In search of Wee McGregor, Bulonga, Ballara and Hightville

Long forgotten now, the towns of Bulonga, Ballara and Hightville all once throbbed with life.

Situated on the tourist drive to Fountain Springs, the old mining towns serviced Wee McGregor mine as copper prices exploded in the First World War.

Copper was discovered in the Corella River in 1905 and new owners Corella Copper Company built a smelter at Bulonga in 1913 which took ores by traction engine from the Ballara area for treatment. 

The Rosebud Weir was built in 1914 to supply water to Bulonga but smelting was stopped due to a lack of water in 1916. Then a heavy 1917 wet season inundated the mine and Corella Copper closed up putting an end to Bulonga and its hotel, store and bakehouse.

The town was also home to the Afghans who carted ore from Ballara on their camels.

Ballara possessed copper ore but the more valuable lode was at Wee McGregor further up in the hills.

The first ores at Wee McGregor were found in 1904 and the McGregor Hotel was erected in 1909. The Hampden Co bought the McGregor mines in 1912 and carted the ore to Kuridala for smelting.

With Hampden interested in the area's ores Hightville was surveyed in 1913 and named for its location on the high ridges. 

The company lobbied the government to build a railway though the state was wary about supporting a venture without long term prospects. They compromised with the Wee McGregor Tramway Agreement Bill 1912.

This was a no frills, lower standard line from Malbon to Ballara and a two foot gauge tramway up to the mine. Construction of the hilly tramway took most of 1914.

It needed nine bridges from Ballara to the mine and a tunnel under the dividing range. The 100m long, 3m wide and 4m high tunnel was built by a gang of nine men hired on a flat contract rate plus dynamite costs.  

Beyond the tunnel the tramway winded down to the mine. The ore trucks were loaded from a bin and taken in two rakes because one haul was too much for the loco.The full train with the loco in the centre was joined for the downhill run back to Hightville. The trams also took Ballara children to Hightville School until safety concerns caused the school to be moved to Ballara.

Hightville had a post office but after the McGregor Hotel burned down in 1914 there was an exodus to the new town of Ballara, surveyed in 1913, which had a store, hotel, baker, butcher, police station and post office. 

Around 15,000 tons a year of ore was carted to Kuridala from 1915 to 1919. Traffic plummeted when Wee McGregor closed at end 1920, its ores no longer needed for Kuridala's dying smelter. The tramway line and rolling stock were removed in 1921 and the loco ended up at a sugar mill.

In 1975 Eastern Copper Mines used an acid leaching process to clean out the last of the reserves at Wee McGregor.