Of Ghosts and Gold

In December 1871, three prospectors—Hugh Mosman, George Clark, John Fraser—and their horse boy, a young Aboriginal named Jupiter, were searching for gold when their horses got spooked in a thunderstorm and bolted. Jupiter, so named for his luminous eyes, was sent to retrieve them, and when he found the horses beside a stream, his eyes probably shone even brighter. There, glinting in the water, was a nugget of alluvial gold. From that moment, the gold rush at what is now Charters Towers, Australia, was on.

Gold Discovery Memorial, Centenary Park
Jupiter’s memorial in the town cemetery

Since Charters Towers is only 134 km from Townsville, Eric and I took a weekend break from boat chores to pay a visit. From our previous road trips, we knew that in 1851 a series of gold rushes in New South Wales and Victoria began to transform Australia as settlers, ex-convicts, and eager immigrants from around the world headed into the hills to find their fortune. Shops, hotels, saloons, and all manner of trades sprang up to supply them. Banks, assay offices, and ore-processing plants handled the gold. Within months of Jupiter’s lucky find, the new town of Charters Towers likewise was booming on what had previously been bushland.

A parking lot mural depicts the early days of Charters Towers

Of course, no one bothered to consult the local Aboriginal people about digging into and displacing them from their land. Nor did anyone pay much heed to the impact on the environment; it was there to be exploited. Charters Towers quickly acquired a newspaper, a hospital, and a stock exchange for the buying and selling of gold shares. A railway link to Townsville was completed in 1882. In the 1890s, the population peaked at about 30,000, making Charters Towers the second largest city in Queensland, after Brisbane. The proud residents called their city “The World,” claiming that anything you desired could be had there with no need to travel elsewhere.

Stock Exchange, 1888. Restaurants and shops now inhabit the Arcade.
The Australian Bank of Commerce, 1891, one of several beautiful banks in town.
Elegant fretwork adorns the Royal Private Hotel, 1888

The boom tapered off after 1899, but some impressive architecture from that era remains. Signage, in the voice of “ghosts”—prominent characters from the town’s past—tells who prospered and who came to a bad end. Brawls and murders made headlines. Love affairs broke hearts. Mining was dangerous work, and for all the settlers, life was hard and often short. The Pioneer Cemetery, in use from 1872-1895, holds over 5,000 graves, most of them unmarked. Some of those that do have headstones record accidents and illnesses as the cause of untimely deaths, and way too many children died, leaving parents to mourn.

For many, the quest for gold ended here.

The men who worked in the ore-processing plants or “batteries” also had hazardous jobs. We toured the Venus Gold Battery, one of the few such plants to survive. It contained 35 thunderous ore-crushing “stampers,” which, if they didn’t injure or kill you would likely have made you deaf. In addition, mercury was a component of the extraction process, though our guide brushed off the effects of constant exposure. Since mercury takes years to accumulate to toxic levels in the body, he said, and since the average life expectancy was age 40, you were far likelier to die of something else first.

Ore-crushing plants like the Venus Battery once dotted the Charters Towers region.
The stampers. No ear plugs or safety gear.

Between 1871-1917, the gold fields around Charters Towers yielded over 200 tonnes (6.6 million troy ounces) of high-grade gold, making it one of the richest fields in Australia. By then, however, gold mining was declining throughout the country. With the easy pickings taken, mines had to be dug ever deeper and became uneconomic. In recent decades, new technology has revived the industry, and Australia today is the world’s second largest producer of gold (China, Russia and the USA are numbers one, three and four). Most of it comes from open-cut mines like the Sarsfield Pit, about an hour’s drive from Charters Towers. Currently dormant, it is expected to reopen in 2024. Environmental and heritage approvals were required.

Sarsfield Pit Gold Mine

Yet the real economic driver in Charters Towers these days is education. The city is home to four boarding high schools to which families from far-flung outback towns send their children. On Saturday morning, we saw chattering groups of them in their school uniforms, spending their allowances in the main street stores. Another mainstay is cattle, white Brahman cattle munching the greenery along the roadside being a pretty sight. Tourists like us also contribute to the economy, and in addition to its gold rush history, Charters Towers possesses a rare and unexpected attraction, the Tors Drive-in Cinema. Opened in 1966, the two-screen theater shows double features, family fare on one screen, retro and classic films on the other. We chose the retro/classics “Moon” and “Gattaca.” Bring on the popcorn!

Old-time fun
We were one of three cars at the retro/classic film screen. Thanks to our friends Dick and Lise for the loan of their car!

Most of all, it’s the personal stories that make the history real, and with that in mind, you might like to know what became of Jupiter and the three prospectors. Hugh Mosman prospered in the gold fields, became a social lion, and served on the Queensland Legislative Council. He died a rich man in Brisbane in 1909, and the main street of Charters Towers is named after him. George Clark led a wandering life as a prospector and died in New Guinea in 1895, speared by natives while searching for gold. John Fraser also was lured to other gold fields and died of dysentery while prospecting west of Cooktown in 1874. Jupiter, who took the surname Mosman, worked in the cattle industry and did occasional prospecting. He was patriarch of the Charters Towers Aboriginal reserve when he died in 1945 at the age of 85. We didn’t spot their ghosts anywhere.

Jupiter Mosman