The frontier pubs of Cooktown
By MICK ROBERTS ©
THERE are not many places to quench the thirst on the three hour journey along the Mulligan Highway to Cooktown, but the quality of the pubs on the 250km trek sure make-up for their short supply.
We visited three pubs along the next leg of our far north Queensland road trip to Cooktown, the Mt Carbine Roadhouse, the Lakeland Hotel at Lakeland Downs, and the famous Lions Den Hotel at Helenvale.
Less than an hour from Mossman we reach our first pub – The Mt Carbine Hotel. After a short refreshment break, we continue another hour and a half along the Mulligan Highway to Lakeland Downs.
The first time I visited this part of the world, the Lakeland Hotel was on the main road. These days, the pub is a short distance off the main road, so keep an eye out, and don’t confuse the place with the roadhouse on the main road.
The Lakeland Hotel sits at the crossroads of the Peninsula Developmental Road that goes north to the tip of Cape York, and Mulligan Highway that continues east to the coast at Cooktown.
The Lakeland, which seems to have been built in the latter half of last century, boasts everything a bush pub would ever want or need, like tucker, pool tables and plenty of icy cold beer – with one exception – ‘wi-fi’.
After ordering our drinks, I asked the barmaid if their was ‘wi-fi’ available, and, without moving her lips, she pointed to a sign on the wall, which read: “Don’t ask if we have ‘wi-fi’, instead talk to your mate”, or words to that effect. I got the message, and no more words were exchanged.
Interestingly, despite a vast lawn surrounding the single storey, concrete block constructed pub, a sign warns patrons to leave their dogs with their car. There must have been a few beaut dog fights over the years.
Refreshed, we continued north along the Mulligan Highway towards Cooktown, and our next stop – The Lion’s Den Hotel.
The historic Lions Den Hotel, located 28km south of Cooktown, near the Black Mountain (Kalkajaka) National Park, is a short distance off the main road to Cooktown, and is a must destination for travellers to Cape York.
In 1875 a young Welshman from Rossville, Jack Ross and his wife Annie decided to open a new hotel where the Little Annan River and the Mungumby Creek joined, the area later became known as Helenvale. The new hotel was named after the Lion’s Den tin mine on the nearby tableland.
The landmark single storey pub is made of timber and corrugated iron, and is famous for its quirky decorations and walls adorned with visitors’ signatures.
One of the longest hosts of the pub was the Watkins family, who, from the 1890s, had the Lion’s Den for over 50 years.
Sitting so close to the Annan River, the pub has been under constant threat from floodwaters over its more than 140 years of history. During 1939 the river reached its highest flood level in 50 years.
The 77-year-old publican at that time, Annie Watkins and her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren, spent the night on the roof of the pub when the river broke its banks and three feet of water poured into the building. They were rescued the next day after the water had receded.
Annie Watkins hosted the pub for over half a century and died aged 79 in 1941.
It has been over 25 years since I sank a beer at the little public bar of the Lions Den. I was looking forward to visiting the oasis. Passing under its landmark timber gateway, it seemed that time had stood still.
The pub had changed little since I visited as a young man in the 1980s.
The bistro was doing a brisk trade, and the staff, who are mainly overseas backpackers these days, were busy keeping the amber nectar flowing to the many tourists visiting this legendary pub.
We enjoyed a beer before continuing the remainder of the journey onto Cooktown, and settling into our air B&B and wandering down to the pub.
Cooktown is one of the few large towns on Cape York Peninsula and was founded in 1873 as a supply port for the goldfields along the Palmer River.
By 1878, the 94 hotels which Cooktown had boasted four years earlier had been reduced to about two dozen. Some of Cooktown’s early pubs are described in the following reminiscence, published in the Townsville Daily Bulletin on November 10 1952:
The first near the AUSN wharf was French Charley’s. Charles Bouel was a clever Frenchman, a fine host and a great dreamer; always planning ambitious schemes for the achievement of the Far North, but he ended his days in debt. The next hotel in Charlotte Street was Mrs. Beaton’s, a motherly soul and a fine planiste. Andrew Thredgold’s hotel was next and he was mayor of Cooktown for several terms. Dan Calvin was an hotelkeeper who, on several occasions, financed a week’s wages for the printers of the struggling ‘Cooktown Herald’ newspaper. Poole’s Sovereign Hotel was one of the leading places and highly respectable – despite the fact that Edwin Townsend, a wild young Sub-Inspector of the Native Police, galloped in one day and on his horse chased Henry Poole up the stairs. Kaiser’s Great Northern Hotel (partially destroyed in the 1949 cyclone) was the largest and most comfortable house, and Mrs Balser was adored by all who knew her. On the opposite side of the street where half-a-dozen other hotels, the chief being Joe Maskrey’s and Jimmy Neil’s. The latter was the ‘West Coast’ and still functions. Reynold’s hotel, out at the Two Mile was the favourite resort of quieter types of carriers.
Cooktown’s three remaining pubs date back to the 1870s and continue to be the centre of social life, where no-one or no-thing seems to be in too much of a hurry.
First stop for us was the ‘Top Pub’ – The Cooktown Hotel.
Between mixing with the locals, playing pool, enjoying a beer and collecting empties, we got to meet and chat with pub rouseabout, Kevin “Vinny” Vincent.
In the old days Vinny would have been described as a ‘boots’ – a person who lives in the pub, in exchange for general duties around the place.
Like many we met on our far north Queensland road trip, 67-year-old Vinny had originally come from “down south”.
“I’ve lived in Cooktown for 25 years. I’m originally from Victoria,” he said.
“I spent nine years in the navy, and later did a bit of construction work. Like many blokes in the navy, I got the call of the ocean again, and became a commercial fisherman.
“I started in Mackay, and followed the heat north here to Cooktown where I got a job on the boats.
“I’ve had some adventures up here. I remember sheltering the fishing fleet in amongst the mangroves during the last cyclone. We were lucky, but many of the town’s buildings weren’t. Down the road, the West Coast Hotel lost its roof, and now operates from a temporary bar.”
We’ll get to that later.
Vinny retired from commercial fishing after he was offered a job at the Cooktown Hotel, better known locally as the ‘Top Pub’. It survived in tact after the 2014 cyclone.
“The yardsman at the pub was leaving, and I was offered his job,” Vinny said.
“My job involves getting up in the morning, cleaning the pub inside and out, doing general maintenance, like painting and repairing, and looking after the garden.
“I consider this place to be a big ship. It needs looking after to sail along perfectly.”
Vinny has been drinking at the ‘Top Pub’ for over 25 years and knows all the regulars by first name.
“I’ve met a lot of people over the years, especially in the tourist season (June through to August). This is my home now. I can’t see me leaving here any time soon.”
Cooktown Hotel owner and publican, Michael Wilson says Vinny is a valuable part of his team at the pub.
“He’s a character; everyone knows Vinny, he’s a real asset to the pub,” Michael said.
Michael is another ‘refugee’ from down south, and bought the pub three years ago.
“I came up here for a mates 60th birthday and fell in love with the place,” he said.
“I called the publican at the time and offered to buy the license from him, and he agreed.”
Michael’s attraction to Cooktown was so strong, he also offered to buy the pub lock, stock and barrel, and he now also owns the freehold. It’s not his first hotel, and the publican has had several other pubs in South Australia and Victoria, most notably the Albion at Kyabram, which he hosted for nine years.
“There’s something special about Cooktown. It’s a typical bush town, with a real community spirit,” he said.
There are two other pubs in Cooktown, the Sovereign and the West Coast.
The Sovereign is a rebuild of the original pub that had stood on the site since the 1870s, and which was flattened in latter years by a cyclone. It boasts the original pubs magnificent public bar, and is worth a visit.
Henry Poole established the Sovereign Hotel in 1874 after buying Crown Land earlier in the year. He became a well-known figure in Cooktown and, with his wife, raising eight sons at the pub. Here’s one of my favourite yarns about Poole and his pub:
On Friday night, a few minutes after the Sovereign Hotel, Cooktown, had closed its doors, the worthy landlord [Henry Poole] was terribly scared by a loud rapping at the door. Fearing an attack from a Russian squadron he armed himself with a corkscrew, and boldly faced the disturber of Cooktown’s slumbers. Ere he could ask a question a terribly excited man yelled “Brandy! brandy! my mate has just been bitten by a snake; give me whiskey, brandy, anything.” Poole immediately handed a flask of his best three star *** and stood on the footpath in his pyjamas, anxiously awaiting to see the effects of *** on snake-bite, intending to recommend it to all his country visitors. But to his extreme disgust the man rejoined his two mates, who roared with laughter, then sat on the edge of the footpath and consumed the snake antidote. Henceforth Poole draws a very broad line at snake-bite.
– Queensland Figaro and Punch Saturday 17 April 1886.
After 14 years as host, Poole died of a heart attack at the pub on May 2 1888.
Cooktown’s West Coast Hotel is also a rebuild, but on a less grand scale – in fact, you could say it’s a temporary bar – after cyclone Ita tore its roof off in April 2014.
“The West Coast was a two-storey pub originally,” Vinny said.
“It suffered extensive damage, and it was later demolished by the owners. They’ve kept a small single storey temporary bar, so they can continue the license. I don’t know how the place survived.”
The West Coast was famous for its parlour frescoes, painted by Brisbane artist, Garnet Agnew in the 1940s.
The pictures studded the entire walls of two parlours, showing a pictorial history of the Palmer gold discovery – from the early rush to when the precious mineral petted-out.
The first fresco showed the mass desertion of posts on news of the rush. The final fresco showed the most powerful of all – a portrait of an old lunatic, frenziedly spilling golden nuggets from an upturned dish into the stream, while above him towered the dark robed spectre of Death.
A representative of the Brisbane Courier newspaper penned the following story on December 21 1946 after a visit to Cooktown and the West Coast Hotel:
AT the West Coast Hotel I met ‘Drat it All’ Alligator Jim Bentley, 76 years old character of priceless vintage. Jim showed me the famous strip, painted on the shabby V-J walls by former Brisbane artist, Garnet Agnew. It is a wonderful bit of documentary work in paint showing the panorama of events of the Palmer rush. Greed, hate, joy, humour — all the bathos and pathos are there, and many living Cooktown character’s with true likenesses are incorporated. As the eye sweeps along the characters come to life and the illusion of animation is startling. But to revert to ‘Drat it all’ Jim Bentley. When a boy he promised his mother he wouldn’t swear and substituted his ”Drat it all” for cuss words. This phrase comes into every second sentence of his conversation and it is excruciatingly funny to reflect just how fiery his delivery would be but for his boyhood vow. Jim came to Cooktown 35 years ago. His has been a lifetime of adventure. Twenty-two years in the British Army in four campaigns — Burma (1892), South Africa, Zulu Rebellion, and in the Great War with the AIF including the Gallipoli show. He was originally in the Royal Navy — deserted from HMS Ganges at Falmouth in 1887, the year of the Queen’s Jubilee. Received honourable acquittal while on service in South Africa.
We left Cooktown the following day, making our way to the next leg of our far north Queensland road trip – southward towards the Atherton Tablelands, where more pubs and more stories await.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2019