On 14 August 1872, William Hann's exploration party found gold in the bed of the
Palmer River. His reports of the find led to the establishment of Cooktown and a rush to
the Palmer goldfields.
The first miners arrived at the Palmer overland from west of Cairns. One of these
parties, led by James Mulligan, won 102 oz of gold (around 3kg) in just 3 months. When
reports of Mulligan's success were reported the rush for gold began in earnest.
George Dalrymple was dispatched to investigate the feasibility of a port on the
Endeavour River. Before receiving his report, the Leichhardt was sent with Government
staff and prospective settlers. Dalrymple's party arrived at the Endeavour River on 24
October 1873. The Leichhardt steamed into the harbour one day later on 25 October. On
board were Archibald Campbell MacMillan an engineer, who was to establish the overland
track to the goldfield and seventy nine miners.
Understandably the diggers were anxious to leave for the goldfield as soon as they
disembarked. MacMillan urged caution because the horses they had brought needed time to
recover from the sea voyage. He advised he would leave the port on 27 October and
suggested the diggers remain at the landing site for a further three days to give his
party time to forge ahead and mark the track.
Five miners under the leadership of George Welch refused to accept MacMillan's advice
and set out for the Palmer some hours ahead of him on the morning of the 27th. Only one
member of that group was ever seen again. The fate of the others is unknown. MacMillan and
his party, who travelled on horseback, followed a route through Oaky Creek to the Normanby
River. The miners, despite travelling on foot burdened down with provisions and bedding
equipment caught up with the advance party on the afternoon of the 31st.
Five days later, in the early hours of 5 November, aborigines attacked the camp and a
ferocious battle followed. The site of the attack became know as Battle Camp.
The intrepid miners and officials continued, naming campsites and rivers as they came
to them - Welcome Waterholes, Cabbage Tree Creek, Deighton River, Laura River, Streamlet,
Fairview Plains, Pine Tree Creek, Conglomerate Range. Finally, on 14 November they
encountered diggers on the Palmer River.
There were more than 200 men working the field and their situation was desperate.
Provisions were in short supply. Stocks of flour were priced at 2 / 6 per pound (the usual
rate for this staple in settled townships was 4 pence per pound).
The two butchers, Alf Trevathan and Jack Edwards, had only nine bullocks between them
and even though the beasts were slaughtered at dusk and the meat smoked that night, much
of it was putrefied by the next afternoon.
The heat was constant, an average of 46 degrees Celsius, and the humidity increased
daily as the storm clouds gathered on the horizon. The established diggers had found gold
but even the promise of incalculable wealth couldn't allay their fears of the isolation
and starvation which seemed inevitable once the wet season rains began.
So miserable were the conditions that when MacMillan left the field on 18 November, 70
disillusioned diggers accompanied him in order to wait out the wet season in the
comparative comfort of Cook's Town, as the burgeoning Endeavour River port had been named.
As an alluvial field the Palmer River reached its peak in -ii75. By 1886 it had
declined and the fevered rush to mine its rivers, creeks and hills was almost over. Hard
rock mining began in January 1876 and the last of the hard rock miners, Sam Elliot, died
at his mine in 1986.
Despite the shortness of its reign as 'The Queen of the North' the Palmer was an
exceedingly rich field. Total production was in excess of £5.5 m pounds sterling ($11m).
94% of this sum was derived from alluvial workings with the remaining six percent coming