Monday 30 June 2014

Following the Palmer Chinese

A general interest in the pioneering Chinese of the North and a particular interest in the local opium trade of the olden days was the impetus for a long weekend trip up to the Palmer River Goldfield; that fabled 'River of Gold'.  The main aim of this expedition was a quest to find old opium tins in order to discover just where the drug had been imported from and which companies were involved in the trade.  This information could be obtained from the 'chops' embossed into the lids of the tins like labels.  So on a recent Friday afternoon, in a vehicle heavily loaded with camping gear, the intrepid trio of Duncan, Robert and myself headed out of town for the long drive up towards Cooktown and then down the modern Maytown road in the dark to find a camp site.

Chinese cooking ovens
As our first exploration area was to be the Cannibal Creek tin field, we found a reasonable camp site at Budda's old alluvial tin washing plant where we made a quick camp and threw our swags down about a campfire.  The mosquitoes coming up from the still water of the plant's old dam gave us a hard time during the night but we were up early and raring to go.  We were not far from the site of the Chinese cooking ovens on the banks of Granite Creek which the Palmer River Historic Preservation Society had covered with small roofs.  A lot of tin with gold was mined here by both Chinese and European diggers although many of the old sites about here were destroyed by the tin mining of modern times.  We knew that many artifacts had been found about these ovens, so we crossed the creek and set to work with our metal-detectors which were soon howling.  The large number of rusty nails we unearthed here hinted that once a large complex of buildings had sat at this site and although this area would have been well scoured by artifact seekers over the years, we still managed to find a number of old Chinese coins and parts of several opium tins.  After a few hours of work, we had not found what we were seeking and decided to head back down the road a short way to have lunch at the Aboriginal rock art site.

Camp on Gregory beach
With lunch done and a short hike about the area in search of other art sites, we drove down to the nearby airstrip where we tried to locate the site of Ah Fat's market garden but we must have missed the correct track as we couldn't find any area that resembled a Chinese garden.  We had a quick look over the old village and mill site of Fountainville then continued on to the old Chinese market garden at Dog Leg Creek and spent some time exploring this site.  Our goal for the afternoon was Gregory Beach where we wanted to set up camp.  After finding the right track, we then travelled less that a hundred metres from the turn-off before there came the sicking sound of a tyre being staked.  They weren't really the right tryes for this sort of bush work but we made a quick change and then a very careful drive down to the banks of the Palmer River where we set up camp at the 'beach'.

Chinese artifacts
The next morning, after a Sunday morning sleep-in, we put together our day-packs and spent several hours hiking up along Gregory Creek looking for gold and any sign of the Chinese camps that must have been somewhere in that area.  We reached the site of a modern times gold washing plant were we had lunch on the bank of the old dam.  Having found very little sign of the Chinese miners and even less gold, we worked our way back to the river where we spent some time breaking up a slate bar to gain a sample of gold.  Later that afternoon, Duncan and Robert went off again to try to find the Chinese camp while I had a lazy time attending the campfire and reading.  With dark coming on, I guessed that the guys must have found something of interest which was confirmed when they staggered into the camp all excited as they had found the Chinese village site and it was just a couple of hundred metres up-stream from our camp.  Their excitement got the better of them and after dinner, with torches and metal-detectors in hand, it was back over to the settement site for a couple of hours of work in the dark.  Oh what enthusiasm!

The Comet mill

We were up early the next morning and after breakfast were back over to the site of the old Chinese village.  Numerous earthen platforms of hut sites were identified and many artifacts were found including several items related to the opium habit which was what we had come to find.  At the far end of the habitation area, we found a small creek which contained some fine examples of the stone pitching that the Chinese miners were famous for.  I dug out a load of dirt from below some large rocks along this creek but not a single colour of gold was found in the pan when I washed it back at the camp.  The efficiency of those Chinese miners of old is very impressive.  After morning tea, we broke camp and drove over to the tourist road about the old under-ground mines and mill sites.  I was quite impressed with the work of the members of the old Palmer River Historic Preservation Society in this area, especially at the Comet Mill where the old boiler and engine had been re-housed in a replica building.  This was just an example of what that Society could have accomplished if they had been able to continue with their efforts.  We visited several other old mine sites along this road before heading off to the North Palmer River to seek out another well known Chinese mining site.

Chinese cemetery
Our goal was the Chinese cemetery on the North Palmer that the Preservation Society had cleaned up and fenced back in the 1980's.  With the help of the road signs, we found the cemetery without too much trouble and after checking it out, we drove passed it and down the track to the river where it was obvious that many people had made their camps in the past.  After setting up camp, we explored the area and found we had almost pitched our tents on top of several Chinese graves.  There must be so many of them strewn about this remote country.  That evening we wandered along the river bank for a short distance and found the Chinese habitation area which was located directly below the cemetery.  The next morning, after breakfast, we spent several hours searching this area and found what appears to have been a public house site as the area was covered with the broken green glass of numerous cheap whisky bottles.  It was interesting to note how the hut sites were all clustered together in one small group on the edge of the river.  No doubt they were huddled there for protection.  After we broke camp and drove back up passed the little cemetery, I thought of how sad it was for those occupying the dozens of graves there.  Forgotten men lying in a strange land, in an isolated and lonely resting place and now long beyond memory of loved ones back in their homeland so far away.

What we were seeking
To finish the expedition off, we drove around to old Maytown and had morning tea sitting in the shade of a tree, growing now in what was once the main street of the capital town of this famous goldfield.  We visited the site of the old Chinese temple, the 'joss house' which once looked out from the high bank of the Palmer River and then spent some time looking about the site of the old Chinese owned shops that had lined the street of the old town.  I thought back to the first time I visited this goldfield, way back in 1980 and I came to the conclusion that we were really about thirty years too late for this sort of mission, as so many of the sites here had been scoured out over the years by artifact seekers and that there was little left to discover now.

With midday coming on, we drove back to the Palmer Crossing and had lunch before beginning the long journey back out to the Cooktown road and then homewards.  The trip had been somewhat of a success as we had found three different kinds of opium tins at the sites we had explored.  I was quite impressed with the condition of the road which was so good one could almost drive a conventional motor vehicle in with a little care on the creek crossings.  And as the recent cyclone had dump some good rain over the district, all the creeks had water flowing in them and the country was beautifully green and freash.  As we drove out, we found ourselves already planning for our next visit to the River of Gold.  What a wonderful trip it had been.
Main street of Maytown in the old days                                          The street today 

Sunday 29 June 2014

New history of Cardwell

The 150th anniversary of the founding of Cardwell has brought forth the publication of a number of new books on the story of the town.  Another new book on the history of Cardwell has just been written using the street names as the springboard for the story.  'The history of the town is laid out in the landscape,' said Ms Helen Pedley, the Tully-based librarian, at the launch of her most recent book, 'Streets by the Sea; A Cardwell Chronicle'.  The book was released earlier this month at an event at the Hubinger Memorial Museum with 3 Brigade's Colonel John Simeoni as the guest speaker.  It was important to have a military presence at this event with the military connections of the town's namesake Edward Cardwell and as many of Cardwell's streets having been named after former defence personnel.  This was also relevant as the more recently built streets of Cardwell were named by the Council on the advice from the RSL.  During the creation of this book, Ms Pedley endeavoured to use original accounts from letters or newspaper articles to distinguish it from other memoir based histories of the town.