The major service centre and mining town in north western Queensland.
Mount Isa is the largest and most impressive township in western Queensland. Unlike Longreach (its only competitor), which has a very rural feel, Mount Isa is a mining town with an air of self-confidence and sophistication which is rare in outback Queensland.
Thus, although the mining complex is the town's raison d'etre and though it dominates the skyline and the local economy, Mount Isa does not feel like a settlement nestling under 'dark satanic mills'. It is a centre with high quality accommodation, good restaurants, excellent facilities, and enough activities to keep even the most enthusiastic visitor busy for a week.
Located 1829 km from Brisbane, 883 km from Townsville and 356 m above sea-level, Mount Isa proudly claims to be the largest city in the world; a fact born out by its accreditation in the Guinness Book of Records. The argument is that the city extends for 40 977 sq. km, and that the road from Mount Isa to Camooweal, a distance of 189 km, is the longest city road in the world.
Prior to white settlement the area was occupied by the Kalkadoon Aborigines, who produced large numbers of axes and other tools in the area, using them as trade. They fiercely resisted the encroachment of pastoralists in the 1870s and early 1880s but their resistance and raids were effectively ended when native police and white settlers retaliated with a bloody massacre in 1884.
Copper was mined in the area from the 1880s but a price slump in the early 1920s saw the venture collapse. However, in February 1923 vast silver-lead-zinc deposits were discovered by the prospector John Campbell Miles. Miles named the site after Mount Ida, a Western Australian goldmine. Within months over 500 claims had been lodged in Cloncurry but slowly these claims were amalgamated into two major companies. Mount Isa Mines Ltd was formed in 1924 and by 1925 it had taken over all the leases to the field. Isolation and lack of facilities proved an early problem so MIM began to build a company town with low-rent housing and amenities in 1927. Matters were further aided when the railway arrived from Townsville in 1929.
The cost of developing the mine in such a remote location proved too much for the original Australian and British shareholders and, in mid-1930, the American Smelting and Refining Company (now ASARCO Incorporated) rescued the operation by providing millions of dollars to complete the treatment plant and commence the production of lead, although profits did not emerge until 1937.
When a partcularly large copper deposit was proven to exist in 1942 the Australian government, enduring wartime shortages of the strategic material, encouraged its expoitation. Copper would prove the main source of revenue in the 1950s.
In 1958 the Leichhardt River was dammed to provide a guaranteed water supply for the town and mine. Mount Isa was declared a city in 1968.
The novelist Vance Palmer wrote a trilogy of books about Mount Isa (Golconda, Seedtime, and The Big Fellow) and his descriptions of the town are a reminder of its harsh beginnings. In Golconda he writes of the town:
'There's nothing much to catch the eye at the first glance. It's bone-dry country, twisted shrubs and spinifex, and the hills are mostly humps of rock where a goat would find it hard to pick up a feed. But there's a life about the air of a morning that makes you feel that the few trees there are might pull up their roots and float away while you're looking at them.'
Today Mount Isa Mines Ltd is one of the most highly mechanised and cost efficient mines in the world. It's the world's biggest single producer of silver and lead and is amongst the world's top ten for copper and zinc. It is also one of the few areas in the world where the four minerals are found in close proximity. As Australia's largest underground mine, it has a daily output of around 35 000 tonnes of ore. The underground workings extend approximately 4.5 km in length and 1.3 km in width.
Inevitably the mine has had its problems. In the early 1960s large sections of Mount Isa's residential area were removed because they were located on useful ore bodies.
Major industrial action occurred in 1964-65. The dispute became so heated that the Queensland government actually declared martial law in the town.