DURING a fierce electrical storm in 1936 a lightning bolt sparked a fire that completely destroyed Queensland’s famous Bundaberg rum distillery.
Half a million gallons of rum and 100,000 gallons of methylated spirits (a by-product of rum) stood in the storage sheds. From the shattered casks and the split tanks “poured flaming streams of blazing spirit” as the fire put on a spectacular, but disastrous display for the people of Bundaberg.
Leslie F. Hannon wrote in a Sydney Morning Herald story on Saturday, September 21, 1946 that the spirit burned with a fierce blue flame, flowing into the nearby Burnett River.
The following day after the fire the fish in the Burnett River were reportedly drunk on proof rum! “From 200lb gropers out of the holes under the railway bridge, to inch-long sprats from the gravel shallows, the fish floated on the river, some turning over and over slowly, but most just floating,” Hannon wrote. “Every serviceable boat for miles around was pressed into service, and fish was on every table in the district.”
FISH WERE DRUNK IN RUM RIVER…
THE people of Bundaberg (Qld) still tell the story of when the Burnett became literally a river of rum.
On Saturday night, November 21, 1936, a fierce electrical storm broke over the district. Jagged lightning darted through the wild, cloudy sky.
The rising land from the river-bank, known in the district as Magnetic Hill, had always been an attraction for lightning, and on this night a great bolt flashed down, touching the distillery with its finger of fire.
Within a space of minutes, the buildings were blazing. Half a million gallons of rum and 100,000 gallons of methylated spirits [a by-product of rum] stood in the storage sheds.
Fire-fighting bands raced to the distillery, leaving their Saturday night entertainments. But it was too late. Loud explosions began to ring the eardrums of the watchers, and from the shattered casks and the split tanks poured flaming streams of blazing spirit.
It was a great sight. The spirit burned with a fierce blue flame and a searing heat. Down the banks and into the Burnett it flowed. While the spirit burned, the whole river from bank to bank was covered by a low curtain of flickering blue flame.
The next day was a Sunday that will never be forgotten in Bundaberg.
All the fish in the Burnett were drunk on proof rum! From 200lb gropers out of the holes under the railway bridge, to inch-long sprats from the gravel shallows, the fish floated on the river, some turning over and over slowly, but most just floating.
Every serviceable boat for miles around was pressed into service, and fish was on every table in the district.
Men with an eye to business hurriedly knocked up cases and bags of salt, and tons of fish were railed south to the Brisbane market.
But the bonanza was over in 24 hours.
The tides had stranded countless thousands of fish on the river edges and on the exposed flats below the bridge. And the weather was very hot. Soon, all hands were feverishly digging to bury the fish, which were already making life in the nearby houses of Bundaberg unbearable.
The distillery, with the exception of the huge molasses sheds, was burned to the ground. The company drew about £145,000 in insurance.
The biggest loser was the Federal Government, which lost £750,000 in excise on the spirit which had flowed into the Burnett.
Within a year, the present distillery — a greater and more modern structure than its predecessor — was completed and in production.
No visitor to the Bundaberg distillery departs without the chance of sampling the product in Roy Samson’s office. It is a moment worth waiting for. But the tawny liquor in Roy’s decanter is not the rum you are used to . . . put plenty of water in it!
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