From its humble beginnings as a network of miners' camps to its transformation into a thriving and diverse community, our mining operations have played a leading role in the cultural and economic evolution of the city of Mount Isa.
Our history is not just a story of struggle and adversity, but also of spirit, camaraderie and success against the odds.
Prospector John Campbell Miles (left) in 1924 with the first staff of Mount Isa Mines Limited; Walter John Davidson, Will Purdy, S Boyce (Mine Manager), and EC Saint-Smith (Superintendent)
In February 1923, John Campbell Miles was travelling across the dry, hot Gulf Savannah not far from the deserted copper fields of Cloncurry, en route to the Northern Territory. Intrigued by what appeared to be mineralised outcrops by the banks of the Leichhardt River, Campbell Miles—armed only with a horse shoeing hammer—hacked off some of the dark coloured, unusually heavy stone and sent the samples off to the Government assayer in Cloncurry. They were found to contain as much as 78 per cent lead-silver. Campbell Miles’s curiosity had paid off. The sometime-prospector had happened upon one of the richest known zinc-lead seams in the world.
Over the next two months, Miles pegged out the “Racecourse” lease in the area surrounding the outcrops, the larger of which he dubbed Mount Isa, laying claim to 42 acres of land that would become one of the most productive single mines in world history.
On 19 January 1924, Mount Isa Mines Ltd was established. It was Australia’s most distant mine from sea port or coal field.
This isolation fostered a strong sense of loyalty and a deep camaraderie among the first settlers of Mount Isa. In sickness or celebration, triumph or tragedy, the people of Mount Isa stood together.
In 1927, Dr George Simpson accompanied a Qantas flight to transport an injured Mount Isa miner to the hospital in Cloncurry. The dramatic rescue illustrated the dangers and struggles faced by the pioneers of the outback who didn’t have sufficient access to medical care, and clearly demonstrated the need for an urgent response medical service that could access these remote regions of the west. This event stands as the catalyst for the establishment of the Australian Inland Mission’s Aerial Medical Service in 1928, now the iconic Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Early miners and one of the “tent town” dwellings, circa 1930
As the population of Mount Isa boomed, the lack of accommodation and basic services became desperate. The Queensland Government was reluctant to invest state funds, questioning the permanency of the new mining town and adopting a “wait and see” policy when the community petitioned for a school building, post office and other essential infrastructure.
Fortunately, Mount Isa Mines stepped into the role of surrogate local authority, succeeding where both the Cloncurry Council and the Queensland Government had failed by securing an excellent water supply for the township by daming the Leichardt River and creating Lake Moondarra; by enticing city doctors to the community and committing funds to the provision of local facilities.
To jump start the stalling progress of the Mount Isa to Duchess railway line—something the mining town so desperately needed—Mount Isa Mines entered into an agreement with the State Government to guarantee against any operating losses incurred during the new railway line’s first decade of operation; a promise worth an astronomical 100,000 pounds. The line was officially opened by the Attorney General for Queensland, John Mullan, on 6 April 1929, and went on to become the most profitable rail line in the state. The freight rates paid by Mount Isa Mines provided the government with the capital required to carry out the much needed repair and maintenance of rail lines across Queensland.
The first steam train rolls into Mount Isa on the newly built Duchess to Isa railway line on 6 April, 1929
The region weathered the Great Depression remarkably well. The mine provided consistent work for a thousand men throughout the 1930s while a quarter of the male population in major cities was plunged into unemployment and poverty. By the late 1940s, workers at Mount Isa Mines could earn up to three times the average wage of men in Brisbane or Melbourne.
During the mine’s early years, the company focused on zinc-lead-silver production with only a brief period of copper production in the 30s and 40s to contribute to the nation’s World War II effort. Parallel production of zinc-lead-silver and copper did not begin until 1953.
An early underground mine drilling crew, circa 1950
The commodity expansion in the early 50s saw another influx of people settling in Mount Isa. Many were post-war immigrants and for them, Mount Isa became a beacon of hope; an opportunity to rebuild a world away from their war-ravaged European homelands. With the pioneering spirit required to make the most of the opportunities the growing mining company presented, these new additions to Mount Isa’s mining fraternity were welcomed with open arms. Their legacy can still be seen in Mount Isa’s rich and culturally diverse community today.
By 1955, Mount Isa Mines had become the largest mining company in Australia. It had weathered technical and financial difficulties and industrial unrest to become Australia’s largest single creator of export income.
Development of copper orebodies and improvements at the company’s Townsville refinery between 1969 and 1974 boosted copper production dramatically. In the following years, many new technologies were developed on site which revolutionised mining and smelting processes all over the world. In the late 90s, close to $1 billion was invested in various projects, including the expansion of the copper smelter and Townsville Refinery.
Glencore acquired Mount Isa Mines in May 2013 and today provides jobs for more than 20 per cent of the total population of the city of Mount Isa. Mount Isa Mines has left an indelible footprint on the region, and we are proud to continue to develop our people and assets to their fullest potential.