Ernest Henry’s town on the river

TOWN FOUNDER: Englishman Ernest Henry has bridges named after him in Cloncurry and Hughenden, not to mention one of the biggest mines in the Cloncurry region.

TOWN FOUNDER: Englishman Ernest Henry has bridges named after him in Cloncurry and Hughenden, not to mention one of the biggest mines in the Cloncurry region.

The word Mitakoodi means river people and for countless generations these people settled on the Cloncurry River.

They were famous for their basalt axe quarries which supplied high quality stone axes to many language groups throughout Australia via the trading routes along the Channel Country.

The river got a new name when the Burke and Wills expedition came through on its ill-fated expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Irish expedition leader Robert O’Hara Burke named the river Cloncurry for his cousin, Lady Elizabeth Cloncurry of County Galway.

When the expedition went missing in 1861, explorers and settlers fanned out wide areas in their wake.

In 1863 an Englishman named Ernest Henry came wandering through excited by the reports of good prospects in the Lower Gulf.

He took up country on the Flinders River he called Hughenden after his mother’s birthplace in England but he was wiped out by the bad seasons and pastoral depression of the 1860s and decided to head further west.

Henry originally came to Australia for the gold and though he now was looking for grazing country, he had not lost his eye for minerals.

He found land on the Cloncurry River he called Fort Constantine because it reminded him of a Russian fort of that name and he later brought settler Roger Sheaffe out to persuade him to take up the country.

There they found a heavy black mineral they could not identify which they took to Rockhampton. It proved to be specular iron, which was dismissed as useless too far from the nearest port.

Undaunted Henry and his Aboriginal companion Dick returned to the Cloncurry River  and on May 20, 1867 they found tell-tale green stained rocks which he chipped and saw the red oxide and veins of native copper.

Ever the optimist Henry named the mother lode the Great Australia Mine.

Henry built a home for himself and his wife of timber, bark walls and a thatched grass roof. It was the first building in Cloncurry.

Sheaffe soon joined them with his own cattle run near Fort Constantine.

Henry kept scanning the hills for copper and found the Crusader and Dobbyn mines on the Leichhardt River.

He took his copper to the new port of Normanton but it cost three times as much to drag it by bullock from the mine as it did to subsequently ship it to Liverpool.

The Henrys and Sheaffes were soon joined by others who came for a short-lived gold rush in 1872.

Henry erected a store to cater for their needs and George Seymour built the first pub, the Copper Mine Hotel.

In 1876 surveyor William H Bishop mapped out a township near the mine and named it for the Cloncurry River.

The gold rush had ended and the copper finds were sporadic but Henry remained confident of success.

“I do not despair of one day quitting the mining properties at a good figure,” he wrote. I have waited now something like the best part of my life with unwavering faith… I have only to hold on to succeed at the end.”

Heading west he found the Argylla and Mount Oxide mines. The successful search for copper inspired a plan to build a railway from Cloncurry to the coast.

Most people thought it would come from the Gulf but by 1905 the nearest railway hub was at Richmond.

And it was from here the government decided to build the 275km track to the “rich and extensive Cloncurry copper field”.

The first train steamed into town in December 1908 and Cloncurry’s isolation was ended.