The mountain … Mt Mulligan mining disaster, 100 years on

The northern Welsh valleys and far north Queensland in 1921 are the settings for my newly completed adventure for 11-14 year olds. As an author writing historical novels, researching all the elements involved has been a significant and fascinating part of creating this coming-of-age adventure. But being personally connected to that history has been pure gold.

In a world affected by the Covid pandemic, September 19, 2021 will be just another day to most Australians – but not for those who commemorate the tragic event of 100 years ago that gave a far north Queensland coal-mining town its indelible link to workers’ history.

Mt Mulligan township once sat in the shadow of the immense, sandstone monolith west of Cairns. Known to the local Djungan people as Ngarrabullgan, it rises from the Hodgkinson plateau – a formidable landmark with origins in coral seabeds 400 million years ago. It’s impressive enough to be called Queensland’s Uluru.

Ngarrabullgan – part of my life too

At the base of the mountain, a mine entrance once led underground into the ‘black labyrinth’ of tunnels. Mt Mulligan township sprawled over several long streets with two pubs, five stores, a school, an outdoor film theatre, and small wooden houses.

Let me take you back 100 years….

That Monday morning of September 19, 1921 was a day like any other for the 300+ citizens of Mt Mulligan, except influenza had broken out in the weeks before, causing a number of people to be hospitalised, including several miners.

At 8 am in front of the mine entrance, a new cavil of helmeted miners with their lamps, food pails and water bags began work. Among the 75 were two teenage boys who’d joined their fathers underground.

Mt Mulligan school – 1921

At 9.15 am, the Mt Mulligan children assembled near the school stairs for the usual patriotic and devotional duties to flag, God and King. Leading them was head teacher, Neil Smith and teacher’s assistant, Nellie Houston. Nellie, standing to the side was distracted, her gaze wandering towards the mine’s entrance, half a mile away.

At 9.25 am, Nellie gasped and pointed to clouds of black dust and smoke billowing from the mine. Timber beams tumbled in the air like matchsticks; roofing iron tossed as if weightless. Then came the ear-splitting roar of the explosion.

The head teacher ran to the mine, leaving the teacher’s assistant in sole charge of 74 children. Most of their parents were either dead, or grief-stricken, and too distracted to look after children. She took them to the hall and showed them films over and over, for days. Some children tried to sneak out to see what was happening at the mine. Rescue workers were posted to keep them away.

Adelaide-based, social-historian Peter Bell in his seminal and fascinating book about the disaster and aftermath, If Anything, Too Safe, interviewed nine people in the late 1970s who were in Mt Mulligan on the day of the disaster.

Bell described the town’s instinctive response to the explosion… ‘in every coal-town where the sound has been heard: the women and surviving men of the town forgot everything else and in a single collective movement converged on the point where the ropeway entered the mountain face.’ Over the next three days, the badly burned bodies of the miners were brought to the surface.

Peter Bell’s words create powerful images: the area before the mine entrance, coated with fine coal-dust and seared by flame. Grass burns 60 metres from the entrance. A miner  uses his family pet, a caged painted finch to detect escaping gas because they had no caged canaries.

Underground, the body retrieval team volunteers face carbon monoxide poisoning, and the risk of falling rock. In a press photo, an Aboriginal woman walks beside a coffin. She’s thought to be Mrs Hunt who was employed to wash the miners’ clothes and clean the barracks. She recognises many of the dead by their leather boots and belts.

As a novelist, the most poignant image for me is the group of silent women in pale dresses standing on the hillside – wives, mothers and daughters of the newly dead, waiting for news.

Within a few days, the Queensland Government set up a Royal Commission into the Mt Mulligan Disaster – to investigate the cause of the explosion. It was hoped the Commission’s final recommendations would lead to new safety requirements for all Australian mines. The explosion at Mt Mulligan caused Queensland’s highest land-based loss of life, and remains Australia’s third worst mining disaster.

However, as Bell says in his Preface to the 2nd edition, ‘I have become far more critical of the Mt Mulligan Royal Commission, whose members I believe were hand-picked to give the results the government wanted, and I express my loss of faith in the reactive process of improving coal mine safety which continues to the present.’

Since 1921, more than 50 Queensland miners have been killed in five explosions involving coal dust. Bell added that ‘…lessons are learned only very slowly … or considered too costly in implementation by those who make profits from the extraction of coal.’

The mountain. The girl. The story.

Two months ago, I began to re-write a novel I started 13 years ago during a May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust Fellowship residency in Adelaide. What a frustrating first draft that was too with its jumping between three generations, and even the paleogeology of the magnificent monolith called Ngarrabullgan! I put the manuscript out of sight and mind.

But you know when you can’t give up on a story? This was one of them.

Now, my updated novel begins in a small Welsh valley in 1921, and ends in Mt Mulligan, a small coal mining town that used to sprawl below an impressive sandstone monolith in far north Queensland.

Known to the local Djungan people as Ngarrabullgan, the mountain is sacred to the Djungan community, and is part of a their protected National Park.

Mt Mulligan is also the site of Queensland’s worst land-based tragedy, and Australia’s third worst mining accident.

On Monday, September 19, 1921, the Mt Mulligan coal mine beneath Ngarrabullgan exploded. All 75 miners died that day, including two teenage boys who’d gone underground with their fathers.

A quarter of the town’s citizens were gone in an instant in the lethal coal dust explosion.

Ngarrabullgan and the remains of the Mt Mulligan coal mine. Image: Sheryl Gwyther 2009

Ngarrabullgan and Mt Mulligan are part of me too. My uncle, Patrick O’Neill was the last station master at Mt Mulligan in the late 1950s, before the town shut down forever and the rail line ripped up.

When I was a child, we holidayed in the town with my uncle and aunt. I listened to the stories about that tragic day, and the folk myths that came as well.

Forty years later, I finally returned to the ghost town to research my story. Ngarrabullgan’s awesome presence still sent a shiver up my spine.

Back to my pesky EPIC-like nameless manuscript. It jumped between three different decades and three different protagonists. It even dropped back 400 million years ago to describe the monolith, Ngarrabullgan’s origins in an ancient reef. Can you tell I love geology and paleontology?

I told publisher Lisa Berryman about this manuscript two years ago. She said the plot was too complicated and suggested I focus on Lela May Heron, my most interesting character’s story. And to stay in Lela’s era of 1921, not jump all over the decades.

Lisa was right. I loved writing the 1920s era … and Lela May Heron breathed a sigh of relief. At last, I could let this Romani/Welsh mute girl’s story shine. I swear Lisa Berryman is a genius – a story-diviner! Is that a term? Should be.

Two years later, The Memory Keeper has become a very different story. A much better story! It went through ‘the cleansing fires’ – but all good stories are like that to write.

Meryl and Sheryl in 1957

Now … a truly significant date approaches. SEPTEMBER 19, 2021. The 100th year Commemoration of the Mt Mulligan Mining Disaster.

I’ve been asked to write an article about that tragic day and the aftermath for the Queensland Journal of Labour History. Over the next few posts, I’ll share my article’s words and images.

Meanwhile, Ngarrabullgan continues to enthrall all who are wealthy enough to see it these days – the site where the town used to be was bought by a developer.

It’s now a super-luxury eco-resort for millionaires.

My landscape-gene, and my soul cries for Ngarrabullgan.