The Hampden (Kuridala) field was discovered in the late 1890s and the investment of Melbourne capital prompted the discovery of other Cloncurry fields. In 1899 hermit gold fossicker James Elliott blasted a few trenches and found rich red oxide of copper on the hill that became Mount Elliott.
As Geoffrey Blainey puts it in Mines in the Spinifex, Elliott was an old man with a tragic past. He was sentenced to death for murdering a Chinese man before the real murderer confessed on his deathbed. Now his luck finally turned. He sold out to Fort Constantine pastoralist James Morphett but the Federation drought forced Morphett to sell to mining promoter John Moffat. Moffat financed the exploration of the ore body which had 45,000 tonnes of rich copper ore to be mined. In 1907 the mine was floated on the London market and the same year James Elliott died. Years later novelist Randolph Bedford said Elliott claimed to have found an even larger lode - at Mount Isa. True or not, the Mount Isa lode was not discovered for 16 years.
The London price for copper was £87 a ton, the highest for 30 years, and the Cloncurry fields pulsed with life. The railway came to town with calls to extend to Hampden and Mount Elliott. A town, Selwyn, sprung up to service Mt Elliott, Horse teams hauled boilers and mine machinery as well as stores and corrugated iron for buildings.
The general manager of the mine WH Corbauld altered the furnace and erected three converter shells ahead of the arrival of the first train in August 1910. Blainey said the smelting works with their iron roofs were an impressive sight, "flashing in the sun, three tracks of railway running through the spinifex, and the stacks of firewood piled high for the boilers." In four months the furnace extracted £125,000 of copper and gold. The copper was the richest in the Commonwealth and the gold was richer than many Victorian fields.
Mt Elliott's wealth was in the upper zone with five years ore. Beyond was lower grade sulphide ore and Corbauld needed a central treatment plant to make it pay. But Mt Elliott and Hampden could not agree on merger terms and remained fiercely competitive in gobbling up nearby smaller mines.
In 1912 Mount Elliott bought up the Hampden Consols mine on their rival's boundary with its large deposit of sulphur, iron and copper which made it an ideal smelting mixture. Every week the trains loaded with Consols ore under the nose of Hampden despatched it 30km south to Mt Elliott. In 1913 Consols mine caught fire and the loss hit the company hard when its rich reserve was rapidly depleting. After a strike against contract rates, Mt Elliott closed for seven weeks putting 900 out of work.
The owners bought up Mount Oxide, Great Australia, Dobbyn and Crusader mines. The First World War sent the copper price soaring so Mt Elliott’s poorer ore became profitable. The company deepened the mine, improved the smelter and bought a fire refinery south of Townsville. In 1917 they doubled the length of the furnace.
Living costs were high in Selwyn, amenities were few and strikes were always likely as was flash flooding in summer. By 1918 Hampden had eclipsed it in prosperity yet Mt Elliott continue to make a profit. Corbauld laid a post-war master plan for it to become a world class "copper camp".
But rapidly falling copper prices ended those plans. Mt Elliott re-opened in 1919 after a strike but within two months were forced to dismiss 650 workers. They left never to return. The smelters never re-opened. "The blast of the mine whistle was not heard in the valley again," Blainey wrote in 1960. "All that now remains of Mount Elliott are ransacked smelters, a railway siding, a post office in a creaking tin shed and one house." By 1961 the railway closed and now even the post office and shed are gone and nothing remains of Selwyn except a cemetery.
Mount Elliott remains a working mine and the old mine was added to the Queensland Heritage Register in 2011 for its "potential to provide important information on aspects of Queensland's history particularly early copper smelter practices and technologies, the full range of activities peripheral to those base operations and, importantly, the people who lived and worked in this complex historic mining landscape".