Day 53 – Friday, 14 June 2024 – Mt Isa

We were going to have a lazy morning but woke up at 8:30am. Our neighbours on one side insist on sitting out under their awning with either the radio or music playing. I am really not a Johnny Cash fan!!!

Russ, as most of us know, has an amazing nose for smells. I think both he and Mum Cox can smell things that I can’t even imagine. So, whilst at Cloncurry he complained about the terrible smell. We checked the fridge out and that was okay. In desperation we decided to put the duo concentrate into the grey water tank and give it a good clean to see if that helped.

When we left Cloncurry, we stopped at the dump point and emptied the grey water tank and Russ said he could no longer smell anything, so life was good. However, when we parked at Mt Isa, he thought he got a whiff of the sulphur smell once again and was annoyed he couldn’t find what was causing the problem.

It wasn’t until we got to the tour of the Mt Isa Underground Hospital that all was explained. The walls and ceiling underground had been built with Gidgee Tree trunks. Gidgee Trees are a type of Acacia and their nickname, when flowering (as it is at this time of the year) is the Stinking Wattle. Problem beyond our means of solving so it can be shelved.

The Gidgee Tree is a very slow grower, but the trunk is incredibly dense. They had a small log on the tour, and it took me two hands to lift and I immediately put it down as quickly as I could safely do so.

Today is not as warm as yesterday was. We were to be onsite at the Underground Hospital and Museum before 10:30am. We were greeted by Natasha at the Reception desk (out on the verandah) who is training to be a volunteer tour guide.

We were told to wander freely around the museum precinct of the house while we waited for everyone to arrive including our tour guide who, when she arrived, introduced herself as Susie Talks-a-lot. Her real name is Susanah but she didn’t provide a surname.

The tour was very informative and most unusual.

In 1942 during the early years of the Japanese advance, and after the bombing of Darwin Hospital, the Mt Isa Medical Superintendent, Dr Ryan, discussed with Vic Mann, who was the Superintendent of Mines, the need for an available air raid shelter for patients as Mt Isa was considered to be a prime target for Japanese bombing.

With assistance from Mt Isa Mines supplying materials and volunteers under Wally Onton this group worked tirelessly to create an E shaped structure into the hill and fitted out as a full emergency hospital.

It took the volunteers, many of whom were on their own spare time, two weeks of back-breaking work with dynamite and shovels to build the tunnel, and a further four weeks to put in the supports and roofing of timber. The floor was crushed rock.

As history would have it, there was no need to use the facility for this purpose, although during the war emergency drills were carried out regularly when the Nurses would move patients into the underground hospital whatever way was possible.

Those patients who were unable to be moved the 100 yards along a cut bush path uphill were placed under beds and tables with a mattress placed over the top of the furniture where they lay.

After the war, and before air conditioning was available the night nurses would use the beds in the tunnel for rest as the area was cool and dark.

The entrances to the underground hospital were covered in, and a manhole was placed on the top of the hill where the air shafts were situated. Over time real life impacted most people and its existence was mainly forgotten.

It wasn’t until the new hospital was being built next door to the old one that the tunnels were once again found after the excavation for foundations caused a collapse at the entrance to one of the tunnels.

In the tour itself we were seated on the long benches inside the hospital and were watching a short video. It was masterfully done. They had a young woman dressed as one of the nurses from that time period and she told the story of the hospital from the point of view of the war years.

They incorporated two boys who supposedly found the manhole over the air shaft and climbed down the ladder. They found everything of the emergency hospital still there in cupboards, and all the furniture – beds, bassinets, bed pans, crockery with the Queensland Hospitals emblem on them, and medicines and medical equipment.

According to this story they had a wonderful time using it as their own secret cubbyhouse, until a fire they lit got out of control and caused lots of smoke to billow lout the air shafts. This meant that the residents of Mt Isa, along with the fire department, all converged on the location to make this incredible discovery.

It sounded absolutely great while the video ran. I think, somehow, that it has been added to for the tourists as no where could I find any history of this nature in the official line.

What is mentioned is that in 1997, after the discovery during construction, the people of Mt Isa banded together and decided that it should be historically catalogued before it was restored. The University of Queensland sent a party to the Isa, and everything found was catalogued. Many of the items are now in the Museum itself, but they left the furniture and some of the catalogued items in the underground hospital for the tour.

When the restoration was being discussed it was found that there were no plans or details on record so old photos were used to restore the original structure which had been struck by vandals on numerous occasions, and the water and foam used in the fighting of the fires had also caused problems with the old timbers.

Once again Mt Isa Mines provided materials, and volunteers set out to complete the work needed.

The northern leg of the E which was the area impacted by the new hospital construction was not restored, only made safe. However, it can still be viewed from the long end of the E during the tour visit.

Mt Isa’s name is attributed to John Campbell Miles, who discovered deposits of silver lead ore in 1923. He named one of his leases after his sister, Isabelle.

After the Underground Hospital was finished, we were encouraged to go and visit the Tent House which is adjoined to the Museum site. The Fairweather Tent House was donated to the Mt Isa Underground Hospital and Museum in 1977. It was relocated to its present site in 2014.

On the way back to the Museum we walked beside Natasha of the guide trainee variety who asked about my hair. She was interested in the two-colour scheme and was wondering if it might be possible for her to do something similar. Her hair (possibly Islander and early twenties, at a guess) is down past her shoulders and is in braids, coloured green (because she can) and she told me it took four hours with two people doing the braiding for her hairdo. Some people are devoted.

Everything in Mt Isa in the early years (and possibly still today) centres around the Mt Isa Mine.

The history of the hospital and tent houses are also much of the mines’ history.

In 1929(six years after the mine was leased) land was granted in Mt Isa for a hospital. It consisted then of a two-room galvanised iron hut and had been transported to Mt Isa from Duchess.

One room was the living quarters for the doctor, and the other was used as consulting room and surgery.

This hospital was made by joining canvas over wooden beams (photo) and there were six tents used as wards. Each tent has two canvas stretchers. The conditions were not ideal but well utilised for ten weeks.

Mt Isa Mines Ltd offered the house, formerly used by a Geologist, as a public hospital. It was located at the north end of the mine – Mt Isa city grew up around the mine itself.

The offer was accepted and on 6 September 1929, and patients and staff were transferred to this building. It had free lighting, water, free repairs, a septic tank and solar hot water. This building is now the Museum attached to the Underground Hospital.

Employees at the mine contributed 1/- (one shilling = 10 cents) per week towards the maintenance of the hospital.

A permanent hospital was found, and it was purchased for 400 pounds. It was the Hampden District Hospital and available after the Hampden Cloncurry company at Kuridala ceased to exist in 1928 and people left the area. This township was located 65 kilometres south of Cloncurry. Today, only 500 plus people still live there.

The building was disassembled by removing the roof, with partitions removed in sections and the floor was cut into three parts. It was the re-assembled at the Hospital Reserve in Camooweal Street in Mt Isa.

The dis-assembled parts were carted to Selwyn siding and railed to Mt Isa. The labourers involved in the transportation of the building made five trips to and from the two towns – each return trip being twelve hours.

It was finally established and running in Mt Isa by September 1931. The screened verandas provided wards. Other buildings from Kuridala were brought and set up as an isolation block and quarters for Nurses and Sisters.

The Tent House were originally long narrow buildings with canvas walls and roof. Over time iron roofs were erected and supported by a light-weight timber frame. The air space between the canvas roof and iron roof material assisted in keeping the tent’s interior cool, as well as providing protection against the weather.

These houses were the first accommodations for the early mine workers. Solid board or ripple iron walls were often added (and later incorporated into their design) as a dust control measure.

The tent house is an excellent example of the innovative use of materials to suit extremes of climate in an isolated locale.

A total of 179 tent houses were built by the Mt Isa Mine company between 1932 and 1952. Many families were born and grew up in these buildings.

Most of the tent houses were demolished by the early 1960s and had been replaced with more modern buildings. A number of the houses were built privately on the ‘town’ side (as opposed to the mine side) where the original houses were located).

The population growth of Mt Isa was rapid from 1926 to 1930 and this caused acute housing shortages. In 1929 there were hundreds of tents housing railway and construction workers sprawled between the town and the mine. Often huts had walls made from beaten out chemical drums from the mill, ant bed floors and corrugated iron roofs.

Ant bed floors were made from termite mounds of clay and termite saliva, which, when mixed with water, created a durable floor in tropical climates.

The settlement of Mt Isa Mines was built by the company on its leases for its own men and was a planned and self-contained town which was approachable through a valley guarded by a gate keeper.

Leslie Urquhart was the creator of the company town. His policy sprang from his experiences in Russia, and he realised that, in a region with a harsh climate and a reputation for industrial unrest, The employee’s welfare was an essential investment.

This policy of providing extensive accommodation for employees was regarded as an interesting experiment. It was not the norm for 1929. By the middle of that year, 50 cottages for workmen and seven staff had been completed, along with a reticulated water supply and septic tank installation. (Water reticulation systems are water distribution networks which have to be collected and then treated before it is distributed to the consumer.)

A self-contained staff house with 21 bedrooms, reading and dining rooms had also been completed. Five dormitories each to accommodate 40 single men, and a mess hall to serve them were in the course of erection but owing to a rapid increase of work at the mines, temporary accommodation capable of housing 400 men was erected.

The growth of the community continued to present problems for company management during the years between the World Wars as there was difficulty financing housing developments.

The 1934 Director’s Report commented; “A portion of the community consists of 600 tents which were erected in 1930. These were in a bad state of repair and after representations by the employees in this section, the company agreed to furnish the material for converting these to temporary houses. The employees, co-operating among themselves, furnished the labour”.

Mt Isa Mines is a mixture of open cut and underground mining methods. The Cooper Mine is over 1980 metres deep. Mt Isa Mines has four mine sites in the region and provides work for over 3,200 employees.

After the Tour we went back to Woolworths and picked up some groceries. We took them back to the van and had a cuppa. Then we tootled off to the Hairdresser so I could have a haircut – thank goodness. The cut is fine (Russ had to take a bit off the left-hand side that was too long, but otherwise the curls are still there.

However, I reckon if you put Caitlin (my hairdresser) into a room with Jeannie, Stefanie, Janelle, Mum and me, I still think we would find it hard to get in a word edgewise. Man, that girl could talk. And Russ was happy to chat with her. She would stand with strands of my hair in her hand and would gesticulate with the hand holding the scissors. I felt like say – cut the damn thing and get on with it. I am never taking Russ with me to the hairdressers again. I do have to say that she knew how to cut curls, which is sometimes a lost art for some hairdressers.

When that was finally finished, we headed out to Harvey Norman to buy a Lens Cleaning Kit as my lens keeps getting specs of dust on it. I believe this might be because my camera doesn’t have a mirror which stops the dust in other types of cameras.