“Go down to the village and tell your dear friends; as sure as the bright stars do shine; there’s somethin’ that’s goin’ to happen today; oh, daddy, don’t go to the mine.”
Marty Robbins, Dream of the Miner’s Child
OVERLOOKING the Hodgkinson River in Far North Queensland, Mount Mulligan is a natural spectacle, with miles of vertical sandstone cliffs bordering a deeply cut valley. However, it is best known as the site of Queensland’s worst-ever mining disaster.
When coal was discovered at Mount Mulligan in 1907, the region’s existing metal miners saw the potential for cutting costs by using locally produced coking coal.
The Irvinebank Mining Company, in need of coal for its tramway, locomotives, smelters and batteries, took up 100 acres and began an exploration program.
In 1910, copper miner Chillagoe Company bought the leases from Irvinebank to fuel its copper smelter and processing facilities. After a period of exploration and political manoeuvring, Chillagoe began developing Mount Mulligan into a coal mine. A railway was completed in 1914, and the mine entered into large-scale production in 1915.
With the onset of the First World War, coal produced at the site was largely used to transport goods abroad on the Cairns district railway.
“An unfamiliar environment is confusing in any circumstances, but in the black labyrinth of a coalmine, a change of scene induces a fumbling period of disorientation even among veteran miners.”
The morning of 19 September 1921 was the beginning of a new cavil at Mount Mulligan – a mining practice intended to equalise opportunities for workers to improve their earnings. As Mount Mulligan miners were paid according to the weight of coal they produced, the varying working conditions around the mine could affect an individual’s income. This rotation structure, which occurred four times per year, allowed miners to ‘cavil’ or ballot for their locations in the mine.
In his book Alas it Seems Cruel: The Mount Mulligan Coal Mine Disaster of 1921, author and historian Peter Bell argued this confusion was a contributing factor to the severity of the disaster.
“There is usually an abandoned mess to clean up in the new area, since the previous occupants’ last day’s work has rarely been conscientiously completed,” he wrote.
“An unfamiliar environment is confusing in any circumstances, but in the black labyrinth of a coalmine a change of scene induces a fumbling period of disorientation even among veteran miners.
“Confusion is exacerbated, too, by the absence of men from the cavil or from the first working day. Mount Mulligan had a reputation as a difficult mine because of its relatively thin, shotty coal seams and its isolation, and the end of a cavil was a likely time for restless miners to seek more congenial conditions in the south, with or without informing the management.
“An influenza epidemic was affecting Mount Mulligan in 1921, and a number of miners were at home or hospitalized in Mareeba, thus contributing further to the uncertainty of the new cavil.”
At 9:25am, the children of Mount Mulligan School gathered for their morning assembly. Witnesses reported seeing an eruption of black dust at the foot of the mountain, including “pieces of timber and sheets of roofing iron, tumbling end over end high in the air”. The eruption was followed by a violent explosion, which allegedly reverberated across the landscape; townships up to 60km away reported hearing the blast.
“The violence of the explosion was manifest in the surroundings,” Peter Bell wrote.
“Heavy black smoke rolled from the mine’s two openings. The steel winding drums, 2t in weight which had worked the old haulage system, had been blasted from their timber framework above the mine entrance, and lay 20m down the ropeway.
“A mound of stone, earth and broken timber blocked the mouth of the adit, and it appeared that a massive collapse had occurred in the mine. The fan had been ejected from its shattered concrete housing and lay twisted among the trees, 40m in front of the ventilating tunnel.
“The whole area before the mine entrance had been coated with fine coal-dust and seared by flame – grass was burning 60m from the entrance.”
The mine’s general manager Mr Watson, who had been inspecting the work of the bricklayers on the cokeworks foundations at the time of the explosion, and reached the mine entrance before the crowd gathered around it. He reportedly told the gathering crowd, “You’d better all go home. I hold out no hope for any man”.
In the hours following the disaster, telegraph lines became overloaded with messages to police, mines, medical and company officials, relaying accounts of the explosion. One of the first messages received outside Mount Mulligan was from the stationmaster to the Cairns traffic manager.
“Explosion throughout the whole of the mine, presumably caused by gas,” the stationmaster said.
“The mine is wrecked, and there is much debris to clear before any entry can be affected. About 100 men in the mine are entombed, and there is little hope of their recovery alive. One body has been recovered. Two persons are injured seriously, and are unconscious.”
Rescue efforts occurred quickly but were largely hindered by the heavy carbon monoxide concentrations within the mine shaft. By 5am the following day, the mine atmosphere was considered safe for the entry of rescue workers, however, and a systematic search of the mine began. That evening, 22 bodies had been removed from the mine.
The 74th man was removed on Friday morning, and although the search continued, the final remaining body within the mine was never found. The final death toll left 40 widows and 83 fatherless children.
The mine remained closed for a year and reopened in 1923 when it was bought by the Queensland Government. The site achieved further notoriety in its subsequent operations, as an unprofitable enterprise central to a political corruption case, dubbed the ‘Mungana scandal’ – which related to the distribution of disaster relief funds, among other accusations.
Mount Mulligan coal mine remained open until 1957, supplying the local railway. Following the mine’s closure, the town was closed and residents moved to the nearby town of Collinsville.