May 28, 2019
At first look Mount Isa is a beer and steak kind of town. Hard, industrial and everything has to have a function. A place to work, sleep, eat and little more. However, there is a deeper Mount Isa. One that has a symphony orchestra, art exhibitions and museums. It is a town trying to be more than its mine and metal past while still embracing those industries. It is called The Big Smoke with affection by most Australians.
From whatever direction you approach this city its industrial base is first and foremost what you will encounter. Mines, smelters and the industries to service them definitely predominate. From the ground comes lead, zinc, silver and copper. Some is shipped away as ore and some processed into metals on site. The history of this industry is typical of mining in general with a chance discovery, early optimism, hard work and sweat leading to near failure before success was achieved. Today the mines are among the best producing in Australia.
One of my visits was to the Underground Hospital Museum. During World War Two, Japan effectively cut Australia off from the rest of the world during the period when their navy dominated the Pacific Ocean. When they bombed the port city of Darwin, the inland city of Mount Isa feared attack as well due to their mining and metals industries. The hospital which was a collection of tents and small above ground structures on a hill top was especially vulnerable. Using help from the miners they carved out a series of tunnels below their hilltop that made the hospital invisible and bomb proof. While mount Isa was never hit by the Japanese, the underground hospital provided insurance of continuous medical treatment throughout the war. Today it has been restored to its war time prime to tell the tale of those fearful days.
Mount Isa is suffering from a population drop of about 30% over the past 20 years due to many workers choosing to live elsewhere and fly in for their work shifts. The mines and smelter companies promote this as a way of attracting the skills they need to operate in this near nowhere city. However, the city is fighting back by doing everything in its power to make this once beer and steak town into a place to live, raise families and retire. With the Outback on their doorstep they have plenty to offer and so long as the ore holds out, Mount Isa will fight on.