The ‘Village in the Hills’, Atherton Tableland’s first town, is undergoing renewed vibrancy due to its rich history.

Story By Darryl Cooper

Prospectors John Newell and William Jack could not believe their eyes. In 1880, on the banks of the Wild River in north Queensland, they stood among outcrops of solid lode tin. Until then, only alluvial tin had been found in Australia. They powdered a sample of the heavy black rock and, using a crudely fashioned clay furnace and bellows made of bark and an old felt hat, they smelted the ore to produce a silvery button of tin. Then Newell undertook an epic ride across rough country and flooded rivers to Thornborough to lay claim to the find.
Thus began the Great Northern Mining Company and Herberton – the first town on the Atherton Tableland – was born. The town expanded rapidly and was followed by the establishment of nearby Atherton (1885) and Mareeba (1887). Previously Port Douglas had been the port for the area but the future of Cairns became assured when the tiny settlement was chosen as the rail link for Herberton. As tin mining boomed, communities sprang up at Watsonville, Stannary Hills, Mount Garnet and the centre of entrepreneur John Moffat’s mining empire, Irvinebank.
Tin mining continued in the area until the crash of the 1970s. The 10-stamp crushing battery on the banks of the Wild River was closed down, the mine workings on the hills lay idle and the town went into decline. Surprisingly though, this rich mining history and its unparalleled heritage value in the far north have generated a resurgence of interest in the ‘Village in the Hills’.
The establishment of the Herberton Mining Museum and Visitor Information Centre close to the site of the original discovery of tin has provided a focus for those wishing to experience Herberton’s heritage. There is a short walk that takes visitors past the relics of the Great Northern, complete with its original surface winding machinery, and the 180-metre Eastern Shaft, sunk in 1886. A self-guided historical precinct walk enables visitors to see the heritage-listed buildings of Herberton, some dating back to its founding in 1880.

This story excerpt is from Issue #74

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2011