LAURA TO MAYTOWN COACH ROAD
Demanding 4WD trip to an historic mining area
It’s tempting on a Cape York trip to bypass many of the interesting sites along the way in a headlong rush to get to The Tip. One such significant area is Maytown, the centre of the Palmer River Goldfields.
The Palmer River Goldfields were opened up after William Hann discovered alluvial gold there in 1872. The Hann River and Hann River Roadhouse on the Peninsula Development Road are named after him. Hopefuls throughout the north set out for the Palmer and when one of them, James Mulligan, returned in 1873 to confirm the new field had payable gold the rush was on.
The Palmer finds caused the biggest gold rush in Queensland history. At its peak, the Palmer River valleys were home to at least 20,000 miners, storekeepers, publicans and other people supporting the gold exploration business.
In the 1890s Cooktown, the nearest port and the main supply centre for the Palmer, boasted a population of 35,000. Visit Cooktown today and you wonder where they all fitted.
People must have been a lot tougher in those days, because getting to the Palmer River was no mean feat. Most walked, carrying or dragging the necessities of the prospecting life with them. Many were Chinese and large numbers of them died along the way, broken by the enormous weights they were carrying.
The first settlement on the Palmer River was called, unimaginatively, Palmerville, but the trading centre moved upstream to Edwardstown, named even less imaginatively after the local butcher, Jack Edwards, whose grave is in the Maytown Cemetery.
The town was renamed Maytown in 1875, supposedly in honour of his only daughter, Mary Eleanor, by the Palmer River region’s surveyor A C MacMillan. Mary was certainly known as 'May', but researcher Bill Kitson has informed us that she wasn't born until 1880! Perhaps Mr MacMillan was a prophet as well as a surveyor.
(The Laura River was named by MacMillan after his wife, Laura.)
Maytown boasted 12 hotels, several Chinese stores, three bakers, a butcher, a lemonade factory, a chemist and a surgeon. Cobb & Co instituted a regular coach service from Cooktown in May 1880.
However, from 1876 many Europeans began leaving Maytown to join other gold rushes, or just to go home. The Chinese stayed and by 1882 there were 10 Chinese stores, only two European ones and only four hotels. But even the determined Chinese had a limit to their persistence and by the turn of the century the population had dwindled to only 250 European and 420 Chinese residents.
The isolation of the Palmer Goldfields and consequent high transport costs made gold mining an expensive operation, particularly once the surface gold had been removed and heavy equipment was needed to win metal from sub-surface ore.
The original rate for transport over the access track surveyed by MacMillan's party cost around $400 per tonne in today’s money. Even when mining was at its peak in 1875 freight was at a still heady $140/tonne.
The first Palmer Goldfields road from Cooktown followed a circuitous route north of the Conglomerate Range to Palmerville, but this route was shortened when the track to Maytown, the centre of the diggings, was put through in 1877.
Road construction must have been a nightmare, considering the steep, rocky terrain and the massive erosion problems caused by the wet seasons. Iron-tyred dray wheels cut up the soft sandstone surfaces, exacerbating natural erosion.
A C MacMillan attempted to prevent further erosion by easing gradients and constructing retaining walls on the most dangerous sections.
The Laura-Maytown Road
The Laura to Maytown Coach Road was the major arterial route to the Palmer Goldfields. It is one of the few remaining historic access routes in the region that hasn’t been upgraded. Although there is still considerable gold mining ongoing in the Palmer River Valley these modern miners use the well-graded road that intersects the Peninsula Development Road, just south of the Palmer River Roadhouse. Because there’s an alternative to the Laura to Maytown Coach Road there’s been no pressure to upgrade the original track.
The Laura to Maytown Coach Road is significant for its early association with Cobb & Co, which began regular services in 1880. It demonstrates notable engineering feats and road making techniques in steep rocky terrain in an isolated, high rainfall region of North Queensland.
The Laura to Maytown Coach Road was the last leg of the long journey from Cooktown to the Palmer Goldfields. From Chalmers, 11km west of Laura, the original track headed south on the eastern side of the Little Laura River to Patricks, then via an 1895 detour to Ripple Creek, via a track to the west of the original, before heading south to the North Palmer River. Included the last section is another 1895 detour to avoid the original track via Folders and Logan Jack Cairn. Before crossing the North Palmer River the track divides in two. The diversion is the result of the need for a reliable wet season track. The Road heads south to Maytown via the original (1877) western track.
Today’s entrance to the Laura to Maytown Coach Road is much closer to Laura – just over the Laura River Bridge, in fact – and the road doesn’t reach the banks of the Little Laura River until the 25km mark. There is no signpost on the Peninsula Development Road, but you’ll know you’re on the right track when you see a signpost to Jowalbinna, just 200 metres after the turnoff.
Significant sites along the road include the Chalmers Hotel site on the Little Laura River, Patricks Hotel site, Neds Hotel site, Ripple Creek staging post site, Folders Hotel and staging post site at the base of the Conglomerate Range and Larry Moore's shanty site.
Three Chinese garden sites along the road are at Garden Creek, the Lone Star or Tommy Ah Toy's garden at Mosman River, and a garden site between Jessops Hill and Jessops Creek.
All these places have long been abandoned and are very difficult to locate. There’s very little left even at Maytown itself, considering the size of the town at its peak. If you look down the main street of Maytown all you can see are stumps from the old buildings, the kerb and channelling made from local slate and the old telegraph poles. Plaques in front of the buildings describe what used to be there.
The Laura to Maytown Coach Road track has been partly re-formed as a graded road at its northern end, but contains some sections, particularly between Cradle Creek and the North Palmer River, that demonstrate the original construction techniques. Carefully crafted steep pinches, cuttings and stone drains have endured for more than 100 years, despite the ravages of the North Queensland Wet.
In the area surrounding Maytown you can see the Queen of the North Mine and Battery, the Ida Mine and the Mabel Louise and Comet Batteries.
It would be a daunting task to transport all this heavy equipment to such a remote area on this narrow, steep track today, let alone in the days of bullock drays. Some sections of the Laura to Maytown Coach Road are difficult for a modern 4WD, so it must have been a nearly impossible task back then.
The northern sections of the Laura to Maytown Coach Road were well graded, but full of bulldust late in The Dry, when we did this trek. Shortly after the junction of Shepherd Creek with the Little Laura River, near Jowalbinna, the road narrows to a bush track and that’s the way it stays until Maytown.
The track winds through open woodland and threads among trees that crowd the track and threaten the panels of large 4WDs. Along the edge of Flying Fox Creek are many washaways that need straddling and steep pinches. One washed-out section is bypassed by a steep descent that has only one safe line, so we talked everyone down that slope using the radio.
At the 50-kilometre mark the Laura to Maytown Coach Road enters the hilliest part of the journey and there are many very steep climbs and descents into dry, rocky creek beds, with near-vertical drop offs on either side. Diff locks made this section more manageable, but it was concentration plus for a couple of hours.
At each new pinch we marvelled how the coaches made it, let alone drays hauling tonnes of heavy mining equipment.
Reassuring track signs and our trusty satnav system kept us on the route to Maytown and just short of the 70km mark we finally reached the Palmer River. The official camping ground is woeful, so many visitors have taken to camping at some of the mine relic sites and there are plenty of choices.
We spent next day touring around the Palmer River Goldfields relics and could easily have spent more time. To the eternal disappointment of one of party – a dedicated fossicker – metal detectors are banned in this still-active mining area.
Fortunately, when the gold petered out there was little incentive to haul out heavy machinery that had cost so much blood, sweat and tears to bring in, so much of it remains and some workings have been partially restored. It’s easy to reconstruct in the mind’s eye how the ore batteries and processors looked when operating. It’s also easy to imagine what a hell-hole of a place it must have been: stinking hot and humid in summer and stinking hot and wet during the monsoon season.
From Maytown we took the relatively easy graded road exit to the Peninsula Development Road, emerging four hours later on the blacktop just south of the Palmer River Roadhouse.
The Laura to Maytown Coach Road is not for the ill-prepared or the faint-hearted. The steep grades, loose surface, near-vertical drop-offs and eroded surfaces mean the track is beyond the capabilities of most standard 4WD wagons, but it’s an adventure, that’s for sure.
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