An inspired gathering occurred in Queenstown in Western Tasmania last weekend.
“Oh, is that the town that looks like a moonscape?”
It’s the mining town that 100 years ago thrived; it must have with fourteen pubs, and another thirteen in nearby surrounding towns like Linda and Gormanston. The North Lyell mine, affectionately called “Mount Mother Lyell” had a disaster that ravaged the heart of an isolated community and left 42 men dead. The second biannual Queenstown Heritage & Arts Festival marked the centenary of this disaster on 12 October 2012 and over the weekend wove family history and reunion, with mining and environment, with contemporary art. It was a compelling mix. Set in an extraordinary town with the copper brown-coloured Queen River running through. Surrounded by the scarred hills left bare and orangey moonscapesque from 130 years of miners plunging ever closer to the core of the earth to leach out its ore.
Many tourists drive straight through this town. Others are tugged to return. Queenstown is not for the frivolous. Descendents of mining families and artists were beckoned to the festival from all over Australia and the world, and gathered amongst the proud yet beaten grand architecture, with wide verandahs and heritage staircases. My guess is that most people there had some association with the place either through mining, family or art, and a few just for the love. The pride of being a Queenstowner was palpable, as were the stories of recurring visitors who described their fond relationship with the place and their awe of it.
I’m told miners are like a family. Their lifestyle is often itinerant, yet bonded with each other through the risk and fear they encounter every time they enter a mine. They have a culture of practical jokes as a way of relieving the stress. Being an artist also creates a lifestyle which bonds them together. And for years artists have been drawn to Queenstown and the North Lyell mine for its paradoxical beauty.
The natural tension created by bringing these disparate worlds together must have been a force in the direction of this festival. Miners explore the physical underworld, while artists explore the subconscious underworld, the dream space. They are not mutually exclusive of course! Festival Coordinator Travis Tiddy and his committee placed the mining heritage and contemporary art side-by-side in an awesome, rugged and ripe celebration of Queenstown and all that it represents.
What gave this festival a profound depth and integrity was the place itself. It could not have been held anywhere else. Central to the interest in this place is ore. It was the ‘honey that attracted the bees’. Ore, which lay dormant for so long underground has the power of gathering people together, as well as being a valuable rock containing minerals and metals.
It was ore that attracted mining and its culture with the settlement of Queenstown and other (now abandoned) towns, laid a railway and built a port in Strahan. It was man's desire to mine ore that ravaged the landscape. The hills are bare because the acid fumes from the smelters killed all the vegetation. It’s a mythic irony that copper ore mining around Queenstown has caused such destruction and beauty all in one.
The chemistry of combining Queenstown’s heritage and the art it inspires raises the question: what does ore and the world beneath teach us about ourselves? The rocks beneath the earth are a metaphor for our unconscious world. Our inner workings effect and are effected by our external lives. Queenstown is full of mystique. And it rains a lot.
Queenstown is an isolated town today. It took us a day to drive there from Cygnet. Yet one hundred years ago, there was no road between Queenstown and Hobart, Launceston or Burnie. The festival program offered a lot, but the joy and constraints of travelling with two small children meant we experienced three packed days mixed with heritage and arts, but couldn’t see and hear everything we wanted to. Big thanks to friend and Textile Artist Claire Byers, an enthusiastic Queenstown-a-phile, for doing the festival with us, and for her knowledge of Queenstown, which has become part of this writing.
Responses to the art and installations we saw are in subsequent blog postings. Here’s a brief history of the mining disaster…
On 12th October 1912, 170 miners entered the North Lyell Mine. The completely unexpected happened and a fire ignited somewhere in the 700ft pumphouse. A fire was not considered a danger to a copper mine, and the emergency of the situation broke slowly. Accounts from historian Geoffrey Blainey explain the miners were even blase when they smelt smoke. While Occupational Health Safety was not the industry it is today, there had been recent upset amongst the miners and many of them left due to an unsafe method of working and unsatisfactory conditions of the mine. The fire grew and the fear and panic set in and news travelled. The story of how the following five days unfolded is an epic – if little known – Australian tale. As wives and children, miners and town folk gathered at the opening to the mine clutching at their hopes with fear, a colossal rescue operation took place, gathering special fire masks and safety equipment from Victorian mines. Two steam boats, including the SS Loongana travelled across Bass Strait against forceful winds in record breaking time, then alighted in Strahan to a waiting steam train with it’s fire engine charged for another record breaking journey through forest and over rivers to Queenstown. It’s a choking and extraordinary tale. Sadly not all the miners emerged form the dark tunnels and forty-two lives were lost.