A historical article of John Campbell Miles

Page five in The North West Star's Tuesday, May 29, 1973, edition. The photo is of John Campbell Miles (seated) discoverer of Mount Isa, with D.S. McGillivray.
Page five in The North West Star's Tuesday, May 29, 1973, edition. The photo is of John Campbell Miles (seated) discoverer of Mount Isa, with D.S. McGillivray.

WE SEARCHED The North West Star archives to learn more about Mount Isa’s founder John Campbell Miles for background into an article on the town clock.

As we did we stumbled on a detailed article about the prospector. 

The piece was part of a series of historical archives on the city’s pioneering past commemorating Mount Isa’s golden jubilee. 

We’ve rewritten this piece first published on May 29, 1973, for an online audience, and therefore may well be useful for future records. The piece is titled: 

The Day It All Began With Campbell Miles

The sun was high enough to murder the mercy of shade. Its rays, like some chain gang overseer, beat down onto the dried up, veined bed of the Leichhardt River. 

In places they hit red-dusted rocks and bounced towards the azure void that was the sky. 

The site of what has become Australia’s mineral rich city was an inhospitable desert fit only for reptiles, horses and bearded men with Quixotic dreams. 

Is (sic) was February 1923 in North-West Queensland. 

Near the spot between the two bridges which now span the river a wiry bushman, his wide-brimmed hat black with sweat, picked his way through a tangled maze of weed and rock. 

He sat astride his chestnut stallion “Hard Times”. 

El Dorado Dream

The pair led two foals, a mare and a pack horse and in the midday heat they shook from around their heads the clouds of mosquitoes intent on sucking blood and sweat. 

The day was no different from many others for the man, John Campbell Miles – a man lured into virgin bush by a dream of El Dorado, a dream of golf fields spoken of by swagmen who panned a few ounces of dust from rainy season creeks and then moved on. 

The bush boredom shattered when the old pack horse lifted its weary head and bolted. 

Miles kicked “Hard Times” into a forced gallop and ran after his renegade. It was too valuable to lose. The water and food on its back meant the difference between life and death in the outback. 

Shaft of Light

The gallop lasted less than a minute. Miles found the pack horse guzzling from a shallow pool.

He dismounted and while his animals flicked their tongues into the tepid water Miles brewed a billy of tea, pulled on his gnarled pipe and lay back. Perhaps half an hour later he set up camp. The spot near the pool was to be a resting place for 24 hours before he continued his trek towards some fabled lucky strike. 

He exhaled the last lungful of smoke and glanced around. The river bed was ringed by low-lying hills. On the tip of one jagged outcrop Miles’ eyes blinked at a silver shaft of light. 

Hidden Riches

Picking up a farrier’s hammer he plodded 800 yards to the cancre. When he reached it he smashed down the hammer onto rock which shattered into a honeycombed pattern of black and grey. 

The weight of those fragments surprised Miles. He chipped again. Perhaps a dozen or a 100 times. He may have spent 10 minutes or 10 hours chipping rock which sheltered a secret enclosed in them since the polar caps shrank from the arid areas of desert. 

Years before when he had spent eight months mining around Broken Hill he learned to recognise galena, sulphide of lead. But he knew nothing of the process of identifying this rock, a carbonate of lead. Miles packed the samples into patched pockets and moved down towards his camp. That night he slept the sleep of the just on the surface of a mineral field which was to give him fame, Australia a treasure chest of riches, and thousands of men a reason for trekking north. 

In the days that followed Miles made many trips to the top of the hill. Every day he collected samples. 

Then he struck camp and rode to the Native Bee camp a few miles east. 

This was the camp where weeks earlier he had met Bill Simpson, the man who would later share the hardship of mining the Mount Isa lease to prove to the world it held the vast riches both men gave up. 

Sample Parcels

Miles discussed his discovery with Simpson and the three men who worked the unprofitable Native Bee. 

They advised him to send 10 specimens for evaluation to the Government assayer in Cloncurry, then a bustling town more than 70 miles away. 

Miles broke each sample into pieces. 

He kept one half of each, and wrapped the others into parcels which he left by the side of the dirt track leading to Cloncurry to be collected by the mailman who passed that way on infrequent excursions to the bush.

His Only Letter

A note with the parcels said simply ‘J.C. Miles, Mica Camp, via Duchess.’ 

Weeks later Miles received the letter which told him he had found a mine from which he could coax some sort of living. 

The analysis of his samples had shown the poorest contained 49.3 per cent lead and the richest 78.3 per cent. 

The news promoted Miles to write what was possibly the first, but definitely the last letter of his life. 

It was to an uncle in Melbourne, urging him to set course for Queensland to mine this vast field. 

The uncle never replied and so eventually it was to the lean, red-bearded bushman Simpson from the Native Bee who joined Miles to peg out the first leases on the Mount Isa field. 

The first load of ore left in two drays to begin the arduous journey to Duchess, where it was loaded onto a train for Cloncurry. 

It was the first of millions of tons which would give Queensland its richest mining city and thousands of people a living. 

Researchers record little of the man who worked under tortuous conditions to give Queensland much of her wealth, but it is known that he was a man of great courage and strength. 

He was also a dreamer, a man who believed he would make his fortune from gold, and the naming of Mount Isa reflects that side of the man. 

Liked The Name

He named his field after Mount Ida, a Western Australian gold field, and simply changed the “d” to “s” because he liked the sound of the name. 

“Cam” Miles, as he was known to his rugged bush mates, was one of five children born to a Victorian gold miner. 

He ran away from school to work in a boot repair shop in Melbourne, the first of dozens of jobs and drifting pastimes which included being a ploughman, carter, railway navvy, wild pig hunter, windmill repairman and miner. 

His first love was horses and he preferred their company to that of man or woman. He never married. 

He preferred a rough mug of tea and a quiet puff at his pipe to the loud company of a hotel bar, the call of the bush to the bustle of Australia’s growing cities. 

Self-effacing

Miles’ two visits to Mount Isa in 1957 and 1962 to revisit the site of both bitter and sweet memories revealed him as a man of simple means. 

He did not seek company, and refused the offer of luxury accommodation. He bunked down with the miners in their company barracks. 

One account records him as saying the best night he had in his life was visiting a Mount Isa club where he watched dozens of merrymakers dancing their way through a hot night while he sat at a table quietly puffing an old pipe.

Another personal highlight of that visit was spending several nights at an open air theatre, some times watching the same film on successive nights. 

His brief visits also revealed him as a shy, cautious and self-effacing man. 

He did not regard his discovery of Mount Isa as anything more than a stroke of good fortune, not for himself, but for the thousands to whom it gave work. 

On a Bicycle

Miles refused company during his lone walks around mining haunts, and accepted it only when company regulations made it impossible for him to saunter through areas now highly mechanised and full of technical “marvels”. 

Miles discovery of Mount Isa in 1923 came during his second journey into northern Queensland. 

His first was in 1908 when he rode a bicycle more than 1500 miles through mud, grasslands, and desert to seek his fortune during the Oakes gold rush. 

That journey took him six weeks. 

Disillusioned Men

He was accompanied by Moses Rowlands, another dreamer, who told Miles frequently about the legendary Mount Ida gold rush – a fable which never left Miles’ mind and was recorded for history in the naming of Mount Isa. 

When the two men arrived at the Oakes Field they discovered 2000 disillusioned men sweating away their savings on a worthless two square miles. 

They left the dusty jumble of rough tents to try their luck as railway hands at Einasleigh. 

The town was in the grip of a strike, full of drunks and offered nothing but poverty and misery to those who remained there. 

Penniless, the pair rode on to Finnegans where they sold their bicycles at a pub, secured enough credit at the general store to buy meagre supplies, and started out in a rough cattle country to again seek their fortunes in gold. 

A picnic in the bush? Hardly. Pictured is a group of hardy pioneers heading for the "promised land" of Mount Isa in the late twenties. In those days it was a case of setting up camp by the side of the track to take a welcome break from the tedious overland journey. The old car is loaded up with all the necessities for a new life in the tough North-West. Photo: North West Star archives.

A picnic in the bush? Hardly. Pictured is a group of hardy pioneers heading for the "promised land" of Mount Isa in the late twenties. In those days it was a case of setting up camp by the side of the track to take a welcome break from the tedious overland journey. The old car is loaded up with all the necessities for a new life in the tough North-West. Photo: North West Star archives.

Parted Company

Five weeks of backache and sweaty panning gave then three pennyweight of gold as fine as flour. 

Disheartened the men gave up their search. 

Convinced the lot of a rail navvy was better than that of a fossicker they constructed a crude barrow of saplings and an old wheel and pushed their pitiful belongings the 18 miles back to Finnegans. 

There the two parted company. 

Miles spent the summer of the next year filling ballast trucks and sinking waterholes for nine shillings a day. 

Saved Steadily

He then returned to Victoria and drove horses over the swampy Wimmera paddocks. 

But the call of gold never left him. 

Unhurriedly he worked his way back into Queensland. 

For 10 years he worked on sheep and cattle stations on the inland plains, saving steadily for a long trip from which he hoped to fossick his fortune. 

He shot wild pigs, carted hay, repaired fences, drove horses and worked as a stock hand. 

First Holiday

According to that infallible bush calendar, the Melbourne Cup, it was the year Sister Olive took out Australia’s greatest race – 1921 – when Miles returned to Melbourne for his first holiday and to spend some time with his family. 

The delights of his birthplace and ties to family and friends could not hold him for long. 

An old stockman’s tale was tugging at his heart. 

Miles had heard it dozens of times around campfires on the boundary after the close of many weary station hands – a reef of gold and quartz lay not far from the infamous Murranji Track, the Northern Territory cattle trail blazed during the 1880s which had claimed the lives of more men and cattle than any other in the north. 

It crossed dense scrub and hundreds of miles of waterless plains, but also, according to the old Blue Nose’s mirage blinded eyes, the richest run of gold in the world. 

Miles set out eager to see the country and the mine. 

History records he never reached his destination, and no other man has found that great cache of gold to this day. From that dream came Mount Isa

 Miles remained in the Mount Isa district until early in 1924, the year MIM came into being. 

His share of Mount Isa’s wealth was 15,000 shares in the infant company, worth even in those days at least $10,000. 

Five years later not one share remained in his possession. 

By 1930 he still had enough money to buy a “new fangled” motor car to once again attempt an assault on the Murranji Track, and the lost gold. 

Frivolous nature again defeated the bushman. Torrents of tropical rain beat down on man and machine, making impossible the journey across the thousands of miles which still lay ahead. 

“My Country”

Miles returned to Mount Isa, remained only a short time, and then returned to Victoria where he spent two years fossicking for gold in the forests of Gippsland. 

The colors (sic) he found during that time barely filled a small essence bottle. 

Miles then disappeared from the history books. 

In later years he dismissed the years between 1932 and 1957, when he came to Mount Isa, as “wanderings” – wanderings searching to find his dream, a great gold mine. 

Miles never found his great gold mine but his frugal and unhurried life was not, in his estimation, wasted. 

He lived to 82, and shortly before he died in December 1965 members of his family credit him with saying: “If only I could go back to my country (Mount Isa) I know I would be all right.” 

Three years later Miles’ ashes were brought back to Mount Isa and buried under the clock tower which now stands in the centre of the street named after him.