Water. The subject of great deliberation each year.
Water. Without it we would perish; as did many a prospector and gouger in the search for the early mineral fields.
Without regular drinking water and to alleviate some of the thirst of a parched throat and put a deplorable death at bay, the early explorers and gougers would suck on a pebble to keep the mouth saliva flowing.
Perhaps John Campbell Miles was doing just that when his horses stumbled onto a natural water soak in the otherwise dry hot sandy bed of the Leichhardt River.
His faithful horse Hard Times had chased one of the pack horses to the water source where they, and their horse tailer, started guzzling the pool.
After trudging through spinifex mounds, hell hot river rocks and sand, he decided to let the horses drink and rest while he made camp beside the soak, boil the billy for a cuppa and take a well-earned breather.
By chance, what John Campbell Miles saw in the surrounding hills and what made him decide to plod up to the rocky outcrops is the story of the founding of the rich lead mineral field that he later named Mount Isa.
As luck would have it the mineral field was found in close proximity to the Leichhardt River.
With the growth of the community along with the mine site, water was always of great importance.
For many years the growing settlement was dependent on water from the wells that had been hand dug into the river bed.
But there was never enough water to quench thirsts, wash clothing, provide sanitation and general hygiene let alone for the water greedy mine treatment works.
The mine's promise of supplying two gallons of water per person per day soon fell through with the growth of the fledging community.
After surveying the Selwyn Ranges west of the new mine site, No. 2 Gorge, was identified as the answer for a 15 foot high dam.
Completed in September 1925 and with Queensland's first arch dam wall, it was named Experimental Dam.
But it didn't take the locals long to realise that this new water supply had become rank in parts and it was a very embarrassed Queensland Irrigation and Water Supply Commission that had to take ownership that the dam was only an experimental one for rock imperviousness testing.
No sooner had the community become accustomed to a regular supply of water from Experimental Dam, than disappointment set in as word was spread that the supply of regular water from the dam was to cease.
As a result, bucketing water from the natural soaks and manmade wells was once more the main source of water supplies.
Thankfully, Mr Leslie Urquhart believed a new site for a £100,000 dam could pull Mount Isa out of its water crisis.
This was not before time with regular typhoid outbreaks occurring; resulting in the closure of several soaks used to draw water for domestic use.
For without surplus water for domestic and hygiene requirements, the hotels had no option but to let the beer slurry and sanitation waste combine in the back yard waste water pits thereby creating gut-wrenching stench and breeding grounds for disease such as typhoid.
They were desperate times and desperate measures were called for when Mr E.H.R. Greensill, a surveyor with the Irrigation and Water Supply Commission eventually declared that the building of a new dam was imperative.
Completed in 1929 at a cost of £75,000, and holding three years water supply, Rifle Creek Dam was charged with piping water to the community, power house and the mine itself.
The scare mongers were soon telling all and sundry that the Rifle Creek water supply was to be closed to the town, causing great consternation and a rush to reopen soaks.
However these rumours were quashed with Mount Isa Mines announcing "that as long as there was water in the Rifle Creek Dam - all could share."
Finally after many years, Cloncurry Shire Council agreed to replace the thirty waste water pits, the breeding grounds for any number of diseases, with pipes which were laid under the gravel roads down to the riverbed.
With a 1,400,000 gallon storage capacity the Dam regularly filled and overflowed the spillway washing away any concerns about bacterial contamination.
As the community water requirements and those of the mine increased it was agreed in 1953 to rise the Dam spillway thereby nearly doubling the water capacity to nearly 3,000,000 gallons of water.
Rifle Creek Dam had serviced the people of Mount Isa through drought and mine production, but the following year it had difficulty keeping apace of the extra water demands of a rapidly growing community.
Water. More was needed. Urgently.
A new dam was discussed and evidentially Cloncurry Shire Council and Mount Isa Mines agreed on a suitable site north along the Leichhardt River.
Today, Rifle Creek Dam is a backup water supply to Mount Isa Mines having relinquished its crown of the main water supply for Mount Isa in 1959 to the Leichhardt Dam (now named Lake Moondarra).
So it is still probable that John Campbell Miles would have continued to suck on a pebble, as he meandered his way through the Selwyn Ranges over to the Northern Territory border and not have noticed the silver glints from the rocky outcrops, in the midday sun.
And while we duly acknowledge John Campbell Miles with founding Mount Isa ninety-six years ago, let us give thanks for his horses' smell of ... water!
Researched and written by Kim-Maree Burton www.kimmareeburton.com
Photographs supplied by NQHC
Information sourced from the archives of the Cloncurry Advocate, Mines in the Spinifex, the Courier
Mail, MIM publications and the North West Star.
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