In the Queen River Valley between Macquarie Harbour and Lake Burbury in western Tasmania lies Queenstown, the largest town in this part of Tassie. Home to about 2,500 people, Queenstown is the gateway to the fishing lakes, national parks and wilderness areas of the West Coast.
From Hobart, the drive to Queenstown takes about 4 hours northwest along the A10, also called the Lyell Highway. If you want to approach Queenstown from the north, your best option is to drive to Burnie. From here the A10 is called the Murchison Highway and the drive south will take about 2 hours. From Launceston you can take the A1, the Tasman Highway, to Burnie and then continue along the Murchison Highway from there. Alternatively, turn south at Deloraine and take the A5, the Lake Highway, to where it meets the B11, the Marlborough Highway, along the southern shore of the Great Lake. Soon after you’ve passed Bronte Park this road intersects with the Lyell Highway, which will take you west to Queenstown.
Today Queenstown is very much a tourist destination but it’s also a working mining town. In fact, back in the day it was one of the richest mining towns in the world.
Originally the Peerapper and Tommeginne people lived in the area. Charles Gould explored the area in 1862 but considered it too dangerous for settlement. However, things changed in 1881, when Cornelius Lynch discovered gold near the Queen River. Prospectors started moving in and even more followed when the Iron Blow was discovered in 1883. The Mount Lyell Gold Mining Company operated out of a small settlement called Penghana.
In 1892 the company, soon to be known as the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company, began looking for copper in the area and by 1895 they had smelters set up for this metal. A new town sprang up around these smelting works and was named Queenstown.
Queenstown quickly became a bustling copper-mining town and in 1900 it had a population of 5,051. For the next two decades, mining operations meant that much of the area’s timber was cut down, while sulphur fumes coming from the furnaces killed the plant life that remained, leading to erosion and a lunar landscape. Today nature is slowly reclaiming the land.
Disaster struck in 1912, when a fire at the North Mount Lyell mine killed 42 miners. However, mining still continues and a popular activity in Queenstown is the Mount Lyell Underground Mine Tour, where you can see how copper is extracted from the earth.
Many of Queenstown’s historic buildings are still standing, including the Imperial Hotel, which was built in 1898 to become the first brick hotel in town. Today it houses the Galley Museum with its impressive collection of photographs detailing the West Coast’s history. Another hotel that dates from those heady early days is the Empire Hotel, built in 1901 and boasting a staircase handcrafted from Tasmanian blackwood.
Mining towns tend to attract some tough people and in Queenstown, the football oval bears witness to the fact. Often called The Gravel, this sports facility strikes fear in the hearts of visiting Aussie Rules football teams because of its surface, which is made entirely of gravel. For a great bird’s eye view of The Gravel, hike to the top of Spion Kop, which got its name from soldiers who returned from the Boer War and named the hill after the site of a famous battle in what is now South Africa.
While the denuding of the landscape back in the day was a prime example of how industry can destroy the local ecology, the Queenstown area is also home to an early attempt at ecologically sound practices. In 1914, the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company built one of Australia’s oldest hydro-electric schemes, the Lake Margaret Power Station. After being decommisioned in 2006, the power station was reopened in 2009 and tours of the facility are available.
Another treasure brought to Queenstown by the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company was the Abt railway, which began operating in 1897. Today this railway is known as the West Coast Wilderness Railway and some of the original locomotives will take you on a magical journey between Queenstown and Strahan.
A great time to visit Queenstown is during the Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival, which is held in even-numbered years, usually in October. However, local heritage and arts also combine at Miners Siding, a series of bronze sculptures showing the mining history of the area.
Queenstown has a wide range of accommodation and dining options and makes a great base from which to explore Tasmania’s Western Wilderness.