Only a trio of crumbling smokestacks remains to hint at Chillagoe's starry past. In the early decades of last century, the smelters processed copper, lead, zinc, silver and gold. Spearheading northern development, the town sustained the country's worst mining disaster, produced two premiers and spawned corruption scandals big enough to bring them both down.
John van Tiggelen, Mango Country
At the turn of the 19th century, Chillagoe was a thriving mining town. The Chillagoe Company — established by mine owners and entrepreneurs John Moffat and J.S. Reid — built a smelter complex and railway line to process ores and carry the refined metals to Mareeba (from where they would be transported to the port of Cairns). But within a few years the company was in severe trouble. Expecting to receive copper, lead, gold and silver ore from mines all over North Queensland, the only regular sources were Redcap and Calcifer. Other mines sent material intermittently, making it difficult to maintain a flow of money.
In 1914, the company approached the government for financial support but was refused. The smelters closed during WW1.
At the end of the war, the Queensland Government acquired the smelters and re-opened the complex. The decline in metal prices meant that it was still not financially viable. A change of state government led to a Royal Commission, which uncovered mismanagement and corruption and finished the careers of Chillagoe miners-turned- state-premiers, Ted Theodore and William McCormack.
Although unprofitable, the smelters provided work for depressed areas of North Queensland. They were kept open until a nationwide review of the base metal industry showed them up as run-down and hopelessly inefficient. In 1943, the equipment was dismantled and sent to Mt Isa Mines (which had just started to produce copper) and Collinsville State Coal Mines. The rest was left to decay.
During a half century or so of on-again, off-again production, the smelters processed 1,250,000 tons of ore. They never made a profit but supported the people of the region. Although the Chillagoe smelters are now ruins, mines continue to operate and exploration has identified profitable amounts of zinc, copper, lead, silver and gold in the area.