Shadows of Mt Mulligan

This is a cut down version of my story that was originally published in 4WD Touring Australia magazine. The full story can be found in Issue 35. Back Issues are available from

“There’s something that’s going to happen today, Daddy, don’t go down the mine…”

According to some sources, the ‘Song of The Miner’s Child’ was one of the songs sung at the last Sunday dance in Mt Mulligan before 75 miners started their final ever shift.

On the morning of September 21st, 1921, school commenced like any other day with the children lined up side by side at parade.  But their lives were irrevocably changed forever that day when a massive explosion rocked the town, their fathers and brothers dying side by side beneath their feet.

There were no survivors. Up until that point in time, Mount Mulligan had not formally established a cemetery. That soon changed…..

Mt Mulligan Cemetery

Sacred to the local Djungan Aboriginal People as the birthplace of the rainbow serpent,  Ngarrabullgan is home to the oldest known Aboriginal sites discovered in Queensland.  The 18km long sandstone and conglomerate tabletop mountain became known to the Europeans as Mount Mulligan.

Dam near the camping area
View of the mountain

Under the imposing shadow of Mount Mulligan, a small town grew around the coal mine, established in 1910. A  government geologist originally ridiculed the idea that there was coal here, but a landslide two years later exposed three seams of coal.

The primary purpose of the mine was to provide cheaper coal to fire the smelters servicing the many gold mines in the surrounding Hodgkinson Gold fields,  as well as the tin mining operations further south at Irvinebank.  Up until this point in time, all coal had to be brought in from the south.

Road to the entrance
Mine Entrance is now blocked

Regarded as a safe, gas-free mine, Mt Mulligan miners even still used carbide lamps. But as it turned out, the most dangerous element was the coal dust.

The Royal Commission determined the cause of the disaster to be a coal dust explosion started by an attempt to break up a large machine cut block of coal. It appears a plaster shot prematurely exploded on top the block of coal, rather than in a shot hole. This detonation may have been due to a partial roof collapse or defective fuse.  Other contributing factors included the lack of watering of the walls & floor,  ventilation fan not working at full speed, and a careless practice of storing detonators in the same boxes as the explosives at the coal face.

The rescue team braved roof falls to recover all 75 bodies.

Seven miners were fortunate to be off sick, either at home or in hospital, but spare a thought for the unfortunate Sam McColm. After being off sick for weeks, he decided to return to work on this fateful day, despite still feeling unwell.

As one wanders through the cemetery, one can imagine the impact of such a disaster on the tiny community of around 300 people.  Many of the widows & their families remained in town, despite being offered free rail travel anywhere in the state if they wished to relocate.

The mine resumed operations four months after the disaster, but the mining was eventually scaled back as surrounding gold smelters were closed.

The Chillagoe Company sold the mine off to the government in 1923, and it battled for a while, unprofitably supplying coal for railway locomotives until it was finally closed in 1957.

Many of the houses were relocated elsewhere, leaving nothing but stumps and reminders of another life.

Abandoned backyard
Remaining structures
Found these left near the site around the anniversary of the disaster. An unofficial memorial of those who never came home perhaps?


Like many significant events, a mix of fact and fiction melds into legend. There are many rumours and stories about Mount Mulligan.

One of the most interesting is the Aboriginal belief that the spirit of the mountain, an evil presence known as Iku, was unhappy with the white men interefering with the mountain. Iku was reportedly seen sitting in the trees around the mine days before the disaster.

There have also been stories of ‘Morgan’s Ghost’ haunting the mine over the years, particularly amongst the new miners at Mt Mulligan. Edward Morgan was attributed some blame for the disaster by the Royal Commission, although some consider that there was insufficient evidence of this, Morgan was used as a scapegoat

Fantastic place to explore



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