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Nature, culture and history

Culture and history

Gold on the Palmer!

News of the discovery of payable alluvial gold on the Palmer River by James Venture Mulligan and six companions on 29 June 1873 spread quickly through the new colony of Queensland. Many would-be diggers flocked to the field in search of their fortunes. Using only simple sluicing pans and ‘cradles’, alluvial miners worked the surface and recovered nearly a million ounces of gold in the first five years.

The site of Cooktown was chosen as the logical port to service the goldfield. Government officials and prospectors hastily blazed a track from Cooktown, reaching Palmerville on 14 November 1873.

Life on the Palmer

The goldfield was harsh and remote. Early diggers had to overcome disease, isolation, lack of supplies, tropical heat, monsoonal rains and floods. Many died of starvation or were shot by ruthless claim-jumpers. Some struck it rich and were ripe for exploitation upon reaching 'civilised' Cooktown. Drunken sprees and enticing prostitutes parted many prospectors from their newfound wealth, forcing them back in search of gold.

Racial conflict

Chinese workers arrived by the shipload. Sponsored by Chinese merchants, each had to repay his debt before prospecting for himself. The Chinese industriously re-worked European sites as the Europeans moved from claim to claim chasing richer finds. As gold reserves diminished, anti-Chinese feelings developed. The government tried to quell European unrest by imposing extra charges and taxes. The Chinese persevered and became the major gold producers on the field.

Life for Aboriginal people who had hunted and fished the area for generations was completely disrupted. Game was killed or driven away, and once clear waterholes turned muddy. The Aboriginal people fought back with spears to defend themselves and their land. Their efforts were no match for gunpowder.

Reefing and decline

The vast majority of the gold that came from the Palmer Goldfields in the first decade was ‘alluvial’ gold, found on the surface in the sediments that had been laid down by watercourses over millennia. There was every hope that large fortunes would also be made from underground ‘reef mining’, if miners could just trace the gold to its source, sink shafts and dig out the ‘reefs’ of gold-bearing rock.

Unfortunately the Palmer reefs were small and the cost of recovering gold from the ore was very high, inflated by the crippling cost of transporting machinery and every other commodity over the long, rough track to the Palmer.

The weather conditions were extreme. In the dry season there was not enough grass for draught animals and in the wet season mine shafts flooded. Money and mining knowledge rarely went hand-in-hand and enthusiastic but inexperienced investors backed a series ventures that ended in failure. Huge amounts of money were spent on the large machinery that you still see today, but it is doubtful if any of these 19th Century reef mining companies ever made a profit.

Financial difficulties in the 1880s spelt the end of the Palmer era. Prospectors left for other fields, particularly the Hodgkinson. Coastal shipping activity now focused on Cairns and Port Douglas, and Cooktown was superseded as the major seaport.

Today

In contrast to the goldfields at Charters Towers and Ravenswood near Townsville in Queensland, the Palmer has been left with no imposing structures or ornate buildings as evidence of its colourful past. However, what remains is a remarkable record of in-tact 19th Century mining machinery, astonishingly costly for the miners of the day and now valuable again to us as an on-site museum. Visitors can enjoy the rich mining and cultural heritage preserved here and help keep Queensland’s heritage intact.

Last updated
19 December 2018