Monday, April 7, 2014

Special Collections Fossickings 34: Death comes to the mountain


Mount Mulligan Cricket Club 1921, before the explosion.  Most of those in the picture were not miners.  Publications Album, NQ Photographic Collection, ID 3196.
September 19th 1921 was a Monday, the first day of the school and working week. In one small mining community in far north Queensland it had been a hot weekend. The Sunday cricket match had been called off but, as the town cooled down in the evening under the towering cliffs of Ngarrabullgan, an impromptu party developed.  Hotels provided refreshments and, while children were no doubt packed off to bed earlier, men and women sang and danced until midnight.  Such an event would have been common in this neighbourly town where residents relied largely on each other for social needs and entertainment. Concerts, parties and sporting events were all popular. The 70-odd school-aged children doubtless added their own lively energy to the community even if they were bursting out of their tiny school.
Mount Mulligan miner's cottage 1920, overshadowed by the mountain.  Publications Album, NQ Photographic Collection, ID 3202.
Ngarrabullgan is its Aboriginal name but the Europeans had named the massive table-top mountain for explorer and prospector James Venture Mulligan, who had first camped on the nearby Hodgkinson River fifty years earlier. The first settlers had come for gold, but it was coal that gave rise to this little town, which shared the mountain’s European name: Mount Mulligan.
Harris Street with shops 1921.  Publications Album, NQ Photographic Collection, ID 3195.
On that September morning the children were gathered outside the school for parade when a cloud of black dust rising from the foot of the mountain caught the attention of teacher Nellie Hourston, and the booms of two explosions filled the air. For those racing in horror to the pithead the news was grim, the mining superintendent warning them “no man is alive in there.”  Despite exhausting and exhaustive rescue attempts all but two of the 75 miners who had gone underground that morning were killed where they worked; the only two to be brought out alive also died. It remains Queensland’s worst mining disaster and the third most devastating in Australian history.
Teachers and older pupils at Mount Mulligan school in August 1921.  A month later many of these children would lose their fathers in the disaster.  Publications Album, NQ Photographic Collection, ID 3200.
For historian Peter Bell, who made the mine disaster the subject of his 1977 honours thesis, Mount Mulligan has held a life-long interest. The third edition of his book on the subject has recently arrived in Special Collections. Long-time resident Mary Wardle, who lived through Mount Mulligan’s good and bad times and contributed significant contemporary accounts and photographs to various  histories of the township, will be the subject of the next edition of Fossickings.

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