faced by those who work deep underground. The tour includes the tunnels which are formed and shaped by drills and mucking units. Visitors see the machinery used and get to operate an air-leg drill and watch the firing of the blast face. The tour organisers advise participants to wear "light, loose clothing - T-shirt and shorts and don't forget to bring a pair of socks. All other clothing and boots will be provided." At the height of the season, tours are often booked out two months in advance. Bookings can be made by phoning (07) 4749 1555 or check out http://www.mietv.com.au/Outback-at-Isa/Hard-Times-Mine.aspx.

Riversleigh Fossil Centre
Located at 19 Marian Street as part of the Outback at Isa experience, the Riversleigh Fossil Centre is designed to educate visitors about the fossils found at the Riversleigh Fossil Fields which lie in Lawn Hill National Park and were once part of Riversleigh Station, located 250 km north of Mount Isa. There is everything from bat's teeth to the bones of a huge flighless ancient bird known as Dromornorthis - the precursor of the emu. The fossil finds have been depicted as dioramas and exhibited to illustrate the discoveries in one of the world's richest fossil fields. The Riversleigh fossils are a window on the development of early mammal megafauna on the Australian continent over the past 30 million years. The Centre is open from 8.30 am - 5.00 pm daily. Check out http://www.mietv.com.au/Outback-at-Isa/Riversleigh-Fossil-Centre.aspx for more information.

Mount Isa Underground Hospital & Museum
Located behind the Mount Isa Hospital in Camooweal Street (drive up Joan Street), the Mount Isa Underground Hospital was built as a response to the threat from the Japanese during 1942. The Queensland Heritage Register explains the historic background: "The Mount Isa Underground Hospital, constructed during March/April 1942 in the grounds of the Mount Isa District Hospital, was built by off duty miners from Mount Isa Mines. The structure was designed by Dr Edward Joseph Ryan, Superintendent of the Mount Isa District Hospital. Construction work was supervised by Wally Onton, Underground Foreman at Mount Isa Mines. The war in the Pacific reached the shores of Australia on the 19th February 1942. Darwin was bombed by aircraft operating from four aircraft carriers in the Timor Sea. Within days Timor fell to the Japanese, the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth sank during the Battle of the Java Sea, while Broome, Derby and Wyndham in Western Australia, and Port Moresby in New Guinea were all bombed by Japanese aircraft.
"The threat to Mount Isa seemed very real because there appeared to be little military opposition left in the north of Australia after the devastation of Darwin and the West Australian towns. The Mount Isa Copper Mine was seen as a strategic resource of great value to the Japanese, being recognised as one of the world's major deposits of copper, lead, zinc and silver. It was believed that like the Japanese controlled tin fields and rubber plantations of Malaya, and the oil fields of Borneo, the Mount Isa Mine was probably a target for invasion forces and air attacks. Reacting to the perceived threat, Dr Edward Ryan decided to take precautions to protect Mount Isa District Hospital from air raids. Dr Edward Ryan contacted Vic Mann, MIM Mine Superintendent, who offered the co-operation of the company and the services of Underground Foreman Wally Onton to supervise the project. The company supplied all the equipment for the work, which was done by Mount Isa miners who volunteered their time. The drilling, blasting and mucking out was mostly done over a two-week period, with the fitting-out taking a few more weeks. The work was done during March-April 1942, during which approximately 100m of tunnel were excavated." For more detailed information check out https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=601102.
The Queensland WWII Historic Places website (http://www.ww2places.qld.gov.au/places/?id=975) notes: "Restoration efforts from 1997 to 2001, based on old photographs, have returned the tunnel to its appearance during 1942. Some of the original furniture has been reinstated from storage elsewhere on the hospital grounds. Visitors to the Beth Anderson Museum can enter the underground hospital from the southern entrance, and exit from the central entrance. The northern entrance remains sealed and unreconstructed." The museum is open from 10.00 am - 2.00 pm daily from April to September. Tel: 0407 514 918.

Tent House
Historically the Tent House in Mount Isa was in Fourth Avenue but in 2014 it was moved. It is now located in the same grounds as the town's museum and Underground Hospital. A statutory declaration at the time of its construction in 1937 explained that it was a "Three-roomed house, walls of galvanised iron and drum roof; roof of galvanised iron, partitions of iron and wood; floor of boards and earth''. The dwelling was valued at £30 and there was also a lavatory and a shed. In 1932 Mount Isa Mines began building this style of low-cost accommodation. Miners had been living in very primitive conditions and J. L. Urquhart, who had gained a substantial interest in the mining company, began to develop Mount Isa as a company town. One of his first acts was to establish reasonable quality low-rent housing. The blinds to keep the heat out and the simple design were a vast improvement on the primitive quarters the miners had been living in. These houses were vital to the growth of Mount Isa. They played a part in making the city more than just an outback mining town.

Lookout
Located on Lookout Road off Hilary Street and offering a panoramic view of Mount Isa, the City Lookout not only allows the visitor to orient themselves but offers excellent photo opportunities. At night the lookout is a popular vantage point as the streetlights and the illumination emanating from the mines give Mount Isa a particularly beautiful appearance. Sunset is also impressive.

Mount Isa School of the Air
Located at 137-143 Abel Smith Parade (to the east of the city centre), the Mount Isa School of the Air opened in 1964 to serve the needs of children in outback properties around far western Queensland. By 2001, 230 students from 120 families were enrolled in the school. The majority of families lived on stations within a 450 km radius of Mount Isa. The average size of classes is 7 (ideally a class is between 5 and 10) and each lesson normally lasts for 30 minutes. There are 5 studios and 5 studio lessons can be conducted simultaneously. It is possible to inspect the school - it is open from 10.00 am - 3.00 pm and tours are held at 10.00 am. Contact the Mount Isa Visitor Information at Outback at Isa, 19 Marian Street, tel: (07) 4749 1555. 

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Other Attractions in the Area

Lake Moondarra
Located 17 km north of the city centre is the Lake Moondarra reservoir - formed by a dam on the Leichhardt River. It provides water from Mount Isa Mines and the city. Constructed between 1956-1958 at a cost of $1.7 million it was financed by Mount Isa Mines. Today it is a popular picnic and recreation destination with a ski jump, pontoons, facilities for water sports, excellent stocks of barramundi and sooty grunter (it is home to the Lake Moondarra Barramundi Fishing Classic).

The Cloncurry-Mount Isa Road
The road from Cloncurry to Mount Isa is hilly and dramatic. The area appears to be similar to the MacDonnell Ranges in central Australia. The reason for this is that, like the MacDonnells, the Selwyn Ranges are extremely ancient. These mountains have been eroded back to their bones, and consequently their bedding erratically twists in a thousand different directions. The people of Mount Isa will tell you that these mountains are the oldest exposed land mass on earth - and you will be inclined to believe them. The Clem Walton Park (on the main highway between Cloncurry and Mount Isa) has a delightful lake with lots of birdlife.

Lawn Hill National Park
Lawn Hill Gorge is located 315 km north of Mount Isa and is one of the wonders of the Gulf Savannah region. There is a true outback magic about Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park. Here, hundreds of kilometres from any towns, is a place of beauty and peacefulness that is overpowering. To canoe up the Lawn Hill gorge, which is edged by cabbage palms, pandanus, eucalypts and water lilies, and then to dive into the clear waters at Indarri Falls, is a reminder of the pristine perfection of this seldom-visited wonderland.
The highlight of Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park is the outstanding, 60 metre high Lawn Hill Gorge which has been occupied by Aborigines for at least 30,000 years. Erosion, caused by a subterranean creek, has created a beautiful oasis of clear, fresh water, red rocks and verdant vegetation. Canoes are available for hire and there are some beautiful swimming spots along the river. 
Situated within the remote north-west highlands of Queensland, the park includes the gorge, sandstone ranges and World Heritage fossils.
Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park lies on ancient sandstone of the Constance Range, between the Barkly Tablelands to the south-west and the black soils of the Gulf Savannah Plains to the east. Lawn Hill Creek and the Gregory and O'Shanassy rivers flow all year round, providing a stark contrast to the dry, parched landscape during the dry season. 

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History

* Prior to European settlement the area was occupied by the Kalkadoon Aborigines. 

* The Kalkadoon Aborigines resisted the arrival of pastoralists in the 1870s and early 1880s.

* Copper was mined in the area from the 1880s.

* Aboriginal resistance ended when native police and white settlers retaliated with a bloody massacre in 1884. 

* A price slump in the price of copper the early 1920s saw the venture collapse. 

* In February 1923 vast silver-lead-zinc deposits were discovered by the prospector John Campbell Miles. 

* Within months after February, 1923 over 500 claims had been lodged in Cloncurry but slowly these claims were amalgamated into two major companies. 

* Mount Isa Mines Ltd was formed in 1924. 

* By the end of 1924 there was a school and some of the land had been surveyed. The local Post Office opened that year.

* By 1925 Mount Isa Mines Ltd had taken over all the leases to the field. 

* Isolation and lack of facilities proved an early problem so Mount Isa Mines began to build a company town with low-rent housing and amenities in 1927. 

* The railway arrived from Townsville in 1929. The Catholic Church was transported from Duchess in that year.

* By 1929 Mount Isa Mines Ltd owned 370 ha in the area.

* The cost of developing the mine in such a remote location proved too much for the original Australian and British shareholders and, in mid-1930, the American Smelting and Refining Company rescued the operation by providing millions of dollars to complete the treatment plant and commence the production of lead. 

* By 1932 the cost of establishing the mine had reached around £4 million. 

* Profits did not occur until 1937. 

* When a particularly large copper deposit was proven to exist in 1942 the Australian government, enduring wartime shortages of the strategic material, encouraged its exploitation. 

* Mount Isa Mines Ltd first dividend was paid in 1947.

* In 1948 Mount Isa Mines Ltd built a swimming pool for the town.

* Copper was the main source of revenue in the 1950s. 

* By 1955 Mount Isa Mines was the largest mining company in the world.

* In 1956 a drive-in cinema opened.

* In 1958 the Leichhardt River was dammed at Lake Moondarra to provide a guaranteed water supply for the town and mine.

* In 1960 an 80-bed Base Hospital was opened. 

* In the early 1960s large sections of Mount Isa's residential area were removed because they were located on useful ore bodies.

* In 1964 the Royal Flying Doctor moved its headquarters from Cloncurry to Mt Isa.

* Major industrial action occurred in 1964-65. The dispute became so heated that the Queensland government actually declared martial law in the town.

* Mount Isa was declared a city in 1968.

* A local Civic Centre was opened in 1974. 

* In 1976 over 40% of the town's workforce worked in mining.

* Today Mount Isa is one of the most highly mechanised and cost efficient mines in the world. It is owned by Glencore.

* Glencore acquired Mount Isa mines in 2013. It now employs 20% of Mount Isa's workforce.

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Visitor Information

Outback at Isa Visitor Centre, 19 Marian Street, tel: (07) 4749 1555.

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Useful Websites

There is a useful local website which can be accessed at http://www.mietv.com.au.

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Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

2 suggestions
  • The story of the town is well told. The mention of the names of some of the early settler families would have been good. The Kennedys, Daltons and few others whose names escape me at the moment but I can still see there faces even though I have not been back home since 1998. I was married there in 1960 at St Joseph’s Catholic Church, went to the school beside the church. Mrs Valerie Parker Kennedy (wife of Raymond Kennedy) has just had a book published here in Qld called “ONE CORNER OF AN ANCIENT COUNTRY”. I am looking forward to reading it. Hubby and I were good friends of the Kennedys

    Patricia Barlow(nee Philp)
  • Arts on Alma gallery/gift shop on Alma Street (open Wednesday and Saturday mornings), selling local art. https://www.facebook.com/ArtsonAlmaInc/

    Jo