Mount Isa Mines celebrates 100 trailblazing years, but end of copper era looms

Mount Isa Mines celebrates 100 trailblazing years, but end of copper era looms

On a summer day in 1923, prospector John Campbell Miles stopped for smoko near a large outcrop on his journey through outback Queensland.

Carving a piece of rock from the formation, Mr Miles wrote in his travel notes that it “contained mineral, from its weight”.

A year later, in January 1924, Mount Isa Mines was established to capitalise on the lead deposits Mr Miles had uncovered.

John Campbell Miles (centre) in Mount Isa circa 1924.(Supplied: Mount Isa Mines)

This week, 100 years after the company was formed, Mount Isa remains one of the richest mining regions in the world.

Experts reflect on how the curiosity of an adventurous prospector brought about social, economic and industrial development on a national and global scale.

An aerial shot of Mount Isa in 1932 shows the sparsely-developed outback town.(Supplied: Mount Isa Mines)

Mount Isa is home to about 20,000 people.(Supplied: Anushka Dissanayake)

Mining ‘kindergarten’

It was not until the Townsville-Duchess rail line opened in 1931 that Mount Isa’s population grew from 600 to more than 2,000.

“It became one of the largest employers in the country and was about the only place in Australia where people could earn a good living during the Great Depression,” historian Barry Merrick said.

A shaft sinking crew hard at work.(Supplied: Mount Isa Mines)

Miners lift ingots from a casting wheel.(Supplied: Mount Isa Mines)

The mine’s distance from ports and other cities meant its workforce had to be self-sufficient.

“People throughout the world considered Mount Isa Mines as the kindergarten, the training centre of mining,” Mr Merrick said.

“If you were taught at Mount Isa Mines, you were seen as a skilled miner.”

Molten lead is poured at the Mount Isa Mines.(Supplied: Mount Isa Mines)

Miners knocking off after a shift.(Supplied: Mount Isa Mines)

Railway of riches

The railway was opened in Mount Isa to transport ore to Townsville, but the financial benefits extended well beyond the local books.

“It was the first rail line in Queensland to generate revenue, so the money that came from the rail line actually helped fund all the other rail lines,” Queensland Resources Council economic policy director Andrew Barger said.

“It also completely transformed Townsville … it enabled investment in that port.

“Then we saw the development of the smelters and the refineries and the workforce in Townsville.”

The first train travels along the Mount Isa to Townsville rail extension in 1929. The line opened to the public in 1931.(Supplied: State Library of Queensland)

Copper is poured at the Mount Isa Mines copper smelter.(Supplied: Mount Isa Mines)

Copper and culture

During World War II the government requested Mount Isa Mines start tapping into the region’s vast copper reserves.

Today, Mount Isa Mines is the second largest producer of copper in Australia and is home to Australia’s deepest copper mine, which runs to a depth of 1.9 kilometres underground.

It has produced enough copper to build more than 39 million houses and enough zinc to manufacture more than 535 million cars.

In 1949, there was a dramatic change to the cultural landscape of the community as war-weary Europeans flocked to Mount Isa to make their fortune at the mine.

As a result, there are now about 50 different nationalities that make up the city’s population of about 20,000.

Copper anode casting in the copper smelter.(Supplied: Mount Isa Mines)

One of the Mount Isa Mines’ first electric trucks and the team that arranged the project.(Supplied: Mount Isa Mines)

A pioneering mine

Innovation was the key to minimising costs and ensuring the viability of the mine in such an isolated location, Mr Merrick said.

In 1985, Mount Isa Mines, in partnership with Professor Graeme Jameson from the University of Newcastle, invented the Jameson Cell – a lower-cost form of flotation processing that produced a more concentrated ore.

Since then, 430 Jameson Cells have been installed in 30 countries, according to Glencore.

“The mine also developed its own smelter technology – a more efficient, cleaner way of producing copper in smelters – and they have sold that technology to other companies throughout the world,” Mr Merrick said.

Mount Isa Mines is also host to one of the largest zinc mines in the world.

It contains an estimated 650 million tonnes of resources.

Miners who worked at the Mount Isa Mine were seen as well-trained.(Supplied: Mount Isa Mines)

The copper mine will close, but Mr Merrick says Mount Isa’s future is bright.(ABC North West Qld: Carli Willis)

The end of an era

In October 2023 Glencore announced that it would be closing its copper operations in 2025, bringing an end to one of the largest mining projects in the region.

Chief operating officer for Glencore Australia’s zinc assets, Samuel Strohmayr, said the company was “actively seeking new opportunities” in the region while committing to its George Fisher zinc mine going forward.

“We certainly have on our books long-life assets that we will continue to develop and invest in in this region.”

Mount Isa in the 1960s.(Supplied: Mount Isa Mines)

“One hundred years of mining is an absolutely brilliant achievement,” Mr Merrick said.

“II think our city should be really proud and look forward to an interesting future ahead.”

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