Road Trip: The pubs of far north Queensland’s back country

Our 144kms journey along the Burke Development Road to the back country. Picture: Google

By MICK ROBERTS ©

THEY’RE a hardy bunch, those who call far north Queensland’s back country home. They have to be. It’s harsh country, as we discovered on our road trip to Chillagoe, 200km west of Cairns, late in 2020.

Our road trip took us along the Burke Development Road west of Mareeba, where we visited remote bush pubs, explored their history, and chatted to their publicans.

The Burke Development Road more or less follows a historic rail line, built to service a burgeoning mining industry, and today takes tourists along one of the great rail journeys in Australia.

The famous Savannahlander is a unique outback rail experience departing Cairns weekly, winding its way through the wet tropics area of the Kuranda range and out through the Savannah country of the back country, west of Mareeba.

This is one of my favourite road trips, and probably explains why it has taken me so long to publish this story. My apologies to the publicans I told on our road trip that this story would be up in a few weeks. The rich history of these fascinating pubs took me a while to research. I hope I at least got the story, and the pubs’ rich histories, mostly right. As always, I’m ready for feedback.

So here we go… Tank full, note pad and pen to the ready, camera fully charged, as we make our way to Mareeba, an hour’s drive west of Cairns.

Our first stop along the 144 kilometres of the Burke Development Road from Mareeba to Chillagoe is at Dimbulah’s Junction Hotel. We paused for a few photographs. Unfortunately the pub was closed, and it was a little early for a beer. I’m looking forward to paying this historic pub a visit on another of our road trips.

The Junction Hotel has a long history, first built in 1903. Due to the increase of the tobacco Industry the pub was later rebuilt into a two story building with accommodation upstairs, ladies lounge and bar. This burnt down on August 3, 1953 along with six other buildings. It was then rebuilt and reopened in 1956.

Junction Hotel, Dimbulah. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

Two hours from Cairns we visit a former pub that has been dry for as long as anyone can remember. In fact, the former Espanol Hotel at Lappa Junction has been unlicensed since 1966; but that doesn’t stop visitors enjoying a beer at its famous bar.

Lappa became an important rail junction when a branch line was built south to Mount Garnet to service its new copper smelter at the turn of last century. It takes its name from nearby Lappa Lappa Creek (Aboriginal for permanent water), where the famous Afghan cameleer, Abdul Wade watered his camels as he hauled minerals out of Chillagoe and Mt Garnet.

The former Espanol Hotel, Lappa Junction. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

In its hey-day in the early 1900s, Lappa was home to about 1000 people, with the hotel the centre of the town’s social life.

The current owner of the corrugated iron shanty says his pub is strictly ‘BYO’, and anyone can wander into its public bar at anytime and enjoy its historic charm.

Tim Prater, aka the Yappa from Lappa, has been the owner of the old pub for over 30 years. You could say Yappa is almost as famous as his pub!

“The Almaden Publican reckons the locals came up with my nickname,” he said.

“The truth is though, I had thought of it some months before, so I ‘got-up’ him for being so slow coming up with it. Like many who live in the bush, I don’t mind a yarn when meeting others.

“I first got here in 1989, and moved in the following year, at Easter,” he said.

“I thought, gee someone needs to get here and save this historic pub – turned out to be me.”

Born in Adelaide, and raised in Brisbane, Yappa was a builders’ hardware salesman, and had various jobs, including in pubs, before taking-on the job of keeping the legend of the Espanol alive.

Yappa, who says his age is “the wrong side of 60”, bought the pub from the Leonard family, who had owned it from the 1923.

The Leonards ran the pub until it closed for business in 1966. However, we’ll get the Leonards’ rein at the pub later in the story.

The Espanol Hotel, Lappa Junction. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection. Inset Tim Prater at the bar of the Espanol.

Yappa has been researching the history of the pub, and has discovered colourful yarns and stories that could fill a book.

“There were at least three pubs in 1900/1901 at Lappa. The remaining one was moved about 50 meters in 1901 to its current location,” he said.

From my research I found that the Lappa Junction Hotel was established by George and Isabella Walton in 1900.

George, his wife, and adult sons arrived in Cairns from Mullet Creek, a small village near Gosford in NSW, in 1887.

At the age of 49 George Walton purchased the goodwill of the Railway Hotel at the corner of Shields and McLeod Streets, Cairns, opposite the railway station.

George was also a local contractor, and was employed to oversee the construction of bridges on the railway from Mareeba to Chillagoe, to service the booming mining industry in the region.

George struck financial difficulties in 1899 and was declared insolvent. He left the Railway Hotel in Cairns and set his sights on starting afresh in the back country. Two of his sons were also in the hotel trade.

George Cooper Walton had license of Cairns’ Queens Hotel, while John Wilson Walton had the Federal Hotel, opposite the Mareeba Railway Station, and was the booking agent for the Cobb & Co coach to the mining leases in the Chillagoe region.

George was cleared of his insolvency in January 1900, and with his wife, Isabella, made their way to the back country to establish, what is today, the former Espanol Hotel.

Construction of the first section of the rail line from Mareeba to Lappa Lappa commenced in 1898 and the 55 miles was officially opened on October 1 1900. However by September 1900 the rail line was already up and running between Mareeba and Lappa Junction.

By the following newspaper report it seems George Walton had already established his pub at the ‘54 Mile’ at ‘Garnet Junction’, which later became known as Lappa Junction, by late 1900. The North Queensland Register reported on September 3, 1900:

The train winds its way around hills and through, ravines, disclosing scenery beautiful to look-on, the country being really picturesque from the 49 mile to the 54 mile. It is here that the Mount Garnet line will branch off from the main line, and it is to this centre that the Chillagoe company will shortly remove their office and workshops. Garnet Junction is to be the main centre for some time to come, and already buildings are going up right and left. There is only one hotel there at present, viz., Mr George Walton’s a building 54 x 28, and in every way comfortable. A second hotel is in course of erection to the order of Tom Dillon and it bids fair to hold its own. Its dimensions are 60 x 30, in addition to back and front verandahs, with accommodation for 18 beds. The bar is to be 20ft, the dining room 18 x 30, well-ventilated, throughout with fanlights; and there will be besides, three parlors. A special attention is given to the requirements of the public in the erection of a cellar 15 x 15ft 6in by 5ft, and a billiard table is to be obtained. Visitors to the place can therefore rely on receiving every comfort when they visit Mr Dillon’s house at Garnet Junction.

According to advertising in the Cairns Morning Post in January 1901, Cobb & Co. coaches left Walton’s Hotel at Lappa Junction for Mount Garnet every Wednesday and Saturday on arrival of the mail train.  Reportedly there were two pubs trading at Lappa Junction in 1901 – Walton’s and Dillon’s.

Irish couple, Tom and Sarah Dillon settled in Cairns in 1884.

The Dillons had many hotel businesses in the prosperous days of the back country. However, while successful in many of their business ventures, their pub at Lappa Junction was short-lived and had closed by 1903.

The newspaper, Queensland Country Life, describing a rail journey from Cairns to Chillagoe, reported on October 1 1902:

“We reached Lappa about 1.45pm, and a stay there of about an hour and a half enabled us to get lunch comfortably. Some repaired to Walton’s, others to Dillon’s Hotel – both good hostelries.”

The Dillons went on to host other hotels in the region before establishing a cordial factory in Cairns in 1906. Tom eventually became mayor of Cairns, and died in 1917. Sarah followed in 1928.

George and Isabella Walton’s pub meanwhile was to go down in history, and remained trading as licensed premises for another 66 years.

George had a short stay at Lappa, and died on February 12 1902 at the age of 64. His wife, Isabella though continued as host of the Lappa Junction Hotel.

Isabella suffered another loss 12 months later with the death of her youngest son, George Cooper Walton, aged just 33.

The publican’s other son, John, who was hosting Mareeba’s Federal Hotel, reportedly took his brother, who was suffering a severe fever to Cairns for treatment, where he died in November 1903.

The Lappa Junction Hotel was described in 1903 as an iron building measuring 100 feet by 24 feet, with a timber sawn floor.

The pub contained 10 bedrooms, two parlours, bar, dining room, pantry, kitchen, store room, and outhouses. The hotel stood on a two acre lease with an annual rent of 20 shillings.

Isabella continued as host of the pub until she struck financial problems in 1908. After she was declared insolvent in 1908, the license of the hotel was transferred to Alwyn Ernest Williams.

Williams would have a short stay as publican after his wife had an extra-marital affair with local commission agent, Charles Alfred Jenkins, who – by the way – happened to also be the owner of the Lappa Junction Hotel.

Meanwhile Isabella Walton died at the Mareeba residence of her daughter in February 1915 at the age of 78. She left a family of four daughters and a son, John Wilson Walton, of the Herbert River, who had hosted the Federal Hotel at Mareeba for many years. 

John Wilson Walton, by the way, lived to the age of 84, and died in Townsville, while on a holiday from Sydney in June 1952.

Meanwhile after Isabella fell on financial woes in 1908, the pub was purchased by Charles Alfred Jenkins and leased to Alwyn Ernest Williams.

Williams had been a storekeeping at Nymbool, before taking the license of the Federal Hotel, Mount Garnet Hotel in 1907. He took over as host at Lappa Junction in 1908, placing his wife, Violet in charge at the Mount Garnet pub.

The Williams marriage broke-down soon after, with his estranged wife, Violet eventually marrying Cairns businessman and owner of the Lappa Junction Hotel, Charles Alfred Jenkins.

With the break-down of his marriage, Alwyn Ernest Williams left the Lappa Junction Hotel in about 1909, later hosting a pub at Woree, before taking on the Double Island Hotel in 1915, and in 1936 the Yorkey’s Knob Hotel. He died in Cairns in 1945 at the age of 73.

Meanwhile, the Lappa Junction Hotel was sold again in 1910. The Northern Miner newspaper reported on January 15 1910 that the pub was bought by “Mr Barbara, at the price of £350”. 

Barbara (sometimes spelt Barbera and Barbra) is a bit of a mysterious character.

A Spanish immigrant, 39-year-old Ysidro Barbara married 44-year-old Mary Fakes in 1909 before they took over the Lappa Junction Hotel the following year and renamed it the Espanol Hotel – Espanol, meaning Spanish.

Whether the Espanol’s whisky or rum was watered down during these times is debatable. However, going by the following report in the Northern Herald on December 17, 1917, there seems to have been some concern over the contents sold in the glasses of the district’s pubs:

A surprise visit was paid by the Health Officer to the Lappa and Garnet districts lately, causing consternation at two or three places amongst the licensed victuallers. It is stated that he met with a very warm reception at one hotel where he called for samples, while at another he evidently had to call on the services of the ‘John Hop’ of the district. Report says that a 20 ton truck had to be requisitioned to convey the samples to Cairns. The outside public are expressing a hope that when the analysis comes to hand they will be enlightened as to what really constitutes whisky and rum.

Opinions regarding conscription are pretty evenly divided about here, or, if there is a leaning either way, it would be on the side of ‘No.’

Ysidiro Barbera and his wife Mary hosted the Espanol Hotel for about seven years before selling the pub, and becoming farmers.

Ysidiro Barbera died aged about 64 on June 2 1934. He was buried in Cairns Cemetery. They seem to have had no children, and the fate of Mary is unknown.

A number of publicans hosted the Espanol over the following years, including Fred Winters, who likely had one of the shortest reigns at the Lappa’s bar.

Born in the NSW town of Grafton, Winters arrived in far north Queensland in the early 1900s. He was part owner of a mine at Bamford, and became ‘dusted’ before taking over the Espanol in December 1920.

Less than four months after taking the role of publican of the Espanol, the 46-year-old publican was dead from the disease known as ‘miner’s consumption’.

The Cairns Post reported on March 17 1921 that Winters’ remains were brought by the Chillagoe train to Mareeba where he was buried. He left a widow and three children.

After Winters, divorcee, Emily Potts took over as host of the Espanol for two years before Vida Emily Leonard officially obtained the license of the pub on May 1 1923.

The last publican of the Espanol was born Vida Emily Ryan on the Palmer River Goldfields in far north Queensland. Her father David Ryan was a heavy drinker and disappeared around 1887 in the Palmer river goldfields, with speculation that he may have been killed by Aborigines.

Vida Ryan married John William Leonard in 1909 and made their home at Sunnymount, Chillagoe where they operated a general store. She took the license of the Espanol in 1923, and would host the pub for the following 43 years.

Vida’s husband, William died in 1937 and she continued as host of the pub with the help of her two sons, until its closure in 1966. She died in 1969.

During World War II, the Leonards also ran tearooms next to the railway station at Lappa Junction where reportedly they catered for thousands of allied troops who were stationed at a camp at Mount Garnet. Anyone in uniform scored a free ‘cuppa’.

The Leonards also reportedly built an air raid shelter under the big mango tree behind the hotel.

The Leonards grew all their own food as the road to Mareeba was so rough. What is now a 40 minute journey, then took six hours and was impassable in the wet season. They kept chickens, cattle, goats, and pigs and had vegetable and tobacco gardens.

Before buying the Espanol, current host, Tim Prater met the two Leonard ‘boys’, Victor and his older brother ‘Wiggie’.

Yappa said he had met Victor previously before he was introduced to his older brother, ‘Wiggie’ in a pub in Mareeba “many years ago”.

“When he (Victor) introduced me, he said it’s the old boys 80th birthday today; best ya buy him a drink,” Yappa said.

“Which, I did. In fact, I bought him several.”

A few months later and Yappa walked into same Mareeba pub, where he found the Leonard boys again having a drink.

“So, I went over. And, Victor lays on the same story: ‘It’s the old bloke’s 80th, best ya buy him a drink’. So I just smiled, and bought him one, and moved on.

“Well, a month later, I walk into same bar, and there the pair are. So, I walk up, and yell-out to all in the bar; ‘Its the old bloke’s 80th today, ya should all buy him a beer. They never tried it on me again.”

Yappa also tells the tale of the unfortunate fate of a possum walking along the top shelf behind the bar of the Espanol during the war years.

“One of the patrons reckoned that was a bit rough, so they went out to their vehicle and returned with a shotgun,” he said.

“Despite the publican’s pleas, the old possum ended its days there and then. The holes in the corrugated iron are still visable.”

Yappa has many stories about the pub. He likes the one about the railway workers that drank the pub dry when it closed in 1966.

“They drank her dry at the end, and (I like the story of) how the fettlers all hung around waiting for the beer to arrive on Friday’s train.

The barrel, full of hot beer, was rolled from the nearby station and placed on the bar to tap.

“Anyone who complained about the beer being warm was told that the barrel of water at the door had a sack in it for putting over the keg to cool the beer down.”

These days, visitors to the Espanol are far and few between. The occasional tourists are seasonal, mostly during the winter months.

“We get them from all around the world,” Yappa said.

“We had two guys from Finland once come and put big bottle of vodka on the bar. They had seen a ‘doco’ at home that had featured the pub, and the ‘Yappa from Lappa’, so they decided to come and have a drink with him.”

And what lies ahead for the Espanol?

“I’ve knocked myself around a fair bit,” Yappa said.

“I’m starting to fall behind in the high maintenance needed here, so I’ll be finishing off a couple of jobs, and putting her up for sale soon.

“The highway to Chillagoe will be fully sealed soon. I guess that might be a good time to move on.

“I might retire somewhere with an ocean view.”

Leaving Lappa Junction, we hit the road to our next destination – Almaden.

Arriving at sleepy Almaden, we came across two young children on the dusty road into the Railway Hotel. They waved happily, before going on their dusty way.

Waving back, I remarked that it felt good to see kids able to go about care-free, unlike in the city. Later we discovered they were nine-year-old Logan, and his six-year-old sister, Charlotte – the children of the couple who host the Railway Hotel.

Almaden’s Railway Hotel publican, Alyce Clarke. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

Alyce and Matthew Clarke, both in their 30s, have been at the Railway Hotel for four years.

“It’s pretty good here. It’s a nice little country pub,” Alyce said.

“Sometimes it can get quiet, though we love it out here.”

Originally from the NSW country town of Casino, Alyce met Matthew while contract mustering at a local cattle station.

“I’ve been up here 15 years now,” she said.

“I came up here to do contract mustering, going from station to station.”

Alyce said leasing the pub gave the couple stability, allowing their children to attend school at nearby Dimbulah (An hour away by bus).

“It’s a great place to bring up kids. You know when they’re out playing on their own, that they’re safe.”

Asked whether the pair will be making a career out of pubs, Alyce was quick to reject the suggestion.

“It’s a once off. It will probably be our first and last pub,” she said.

“We’re here to get the kids through school.”

The Railway Hotel is the last of three pubs that once traded in Almadan.

“The Railway was built in 1906 and is the original building,” Alyce said.

“Times have changed a lot in the town. Fifty or 60 years ago when the mines were going well, this place was packed, and could get pretty rowdy.

“It’s a lot tamer these days. We don’t have any problems with the locals, they’re pretty well behaved.”

The Railway Hotel joined Peel’s Royal and Wieland’s Carriers Arms Hotels at Almaden when it was licensed by former cop, John Maher in 1907. The Northern Miner reported on June 22 1907: 

Mr. John Maher, for many years in the police force, has resigned his position at Chillagoe, and is taking over a new hotel at Almaden, which is being built by Mr Sinclair Miller of Cairns.

Maher was a tough old publican. At the age of 24 he joined the police force, and was first stationed at Nelson, near Cairns. While at the sugar mill town, he married Ellen Mahoney in 1899 and they would have one child, Mary together in 1903.

Constable Maher was praised in 1899 when he reportedly stopped a rush of 75 kanakas, with knives in their hands, at the Central Mulgrave sugar mill.

The Clarence and Richmond Examiner reported on August 1 1899 that after one of the kanakas had been shot by the overseer “in a fracas”, Maher faced them alone with a revolver in his hand, and “his prompt and courageous action is believed to have prevented a general attack on the whites at the mill”.

Constable Maher was transferred to Atherton in 1901 and later Chillagoe before he resigned from the police force in 1907. The Northern Miner reported on June 22 1907:

Mr John Maher, for many years in the police force, has resigned his position at Chillagoe, and is taking over a new hotel at Almaden, which is being built by Mr. Sinclair Miller of Cairns.

Maher’s new Railway Hotel joined two other pubs at Almaden, the Royal and the Carriers Arms. The Royal was destroyed by fire in 1911, and the Carriers Arms would remain the Railway Hotel’s only competition in the town well into the 1950s.

Maher landed in hot water with authorities in 1914 when he was charged by police for firing a shot gun at the government health inspector, R.A. Wright. Reports stated that Maher fired the gun into the air above Wright as he walked away from his pub. The publican was found guilty as charged and fined £5.

While Maher was remanded in the lock-up on the charges, the police also charged him for abandoning his licensed premises. The Brisbane Courier reported on May 27 1914: 

An Unusual Case

In the Police Court today (our Chillagoe correspondent wired last night) the licensing inspector proceeded against John Maher on a charge of having absented himself from his licensed premises without leave from the court. Defendant alleged that he had been prevented from returning to his premises, he being a prisoner of the Crown, awaiting trial on a charge of having shot at Health Inspector Wright. The Police Magistrate held that defendant should have provided against contingencies, and fined him in the minimum amount of £5, with costs.

Publican Maher escaped with a warning just a couple of months later when he confronted Inspector Malone at the Almaden Railway Station. He was charged by the Inspector with creating a disturbance, and using obscene language.

Maher died in February 6 1921 at the age of 55. He was buried in the Cairns Cemetery. His widow, Ellen took over the pub after her husband’s death, with the help of her 18-year-old daughter, Ellen.

A long list of publicans hosted the historic pub after Ellen died while host in 1925.

Leaving Almaden we continue the 32kms to our next destination – Chillagoe.

Chillagoe is a two pub town. Once a thriving mining town, Chillagoe is now reduced to a small zinc mine, and some marble quarries.

Just out of town is a national park containing limestone caves. The caves, the spectacular landscape and the mining and smelting history have become tourist attractions that the town’s pubs, the Post Office and the Black Cockatoo have become heavily dependant upon to stay afloat.

The new owners of the Cockatoo Hotel, Roberto and Rhonda Moreno have been at the helm for over two years.

Roberto and Rhonda Moreno and their family outside the Black Cockatoo Hotel, Chillagoe. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

Like the Clarkes at Almaden’s Railway Hotel, the Moreno family are first time publicans. But they are far from new-comers to the region.

Roberto came to Australia from Spain as a two-year-old with his parents in 1962. His parents landed in Melbourne, where his father gained employment as a “dishi” (dishwasher) in a restaurant before leaving the family in search of work in far-north Queensland.

“He had heard there was good money to be made on fruit, tobacco and sugar cane farms in northern Queensland,” Roberto said.

“He got work as a cane cutter, and when he was settled he returned to Melbourne put us all on a train and we all headed up north.”

Eventually Roberto would grow-up on his father’s tobacco farm near Dimbulah. He gained work as a driver, and has been behind the wheel of trucks ever since.

“I’ve been a truck driver since I was 19. I’ve driven road trains, B-Doubles, the lot. I drove for BP for 30 odd years delivering fuel.”

Roberto’s partner of 28 years, Rhonda is also a local. Born and bred in Mareeba, Rhonda has always dreamt of running a pub.

“I had always wanted to own a pub,” Rhonda said.

“If we knew what we know now, we would have run a hundred miles,” she said with a laugh.

Roberto had injured his shoulder and had retired from the truck driving game when he spotted the Cockatoo Hotel for sale on Facebook. An opportunity had come of fulfilling Rhonda’s dream, and the couple bought the pub’s freehold.

“A lot of locals knew me already because of the fuel delivery and I used to have a drink with them while out this way.

“We came up with a five year plan, and bought the pub.

“We realise it won’t make us millionaires. It’s a lot of work for our age.”

With the help of Roberto’s four step-daughters and his son, they have built a successful business in what has become a sleepy township.

A week and a half before the Covid epidemic struck in March 2020, the local mine, which employed 400 people, closed and family have battled hard to keep their business profitable.

Their main customers today are tourists, and government workers, including road surveyors, and ringers from the nearby stations.

“Since we’ve been here the meals have tripled. You do good food, and people keep coming back,” Roberto said.

Sitting behind the bar, Roberto gave us a potted history of his pub, while attending to a steady stream of “grey nomads” calling in for lunch.

The pub, he said, marks its 50th anniversary this year.

“The original pub was up on the corner, and burnt down in the 1970s,” he said.

The original pub, known as the Imperial, was opened in 1901 by Peter and Mary Byrnes, a little to the west of the Cockatoo Hotel at the corner of Tower and Frew Streets. The Byrnes had a series of pubs along the Cairns to Atherton Tablelands railway, many of them known as the Imperial.

Peter Byrne arrived in Queensland from Ireland as a 12-year old boy with his parents in 1872. Blessed with remarkable physique, as a young man he undertook contract work for councils in the Cairns region before saving his money earned employed in a sawmill, he began business as a store and hotel keeper on the massive tablelands railway.

At the age of 25, a year before his marriage to Irish-born Mary McCoy, he applied for a hotel license for premises he proposed to build along the second stage of the Cairns to Kuranda railway line.

Work on the second section of the line began in April 1887, where Peter Byrne was operating a store at The Springs, a navvies’ camp along the railway.

Mary McCoy was born at Tubbercurry, Ireland, and came to Queensland with her sister earlier in the decade before her marriage to Byrne in 1888.

After their marriage in 1888, Peter and Mary Byrne opened the Red Bluff Hotel, in conjunction with a general store, at ‘The Springs’.

The couple, this time with two children under the age of three, were successful in transferring the license of the Red Bluff Hotel to the terminus of the Cairns to Kuranda railway line at Myola in October 1891, naming their new pub, the Imperial.

Peter Byrne had a short stay at Myola and transferred his license to Biboohra, where the third section of the railway had progressed, in October 1892.

Imperial Hotel, Biboohra, 1893. Picture: State Library of Queensland

By this time, the couple had three young children – all under the age of five. Besides gaining a reputation as the publican to the navvies working on the Cairns to Tablelands railway, Byrne had also built an expertise as a bushman able to negotiate the steep mountain passes through almost impenetrable jungle rainforests.

The Imperial Hotel at Biboohra was his third pub along the third section of the railway line from Kuranda to Herberton.  

While at Biboohra, Byrne’s horse, Scotty reportedly had a “phenomenal knowledge” of the wild country, and was skilfully able to climb the tracks that followed the rail line.

When hearing how a navvy, Charles Grant was unable to gain approval to use the ballast train for a lift home to visit his wife and child, Byrne, now 31, infamously allowed him the use of Scotty – with dire consequences. The  Queensland Times reported on Thursday March 16 1893:

On Saturday last Charles Grant, working on a contract for pointing the bridges on the third section of the Cairns Herberton Railway, was at Biboohra, his work at the time being the famous and long-delayed bridge over the Barron. His home was at the Clohesy River, about midway between Biboohra and Myola, and purchasing some dainties in the way of butter, jam, &c., and taking his swag, he resolved to spend the Sunday with his wife and child.

According to the regulations of the Railway Department which, like the laws of the Medes and Persians, cannot he shifted without an earthquake, and then it takes three months – the train only stops at the Clohesy on Tuesday, but Grant thought as he was working on the line they would drop him at the place although it was Saturday. He was mistaken. The officials declined to do any thing of the sort.

Grant then went and unburdened his sorrows in the sympathising ears of Peter Byrnes, a hotelkeeper, long and favourably known on the second and third sections. That good-hearted boniface, after listening to the tale of woe, agreed to lend Grant his horse ‘Scotty’, a quadruped of tried integrity, whose knowledge, by long experience of the line, was simply phenomenal, and whose reputation had long since passed into a proverb.

Grant slung his ‘dainties’ in a sugar-bag on oneside of the horse, and balanced it on the other with his swag. He then mounted the animal, and with thanks and a cheery goodbye to Peter he rode away. Peter never saw him again – alive.

Peter Byrnes had occasion to go to the Clohesy on Monday morning, but on calling at Grant’s house was astonished to find the man had never reached there. His wife became terribly alarmed, and Byrnes promised he would institute a search. He got together a party, consisting of McInerny, T. Kelly, Valtely, Wright, and himself. They discovered the unfortunate man in a creek known as One-mile Creek, which is within one mile of the Clohesy.

The unfortunate man had, by some means, wandered a quarter of a mile from the ordinary track, and the body was found in a muddy waterhole containing some six or seven feet of water. The horse was found with saddle intact; the sugarbag and the swag had disappeared – they are possibly in the waterhole.

On making the sad discovery, Peter Byrnes, whose actions throughout appear to have been those of a downright good-hearted, as well as a sensible fellow, rode off and wired for Constable Hill. On Hill’s arrival on the scene, the body was taken from the water, placed on the ballast train, and conveyed to Myola, where a coffin was provided.

Charles Grant was aged about thirty-five, and bore the character of being a steady soul industrious man, and a good tradesman. He was one of the chief witnesses against the man Hackett, who stands committed for the murder of a woman at the Clohesy Bridge a few months ago. The many friends of the deceased wish the Railway Department had saved the unfortunate man his ride to death.

The following month after the One Mile Creek tragedy, the 31-year-old publican to the navvies gained approval to move his license again, following the progress of the railway and his customers at the workers camps. He was granted approval in April 1893 to open another Imperial Hotel, this time at Mareeba. It was Byrnes’ fourth pub along the Cairns to Atherton Tablelands rail line.

With his wife, Mary, Peter Byrne operated the Imperial at Mareeba, where they would bring-up their eight children, for the next five years.

Just short of 40 years of age, the pioneering publican made another move, this time 140kms west to Chillagoe, where he had bought property from the first government land sale in November 1900.

Putting in place his proven business formula, Peter once again followed the railway.

A rail line opened from Mareeba to Chillagoe in 1901 to service the developing copper, tin and marble mining industry in the area.

Peter Byrne was granted a provisional publican’s license for a hotel on one of his Chillagoe allotments at what is today the south-east corner of Frew and Tower Streets, in January 1901.

Advertisement for the Imperial Hotel Chillagoe, Cairns Morning Post. 1901
Byrne’s Imperial Hotel, Chillagoe. Picture: Queenslander, October 1, 1904

Again, he would place the sign of Imperial Hotel. The North Queensland Register reported on March 18 1901:

We are informed by a gentleman who returned recently from a visit to Chillagoe that prospects there seem very bright at present. A lot of new buildings are going up, among them being a very fine two-storey hotel which Mr Peter Byrne, late of Mareeba, is having put up. This structure will, we are told, compare favorably in appearance with any in Cairns. In addition to the hotel Mr Byrne in tends to have erected a large store and a theatre. (We have not got the latter in Cairns yet). Mr Torpy, of the Post Office Hotel, is getting his second hostelry constructed near the Railway Station. On the whole Chillagoe is growing rapidly, and some people who had little faith in the place before are now showing their confidence in it by building there.

The newspaper, Queenslander described Peter Byrne as one of the most enterprising business men of Chillagoe on October 1 1904:

He owns the Imperial Hotel and stores adjoining. In a conversation with Mr. Byrne some facts were elicited which showed that in him there is a type of colonist which are too few in Queensland. He arrived in the State twenty two years ago with only a few pounds in capital. Endowed with good physique, he went to work, saved his money earned in a sawmill, and after three years with an employer at Cairns made a start in business as a store and hotel keeper on the Cairns-Mareeba Railway. When Chillagoe was founded he attended the first land sale, and secured six allotments of land on the township site, where he erected the hotel, store, and assembly hall. His hotel is well conducted, and as such is frequented by the leading mining men of the district, and by visitors interested in commercial pursuits or in mining. He, however, caters for all classes, and through-out, it may be said, he conducts his business with tact and discretion. The hotel is the only two-storied edifice in the town. With a spacious balcony and good bedrooms leading from it, baths, and other equipment essential to the comfort of guests, the Imperial Hotel affords a pleasant residence during a few week sojourn in Chillagoe. Peter, as he is familiarly termed, has always a horse and trap ready for the convenience of his hotel patrons. In the assembly hall adjoining the hotel all the principal meetings are held. The store is stocked with all requisites likely to be demanded on a mining field. Mr. Byrne prides himself on his bakery, his bread being much appreciated. He also claims to have been instrumental in lowering the price of bread in the district, and maintaining it at a reasonable rate.

Imperial Hotel Chillagoe, undated. Picture: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

The pioneering publican died at Chillagoe in June 1918 at the age of 56. His widow, Mary, at the age of 53, took over the running of the Imperial Hotel with her daughters and sons.

Mary Byrne continued her late husband’s enthusiasm in the future of Chillagoe, and in 1919 she made extensions to the hotel’s coffee room and bar.

The Imperial was the target of what could be considered an early form of ‘phishing’ in 1926. Known at the time as “tickling the wires”, and in the days when ‘phishing’ meant dropping a line into the creek, one of Mary’s daughters was scammed by the old telegram trick. The Mackay Daily Mercury reported on September 17 1926: 

TICKLED THE WIRES.

An offender pleaded guilty in the Police Court yesterday morning to having obtained the sum of £10 by falsely representing himself to be ‘Bob’ Davis, in whose name he sent a telegram asking to forward the money. Detective Kearney explained that defendant and ‘Bob’ Davis had been working together at Chillagoe, and came to Townsville, where they hit the high spots while their purses were flush. Defendant’s supply of ‘chips’ having been burnt up, he thought out the clever scheme of touching up the wires. Knowing that Davis was in a position to obtain money from Miss Byrne, of the Imperial Hotel, Chillagoe, defendant wired to her for £10, signing the telegram in the name of his friend. The money duly arrived and was collected. Some time later the ruse was discovered, resulting in yesterday’s proceedings. Defendant was fined £5, and ordered to make restitution of £10, in default one month’s imprisonment.

The grand old lady of the Imperial Hotel died on July 26, 1952 at the age of 87. In her obituary she was described as “a very charitable disposition and was loved and respected by those who came in contact with her, as was evidenced by the large number, including her eight children, who attended her burial at Chillagoe. The Cairns Post reported at the time that “the back country thus loses one of the few remaining pioneers”.

Imperial Hotel, Chillagoe, 1960. Picture: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
Byrne’s Imperial Hotel, Chillagoe,1966. Picture: Centre for the Government of Queensland

The pub continued to be run by the Byrne children at the south-east corner of Tower and Frew Streets after the matriarch’s death, until it was completely destroyed by fire in about 1970.

Publican of the Black Cockatoo Hotel, Roberto Moreno tells the story of when the Imperial Hotel burnt to the ground in 1970.

The pub was eventually rebuilt as a single storey concrete block building in 1971. Sadly though this is where the Byrne tradition of naming their pubs ‘The Imperial’ ended. The new pub was built a little to the east of the original pub in Tower Street, and given the sign of the ‘Black Cockatoo’ – a beaut Australian name for a pub.

Today, the pub is best known as ‘The Cockatoo’, and Robert and Rhonda Moreno continue the tradition of hosting a family operated business in a special year for the pub. The year 2021 marks the centenary of the opening of the original Byrne’s Imperial Hotel – and the 50th anniversary of the opening of its replacement – The Black Cockatoo.

We can thoroughly recommend a visit to this outback pub. Robert, his wife, Rhonda and their children will make you feel welcome.

Our last port-of-call on this epic road trip takes us to Chillagoe’s only other pub – The Post Office Hotel, where we were made welcome by a friendly barmaid, and an ex-Vietnam veteran, who was propped-up at the bar with a rum and coke.

The Post Office Hotel, Chillagoe. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

The history of the Post Office Hotel can be dated back to the turn of last century.

The hotel was established by Adelaide-born businessman, Edward Bermingham Torpy on the north-west corner of Cathedral and Queen streets, Chillagoe in November 1900.

Torpy arrived in the Chillagoe district from Broken Hill where he worked in his father’s boot and shoe manufacturing business in Hannan Street.

Born in Adelaide in 1871, he was a teenager when he arrived with his family in Broken Hill. He went on to work as a clerk in the Broken Hill Proprietary mine office, and later a sports journalist the Broken Hill Barrier newspaper.

In his 20s, Torpy became interested in horse racing and buying and selling horses. In 1895, at the age of 24, his interest took him to Johannesburg, South Africa where he found himself involved in the infamous Jameson Raid. The botched raid against the South African Republic (commonly known as the Transvaal) was carried out by British colonial administrator Leander Starr Jameson and his Company troops.

Torpy reportedly became part of the “Australian Bodyguard”, a vigilante group formed by a goldmining company for the purpose of “preserving public order and protecting lives and property in the town”. In a telegram from the Transvaal, Torpy reportedly wrote: “”I am a member of the Australian bodyguard,” the Barrier Miner reported on January 31, 1896, “and have to patrol the town mounted and armed with a Lee-Metford rifle. It is really a state of civil war…”

Torpy was back in Australia in 1898 and had made his way to the bustling township of Calcifer , near Chillagoe. The town was established in 1894 when a copper smelter was opened. At its height in 1898, Calcifer boasted stores, a bank, and five hotels.

The Cairns Morning Post reported on February 10 1900 that Torpy was building “a fine hotel, who intends to run it in first class southern style”.

By the end of 1900, the centre of mining activities in the region was shifting from Calcifer to nearby Chillagoe. As a result, just nine months later, on November 7, 1900 Torpy transferred the license of his Calcifer Hotel to Chillagoe, enabling the Post Office Hotel to open for business.

Torpy leased-out the Post Office Hotel, and turned his efforts to mining pursuits rather than as a publican in 1901. Torpy also married Anne Louisa McManus in June 1901.

Although Torpy gave-up the license of Chillagoe’s Post Office Hotel, he remained landlord, and also built a second pub in the township. By 1904 there were seven pubs in the Chillagoe area.

In 1908, Torpy completed a two storey, 50-bed hotel at Chillagoe, giving it the sign of the Central Hotel, and leasing it to a Mr Duncombe.

Torpy stepped-up his foray in the hotel trade in 1910, building yet another pub, about 370kms north of Chillagoe, in the gold mining town of Forsayth. It seems his wife, Annie managed the hotel businesses, while he focussed on a number of mining operations.

Also in 1910, Torpy had the old two-storey Federal Hotel at Mount Garnet taken dismantled and removed to Chillagoe. The Mount Garnet building replaced the Post Office Hotel at Chillagoe.

While juggling his hotel and mining interests Torpy was also a successful race horse owner. In 1912 his horse, Uncle Sam won the Caulfield Cup, which went on to run in the Melbourne Cup. While Torpy’s horse, Uncle Sam came in third, another of his horses, Piastre won the 1912 Melbourne Cup by more than a length over Hallowmass.

His wife Annie managed the Post Office Hotel until they relocated to another mining town, Mount Mulligan, about 150kms to the north-east of Chillagoe in 1914.

Torpy built another hotel at Mount Mulligan in 1914. Torpy’s new pub was described as a “fine two-storied and up-to-date hostelry” that was “the ornament of the town”. It had a frontage of 56 feel to the main street, facing the railway station and 64 feet to Harris Street, with a balcony of 12 feet in both streets. It contained 20 large bedrooms, three parlors, and a roomy bar. Interestingly, Peter Doyle, Torpy’s rival hotelier in Chillagoe, also built a pub at Mount Morgan the same year. However, Doyle’s pub was no where as grand, and was said to be of a single storey construction.

After a long illness, Torpy died in 1916, and his wife took over as licensee of the pub at Mount Mulligan. The large estate of Torpy was sold-off in 1918, including the Post Office Hotel at Chillagoe in 1918. The Post Office Hotel was bought by Torpy’s long-time Chillagoe business rival, Peter Byrne.

Annie Torpy remained as host at Torpy’s Hotel, Mount Mulligan until her death in 1920. The pub, which continued under the sign of Torpy’s Hotel, was still trading in 1954. Today nothing remains of Mount Mulligan expect for a few ruins.

The Post Office Hotel continued trading at the corner of Cathedral and Queen streets, Chillagoe until a massive fire completely destroyed it and the adjoining Central Hotel in 1923. The Cairns Post reported on Monday 28 May 1923:

THE CHILLAGOE FIRE SCENES.

How Woman Lost Her Life.

Vain Attempts by Band of Rescuers.

Details of the Chillago fire, which occurred in the small hours of Thursday morning, are given in the following message from our special correspondent, who tells of disastrous losses and homeless residents. Chillagoe, May 25. Everything looked quiet and peaceful on Wednesday night. It being moonlight and pay day a fair crowd had been in the town during the evening and the Rovers Football Club were holding a dance in the School of Arts Hall. But they had all got to various homes or lodgings, or in some cases gone on shift at midnight. Those who had retired to bed were probably asleep and dreaming of a good time coming, when just after 3am on Thursday, some belated wayfarer raised an alarm of fire, and those who were aroused by this dread call soon saw smoke and flame issuing from Mr. C. C. Goddard’s newsagency and stationer’s shop, on the ground floor of the Central Hotel. The flames soon acquired a good hold and boarders swarmed out like bees from a hive. Many only saved what they stood in, mostly pyjamas. Many lost their fortnight’s pay. The flames gained so fast and became so fierce that there was no going back, it was “Out! out! out!!!” One woman, Mrs. Grace Chong, for many years resident at Mungana, was unable to get out, and screamed very much, but when some intrepid man went to try and rescue her she appeared demented and hindered him so that he could not get her out. She lost her life. The remains were afterwards found and were interred on Friday. What wind there was (fortunately it was not very strong) blew from the north, but the heat was intense, and the front of the local Post Office was ablaze, but a valiant band of volunteers led by Joe Petrie, made a bucket brigade, and by strenuous efforts put the flames out, so the Commonwealth buildings arc still intact. But it will give some idea of the intense heat when I tell that this building was over 120ft. away. Jack & Newell’s store, which is about 40 feet away on the west from the fire, also caught alight but McFarlane, with a few helpers soon had it conquered. Had it secured a good hold, Chillagoe as a town would have been off the map, so things might easily have been worse. However, it was bad enough for in one hour from the time the outbreak was notices, James Knight, bootmaker’s shop, the Central Hotel and the Post Office Hotel, were just a heap of smoking and smouldering ruins. Mr. and Mrs. C. C. Goddard, of the Central Hotel, and Mr. P Parker and family were rendered homeless. (Mrs. Parker is away at present) Mr. Knight had no insurance, the premium of £5 on the £100 by the State Office being considered too high. Mr. E. A. Kingsbury, who owns the Central Hotel, had just effected an insurance on the building, for about £1OOO with the Atlas Insurance Co., Ltd. Mr. C. C. Goddard, licensee, had no insurance on stock or furniture. Neither did Mrs. Goddard hold any cover for her stock of stationery, etc. The Post Office Hotel is owned by Mr. P. I. Doyle, and doubtless insured with the Company for which he is agent. Mr. P. Parker has no insurance on either stock or furniture, so that these will suffer considerable loss. A few articles of furniture were saved put of the Post Office Hotel, and may form the nucleus round which the Parker family will build another home. The School of Arts Committee gave the use of their hall, and Mr. P. L. Goddard caused some stretchers to be made, so the single men are using it as a barracks. Mr. G. E. Adams offered the use of an empty shop and there were other offers of clothing and money to relieve an immediate need. The homeless ones are distributed among other homes, and everything is being done that can be done to meet the situation. So we carry on.

– “Nameeri” Chillagoe. May 25,1923.

By the end of the year the hotel had been rebuilt by Peter Byrne, and reopened by the licensee before the fire, Percy Parker.

Local identities, Percy and Gertrude Parker, continued as hosts after it was rebuilt for the following 14 years.

Born at Maryborough in 1879, Parker was employed by the Railway Department, stationed at Southport, Ravenswood, Townsville, Lappa, Mount Garnet and Chillagoe. He later took over the Chillagoe Hotel before hosting the Post Office Hotel from 1920. He was host during the infamous fire of 1923.

Parker also ran lively stables in conjunction with his pub until 1930. His wife died in 1931, and, he, aged 55, in 1934.

A pub full of fantastic atmosphere, with literally thousands of names signed over its walls and ceilings from countless visitors, the Post Office Hotel also has a beaut children’s playground and beer garden. But it’s the public bar that’s my favourite part of the pub.

Settling on a stool, and engaging in amusing and genuinely interesting conversation with the pub’s only customer (the veteran mentioned earlier), as well as a friendly and informative barmaid, it was difficult to bid farewell to Chillagoe. But, as the shadows lengthened outside, and knowing we had a few hours ahead of us to drive to the coast, we reluctantly hit the road back to Cairns.

© Copyright, Mick Roberts, 2021


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Categories: Queensland hotels, Reviews, Road Trips

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2 replies

  1. After reading The pubs of far north Queensland’s back country. I found a reference to Peter Byrne. I have been researching into the hotels of the Cairns-Herberton Railway and have been to the site of his Red Bluff Hotel at the Springs. I am assembling a detailed history of all the hotels that were in operation on the line between 1887-1891.

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