Cairns was a goldfield port. The story of gold in Far North Queensland begins before 1876, though.
It starts with William Hann, an experienced bushman and cattle grazier who was employed by the Queensland government to explore Cape York Peninsula in 1872. He had with him a geologist, Norman Taylor, and they found gold in the sandy bed of the Palmer River.
They didn't find much but it got the attention of James Venture Mulligan. This resourceful prospector had been mining on the Etheridge Goldfield far to the south and was recovering from spear wounds when he heard about Hann's find. He and a party of mates went up to have a look. The riches they found began the Palmer Gold Rush in 1873.
The Palmer attracted thousands of European and Chinese miners. Cooktown was established as the port for the new goldfield. This town is now better known as the place where Captain James Cook repaired his ship the "Endeavour" after it was holed on a coral reef in 1770.
The miners spread out, including James Venture Mulligan. He went prospecting further south and found a new goldfield, the Hodgkinson, in 1876.
The diggers were really excited because they thought the new field would be another Palmer goldfield. The Palmer was ideal for poor miners because it had rich "alluvial" gold - nuggets and specks of gold that could be washed out of the sand in the rivers and creeks.
Instead, the Hodgkinson was a "reefing" field. The gold was locked up in quartz rocks. It had to be dug out with explosives like "black powder" (gunpowder), then loaded on carts to be taken to a crushing mill. The mill would pound the rocks to a fine sand to get out the gold. All of this took time and cost money. The miners arriving on the Hodgkinson were so disappointed that they wanted to lynch J.V. Mulligan.
They soon calmed down, though, and soon busy little towns were growing up around the mines. Thornborough, Kingsborough and Tyrconnel were the early ones. J.V. Mulligan became a respected storekeeper in Thornborough. Like other storekeepers, he would give money and credit in his store to poor miners until they could get their next load of stone crushed and could pay him back.
The new goldfield was too far from Cooktown, so a new port was established: Cairns. The track between Cairns and the goldfield went up the Barron Gorge so you can imagine how steep it was. The noted explorer Christy Palmerston found an easier track down the range to another place on the coast, and Port Douglas was born. This new track was called the Bump Track. Until a railway was built from Cairns to the top of the coastal range, it served a large area of Far North Queensland. It also stole the goldfields trade from Cairns and nearly killed this town.
In the meantime, the Hodgkinson Goldfield was booming. Hard rock miners and business people like butchers, shopkeepers, and hotel keepers set themselves up on the goldfield. Thornborough had a school, church, hospital, court-house and newspaper. It even had a jeweller. The little town of Kingsborough had a population of 1100 and 12 pubs. As the miners spread out and found more gold-bearing rock, new towns sprang up. Watsonsville (not to be confused with Watsonville near Herberton), Stewartown, Northcote, Beaconsfield, Merton, and Glen Mowbray attracted people. They are all now vanished.
The mines were difficult to work and only a few were very rich. Miners went off to other gold rushes. There was a brief revival in the 1890s. This is because there was a big economic depression in the early 1890s. Gold had a fixed price but in economic depressions, the price of everything else falls. This means that gold will buy more things and miners become more interested in it. You can see the same effect in the big depression of the 1930s.
In the 20th century, only a few big mines like the General Grant and the Tyrconnel produced lots of gold. You can visit these mines today by going to the Tyrconnel Historic Gold Mine.
Gold miners were a restless lot. They spread out over the countryside south of the Hodgkinson field, looking for that big strike that would make their fortunes. Some of them found gold quite close to Cairns.
James Venture Mulligan was first on the scene again. In 1875 he found "colours" of gold in the Clohesy River (between Kuranda and Mareeba). "Colours" means that there was a bit of gold in his prospecting dish, but not enough to get excited about. In 1880, though, Daniel Cook found a quartz reef containing gold and a small goldfield was born.
The most important mine on the Clohesy Goldfield was the Waitemata. As you can tell by the Maori name, this was worked by a group of New Zealanders, Norman, Angus and Murdoch Mackenzie. They didn't make a fortune though and moved on.
A battery was built to treat the gold ore. It was run by a waterwheel. These are big wheels which are made to turn around by the force of water, usually in a creek or river. This is unusual in Australian mining, because the continent is so dry. In the high rainfall of the coastal ranges behind Cairns, though, waterwheel batteries were quite common.
A small town grew up near the battery, called Clohesy. It didn't last long as the mining declined after 1898. There is no trace of the town and battery today. Small miners have occasionally tried to re-open the mines but they haven't had much luck.
Another group of mines in the same district was closer to Mareeba. The main mine was the Queen Constance. You can find it up on the hill behind the perlite plant, past the TAFE college. It was a busy area in 1893-1897 and 1914-1916, when batteries were built to treat the gold ore.
In 1879 some of those busy gold prospectors were looking around the creeks and gullies that fed into the Mulgrave River, south of Cairns. They found some gold and Cairns business people gave them money so they could have a proper look. Christy Palmerston, Joss and Toohey found good alluvial gold near Toohey Creek. In a few weeks there were 140 men digging the ground. The Mulgrave Goldfield was declared on 1 July 1880.
It was good news for Cairns. Port Douglas had just been established and was stealing all of the trade away from Cairns. Everyone had high hopes because by 1880 there were lots of quartz reefs found. It was a difficult place for mining, though. The quartz reefs were scattered up a steep ridge and rainforest covered most of the ground. A waterwheel battery called the Pioneer Mill was built in 1885 by the Cairns Crushing Company. Miners lived in two little townships, Top Camp up on the ridge where the battery was, and Lower Camp which was named Fanning Town and later, Goldsborough. A battery was built near Goldsborough, too. By 1886 the field had produced nearly 4000 ounces of gold.
The trouble with an alluvial gold rush is that it's soon over. The 140 miners in 1879 declined to 37 in 1885, not counting the two women and three children. The quartz reefs kept some miners and fossickers busy for a while longer but Goldsborough never became the boom gold field that Cairns had hoped for.
Mt Peter was a small goldfield behind Edmonton. It was found in 1904 by a miner working on a cane farm owned by Peter Peterson, at the foot of the mountain. The farmer's family and the workers mined the area in secret for ten years so they could get the richest gold themselves. Eventually the secret was let out and the rush was on. It was declared an official goldfield in 1915.
This was never a big goldfield. In 1914 two families, the Petersons and the Jorgensens, had most of the mines. Mr Peterson even sold his farm to go mining full-time. More miners came in during the 1930s during the big economic depression and revived the field.
The richest mine was the Talisman, which produced £50,000 worth of gold. This would be worth $1,500,000 today. In the 1930s the gold ore from this mine was sent by tramway and railway all the way to the Venus Battery at Charters Towers to be treated. In fact, in the 1930s and 1940s this far-away mine was the only thing keeping the battery going! You can still visit the Venus Battery in Charters Towers today.
This is really one gold-bearing quartz reef, called the Queenslander Reef. It was found in 1931 and a few small mines were worked. It is on the hill behind Kamerunga and you can still see one of the adits (tunnels) today.
This little field produced tin, wolfram and gold, but the ore was very low grade and it never really received a lot of attention.
Christy Palmerston was at home in the rainforests, and he prospected for gold everywhere he went. In 1887 Palmerston, George Clarke and William Joss found alluvial gold on the Russell River, between Cairns and Innisfail. Other miners discovered that the alluvial gold wasn't just in the present-day creeks. At some stage the landscape had been covered by lava flows and if you dug down through these basalt rocks to the old stream beds, there was gold there too. This kind of gold deposit is known as a "deep lead". In fact these became the best mines on the field. Miners worked small mines on this goldfield for a long time, but it never became a big rush.