Tyrconnell – Of Reefs and Riches

This is the extended version of my story that was originally published in 4WD Touring Australia magazine. The abridged version can be found in Issue 35. Back Issues are available from http://4wdtouringaustralia.com.au/

Just down the road from Mount Mulligan on the road from Dimbulah, you’ll find the wonderfully preserved Tyrconnell mine.  During the heady days of the gold rushes of the turn of the century, Tyrconnell was the richest mine in the Hodgkinson goldfields.

Headframe over the main shaft

The Hodgkinson goldfields were discovered by James Venture Mulligan in 1876. Mulligan was an Irish explorer and prospector who tried unsuccessfully to join the Burke & Wills expedition in 1860 before opening a butcher shop on the NSW goldfields.  But it wasn’t long before he joined the gold rush at various locations in Queensland.

Mulligan led expeditions looking for gold throughout Far North Queensland.   Ever the adventurer, Mulligan once wrote “To me it is great pleasure to traverse new country where no white man has trod before. Every step discloses new scenes and new discoveries. “

After establishing the Palmer goldfields, which saw thousands of hopefuls leave their jobs and head north to strike it rich, he moved further south, and discovered the Hodgkinson goldfields. Initially looking for alluvial gold, the small amount of gold they found near the future site of Thornborough wasn’t enough to get his attention, so passed by and didn’t return for eighteen months

The mighty Mount Mulligan was named after James Mulligan as they traversed this country. Mulligan was apparently not entirely comfortable with that honour, as he preferred to avoid publicity.

Upon his return to the Hodgkinson goldfields in late 1875, Mulligan and his party discovered some payable alluvial gold but the bulk of the gold was found in the many quartz reefs.  According to the Northern Herald in a story written in 1939, the Hodgkinson field had 4400 known lines of reef and 87 different mines.



Unlike the rich alluvial gold deposits in the Palmer fields that supported thousands of small scale miners, the reef gold of the Hodgkinson fields required larger scale operations – underground mines, large machinery to crush the quartz rock, & a ready supply of fuel. This disappointed many miners who travelled here. They blamed Mulligan for the false hope they had placed in the latest gold rush announcement.  Despite this, the Hodginskon fields gave up over 1 million pounds worth of gold, and was home to over 10,000 people.

A few became rich, many made a living out of it, while others did it tough. Some interesting stories can be found in the newspapers of the day about people and places.

Stories like old Chinaman Ah Sam, who was ill, short of money, and wanting to return to his homeland to die. The community had started to collect some money to send him on his way, when the stubborn old bloke made one last trip around the gullies ….and found a nugget worth 100 pounds – more than enough for his final journey.

A strange ailment was observed at Kingsborough. Those who drunk from particular wells that pierced layers of black slate came down with what they called the “Kingsboro’ Flash” a condition where their head, feet & hands swell.  In hindsight, those at Kinsgborough who ignored the Northern Engineer’s visit advising a dam should be built in lieu of relying on wells, perhaps were regretting their poor decision.

Life wasn’t all hard work though on the goldfields. An amusing account of a cricket match held between the Mt Mulligan team and the combined Thornborough/Tyrconnell on the Mt Mulligan Cricket field was written in The Northern Herald 9th November 1917.  With creative descriptions drawn from World War One, the author noted that liquid fire and poison gas were not permitted to be used during the skirmish. When hostilities ended, Mt Mulligan had won by an innings and 24 runs, thanks to the Thornborough/Tyrconnell team collapsing in the afternoon heat with only 20 runs after a devastating 5 for 7 bowling attack by a Mr F. Richards .

The roads were so rough in those days, they even fitted shoes to the bullock teams, not just the horses. Quite a feat when you consider  that some of the bullock teams required to move the large machinery for the stampers were up to 60 animals in size.

Stamp Battery building

Reef gold is extracted by crushing the quartz in the stamp battery until it is fine. The gold is then extracted via a process using either mercury or cyanide, both of which are particularly unhealthy.

Tyrconnell’s first battery was erected in 1876, an expensive 10 head stamp battery and crushing began in 1877. However the mine had issues with water flooding, and proved unproductive, with the bank closing it down in 1888.

Sold in 1897, a new owner saw fit to work a new shaft which yielded a larger amount of gold. A new head frame and battery saw the mine continue and expand production. By 1918, Tyrconnell had a 20 head battery.

Inside the battery shed

The towns of Thornborough & Kingsborough were thriving. Between them they had thirteen general stores and twenty pubs.

James Mulligan himself settled at Thornborough, operating a store for a while before returned to prospecting. He discovered Queensland’s first silver and lead deposit down near Irvinebank.  Married in 1903, he unfortunately met his end at Mt Molloy in 1907 from injuries sustained protecting a woman from a violent drunk.  In life and death, his name was held in utmost respect as a true leader and a gentlemen, a man whose boundless energy and drive opened up the development of Far North Queensland.

His obituary in the Cairns Post 27th August 1907 read “The sad news of the death of Mr. James Venture Mulligan, than whom no man better knew, or was known on the mining fields of North Queensland will be received with regret in every camp from Cape York to Gympie, for no man did more to open up the country, and no man was more universally respected”

Tyrconnell was in operation until World War Two. After Darwin was bombed, and Japanese bombers were seen flying overhead, the mine was mothballed for fear of becoming a target.

The mine was re-opened in the 1960’s, and then in the 1980’s, but eventually closed for good.

1997 saw the mine converted to a tourist operation, and the previous owners painstakingly restored the mine somewhere closer to its former glory.

Mine Manager’s House

These days, you can step back in time and wander through the mine workings and machinery.

Much of the machinery is still intact, including a full working battery, air compressor, and shaking table.  This is unusual for mines of this vintage as most equipment was dragged off to the next mine. It’s sporadic operation over many years seems to have kept the machinery scavengers at bay.

If you time it right, you can do the full tour and see the machinery in operation. Accommodation options include cabins and camping is also available here, with some of the fanciest outback camping amenities blocks we have seen.

Top of the stamper

If you want to poke around some more, the road past Tyrconnell takes you to the Kinsgborough cemetery, which was quite overgrown when we were there.

Kingsborough cemetery

The Hodgkinson gold fields is a great place to explore. Chat to the locals to find out where to go. Dimbulah has an information centre at the old railway station that can set you on your way.

Tyrconnell Mine is less than three hours drive from Cairns, so is a perfect weekender for locals. The road past Tyrconnell and Mt Mulligan continues north to meet the Mulligan highway west of Mt Carbine, making it a fascinating side-track on your Cape trip

Rail line to Dimbulah



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