Superb historic mining town full of gracious buildings and surrounded by numerous unusual and interesting attractions.
Charters Towers is arguably the most beautiful inland city in Queensland. It may not have the range of domestic architecture that makes Ipswich so distinctive but in terms of public architecture it is unrivalled. Like Kalgoorlie, Cue and Coolgardie in Western Australia it is a city built from the proceeds of goldmining and, as such, the city fathers (a quixotic band of nouveau riche miners) were determined to flaunt their wealth.
Located 130 km south-west of Townsville, 1506 km from Brisbane via Townsville and 310 m above sea-level, Charters Towers lies on gently undulating country 138 km east of the Great Dividing Range. It is about 200 km east of the edge of the vast flat plains which extend across to the Gulf of Carpentaria and into far western Queensland.
There is considerable dispute about the town’s name. One claim is that the prospector Hugh Mosman named the area ‘Charters Tors’ after W.S.E.M. Charters who was the mining warden at Ravenswood. It is true that there are three low-lying hills around the town which could be described as ‘tors’. Whatever the case the name was very short-lived. In the Ravenswood Miner, just a month after gold was discovered in December 1871, the area was referred to as Charters Towers.
The story goes that Mosman and his party, which included George Clarke and James Fraser, made their way to the hills. A young Aboriginal boy whom they called Jupiter, who was accompanying the group, lent down to drink from the local creek while looking for horses that had bolted in a thunderstorm. He saw gold-bearing quartz gleaming below the surface and took it back to his employer who rode to Mosman Ravenswood to register the claim and so the rush was on. Mosman, who was rewarded by the government, adopted Jupiter and educated him in the European manner.
This story, apocryphal or not, is recalled in the Bicentennial Mosman and Jupiter statues which are located in Centenary Park at the corner of Hackett Terrace and Dalrymple Road – the main access roads from Townsville and the Atherton Tablelands.
The discovery of gold led to a gold rush and the establishment of the usual shanty town dwellings in the area. However, shortly afterwards, reef gold was found and the settlement became more permanent. It was around this time that Charters Towers got the nickname ‘The World’.
The rewards from the goldmining activities were huge. In 1878 the Day Dawn Gold Mining Company Ltd was floated with shares of ten shillings. Within a year it had paid a dividend of seven shillings and six pence. The Victory Company was so successful that it virtually repaid its original share price within three months.
During the 1880s and 1890s the town grew and prospered. Hundreds of goldmining companies were floated, the railway arrived in 1882, a miners union was established in 1886 and, in 1893, Andrew Dawson (who went on to become the first Labour premier in the world in 1899 when he became Queensland premier) was elected as the local member. In 1884 ‘Breaker’ Morant married Daisy May O’Dwyer (later Daisy Bates) in Charters Towers. He abandoned his wife shortly afterwards when a number of his cheques were dishonoured. It was during this exuberant and dynamic period that a number of solid Victorian buildings were constructed to reflect the town’s more permanent wealth.
By 1897 the editor of the North Queensland Mining Register could write in his Mining History of Charters Towers:
‘All in 25 years. The well-wooded and comparatively flat basin surrounding the small ridges below the Gap, through which the Pioneers came, has long since been denuded of its trees. Streets of fine shops and residences have sprung up, cold air stores, telephones, electric light, gaslight, electric fans and other adjuncts of up-to-date civilisation are employed, and 20 000 souls now sleep nightly with a radius of four miles of the spot where the prospectors pitched their first camp a little over 25 years ago. The three workers of that time have increased to 4 000 with nearly three quarters of a million pounds worth of machinery to aid in the hunt for gold.’
It was a sign of the extent of local business activity that one of Australia’s few regional stock exchanges was established at Charters Towers in 1890 to raise capital for the area’s deep reef mines. It was connec ted to the world beyond via telegraph. However, The town started to decline in 1912 when the production of gold dropped from a high of 319 572 ounces in 1899 to a mere 96 046. This decline was accompanied by a drop in population from 30 000 in 1899 to 16 000 in 1915. The stock exchange closed in 1916.
In recent times Charters Towers achieved a brush with fame when it became the subject of one of the songs on John Williamson’s hugely successful Warragul album. The Cattleman’s Rest Motel and the local Caltex dealer come in for special praise in the song which is evocative of the town and the area. Also parts of the film The Irishman were filmed in the area.
There are a number of excellent maps and booklets on Charters Towers. The best short overview of the city’s golden days is Charters Towers and its Stock Exchange by Don Roderick and published by the National Trust of Queensland. The Charters Towers Tourist Information Map (produced by the local Development Bureau) and A Guide to Charters Towers and The Dalrymple Shire are available at the Visitor Information Centre at 74 Mosman Street.
A particularly interesting publication is the local Lions Club’s Pocket Encylopaedia of 101 Facts about Charters Towers and Dalrymple Shire which includes such gems as the town once had 92 pubs (this may, in fact, be inaccurate as other sources claim as many as 104 pubs at the peak of the mining boom) and the deepest shaft dug during the gold mining era reached 926.6 m below the surface.