A letter from a dead man.
“Seven hundred level. North Lyell mine, 12-10-12. If anyone should find this note convey to my wife. Dear Agnes. – I will say good-bye. Sure I will not see you again any more. I am pleased to have made a little provision for you and poor little Lorna. Be good to our little darling. My mate, Len Burke, is done, and poor old V. and Driver too. Good-bye, with love to all. Your loving husband, Joe McCarthy.”
These are the final words of a man to his wife, a man about to perish in the North Mount Lyell disaster, one of the greatest disasters in Australian mining history. On a late Saturday morning in 1912, a fire raged through the somber catacombs of the Mount Lyell copper mine. For many workers, the alert reached them too late. Forty-two men perished on the mountain that day.
The nearest settlement to the disaster was Gormanston, a small town perched on the slopes of Mount Owen in western Tasmania. Built for the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company operations for the Iron Blow open cut copper mine, Gormanston was used as a relief centre for the disaster. And, like many towns that shone briefly during the mining booms in western Tasmania, it soon waned. People decamped, buildings were moved or left to crumble and the town became a forlorn testament to a bygone era.
A ghost town
While the town post office closed in 1979, and most of the town’s buildings (which are few) wearily endure through shattered panes and dark, crumbling hulls, Gormanston is not technically a ghost town anymore. Gormanston – according to my friend and resident Luke Campbell, who lives with his family in what was formerly the town bank – now contains two houses that are permanently occupied. As of 2013, the town’s population was officially six.
When I recently visited Gormanston, I was pleasantly surprised. The place has real atmosphere. Stopping roughly half a kilometre from town, I beeped my horn while talking to Luke on the phone. “Is that you?” he said. I found this amusing. Gormanston is a place of little activity, where a noise can easily betray the presence of an outsider.
Rolling into town, the gravel crunched noisily under my tires, piercing the ghostly silence of the streets. Several rabbits darted across the road, while a cool, overcast sky lent the place an otherworldly air. It’s hard to imagine that this small, all but lifeless town was once home to eleven pubs. Eleven! After being welcomed by Luke and his family, we decided to explore, heading to an old abandoned hall near the top of town.
Here slabs of timber and iron peeled away in gaping chunks, within and without. It was as if we were hiding in Dresden in the ’40s, evading the bombs that had all but shattered our hideout. As the light faded fast behind the hills, I used my phone to illuminate a hive of bees hidden in the corner. Later that evening my friend and photographer Dee Kramer found, rather curiously, that his photos of the hall had disappeared, while other shots remained.
Just two days ago, several days after returning from my visit to Gormanston, Luke phoned me. He knows I’m always sniffing for a story. “A local told me six or seven ghosts roam these streets Tope. There could be a reason Dee’s photos disappeared.” Of course I had not a skerric of proof for such a story, but if ever there were a place for 42 souls to escape from the smouldering, caliginous tunnels of Mount Lyell, Gormanston would be a wonderful (and likely) spot.
Things to do in/near town
- Climb Mount Owen – a splendid walk high above town, taking roughly three/four hours return.
- Talk to explorer, guide, consummate entertainer and mayor of Gormanston, Luke Campbell.
- Explore the streets (which are extremely atmospheric) and bask in the silence beneath the hills.
- Visit Linda, a ghost town located just one kilometre (a nice walk) downhill from Gormanston.
Gormanston is located five minutes drive from Queenstown in western Tasmania and is the closest settlement to Lake Burbury – a man-made lake used to produce hydro-electricity. Lake Burbury also contains the remains of the ghost town Crotty at its murky bottom.