Emmaville: Arsenic and Old Lace


Surprisingly for such a small town the mining museum at Emmaville has a number of impressive rock collections and, just outside the town and rarely visited, are the interesting ruins of the Ottery arsenic mine. It was once a private town and today it is a basic centre serving the local farming, grazing and mining communities. There is good trout fishing in the local rivers.

Emmaville is 872 m above sea-level and is 649 km north of Sydney via the New England Highway and 353 km south-west of Brisbane. Population: 250. 

Emmaville, a village just over 40 km north of Glen Innes in northern NSW, was at the centre of wild panther sightings in the 1950s and is perhaps best known to some people for that aspect of its history.

A newspaper report in 1958: “It seems that this spate of panther sightings all began on June 20, 1958, with a 15-year-old boy, Donald Clifford who, while searching for lost horses spotted a large cat-like beast a mere ‘thirty paces ahead’ in rough country 18 miles from Emmaville.”

In June 1958, a grazier told Emmaville police he had shot the “black panther” which had terrorised Glen Innes district. He said the marauding animal was a huge black bear weighing about 300 lbs (136 kg).

He said he had hit the bear with one shot and the wounded animal had run into dense bush. He did not expect the animal to live more than about 48 hours.

Whether the “panther” was a bear or actually a panther that escaped from a travelling circus – or even if it was shot – remains unclear. Supposed sightings continue.

The escaped circus animal theory is given a little weight by visits to the Glen Innes area by Ashton’s circus in 1884, Wirth’s circus in 1901, Sole Bros circus in 1925, and probably others. But there are no press reports at the time of a wild animal escaping, although there were reports of circus camels roaming roads near Glen Innes. There was a close call for Ashton’s circus in 1884 when a thunderstorm struck, the centre pole was broken and the tent caught fire. There were some “slight” injuries but no reports of animals escaping.

And so Emmaville takes its place in the legend of the mysterious panther.

(see Panther Tales – https://floggerblogger.com/2018/01/24/panther-tales/ )

Bu the story of Emmaville is much more than panther sightings.

In the days when circuses visited the area, Emmaville was a bustling centre in the midst of a mining boom.

Agriculture was the prime activity by the new settlers from the late 1830s.

The first properties in the area around Emmaville were Wellington Vale, Rangers Valley and Strathbogie, all established in 1839. Scotsman Hugh Gordon who came from a wealthy Aberdeenshire family took up Strathbogie and a vast tin field was discovered there in 1872 by a piano tuner named Thomas Carline (sometimes spelt Carlean). His discovery earned him a fortune and soon the area was a thriving tin mining centre. At its peak it is estimated that 2500 miners were working in the area.

Mining drew large numbers of Chinese to the area up until the early 1930s, as had happened elsewhere around Australia. The first name given to the settlement was Vegetable Creek, named for the influx of Chinese market gardeners who supplied the miners with their produce.

At one time there were around 2,000 Chinese at Vegetable Creek (today the total population is about 250 with a similar number living in the surrounding district).

It was renamed Emmaville in 1882 to honour the wife (Emma) of then governor Major-General Sir Thomas Brisbane.

The Chinese began drifting away after their joss house burnt down in 1931 and probably olso spurred on by news of gold discoveries elsewhere.

Emmaville’s mining past is recorded at the village’s Mining Museum, highly recommended for visitors.

The Ottery Mine was established in 1882 with tin ore refined at the Tent Hill smelting works.

But tin wasn’t the only product – arsenic ore was mined after extracting tin became unprofitable.


The Ottery mine (above) extracted tin and arsenic sporadically from 1882 to 1939. The works contributed to pollution of local waterways and soil. Fifty years on the clean-up and remediation was near completion but into the 21st Century there were still issues of contamination although the sites were considered safe.

It is probably not surprising that the presence of arsenic became a matter for police.

A newspaper report of 21 November 1941: “In a fit of jealousy a hotel groom was alleged to have attempted the murder of five persons, including his wife, on October 15, by putting arsenic in the tea and a cake. This was stated by the police at Emmaville Court today.” Police alleged the man they had charged believed his wife was paying attention to other men.

Arsenic was a valuable commodity for use in agriculture, not just poisoning.

The Australian branch of the English company William Cooper and Nephews in 1920 began extraction and purification of arsenic for use in sheep dip products.

Fumes from heated arsenic ores were passed through the two massive calcination blocks where purified arsenic would calcify on the walls of each of the 16 chambers in the two blocks – one for crude calcination and another for purified calcination which was then chipped and scraped from the walls, packaged and sold in Cooper’s products including Little, Quibbles and Royal Cattle Dips. 

Ottery was worked from 1882 until 1957.


The mine is close to the Tent Hill-Torrington road just a few km from Emmaville and is open to visitors.

A lot of the infrastructure remains at Ottery, though not in working condition, including the former refinery, calciner, kilns, arsenic chambers and chimney stack.

The Emmaville Mining Museum has more than 4,000 mineral specimens and 430 photos dating back to the 1880s.  The photos show mine workings and machinery.

There’s also a replica of a general store originally established in 1895. Groceries, clothing, hardware and tools dating back to the early 1900s are displayed.  The name Vegetable Creek is preserved in the name of the local 17-bed hospital.

Although mining activity was spread throughout the country, Emmaville’s contribution holds a special place in history.

It has been noted in a number of newspaper reports that Emmaville was the birth place of the St John’s Ambulance and medical benefits funds.

One report noted: “With the mining boom at Emmaville and the influx of people to the district, accidents were frequent, and this caused a mining engineer, Alfred Cadell, to organise a medical benefits fund, the first in the State. There was a flat rate of 1 pound for people to belong and the proceeds helped to establish a medical practitioner there and brought about the erection of the Vegetable Creek Hospital at Emmaville.”

A Readers’ Digest article noted: Emmaville established the first medical fund in New South Wales, with aim of keeping a doctor in town and to build a hospital. In 1891, lectures were given at the hospital and the St John Ambulance Brigade was formed as a result of this.

                                                                              First Emmaville Hospital

It is unlikely that Emmaville was the first place to have a St John Ambulance Brigade. A report in the Glen Innes Examiner on Friday 17 February 1911 noted that efforts to get first-aid classes started in the Mining Institute had been under way for some tine but that approval finally had been received for the establishment of a branch of the St John Ambulance Association. The St John history shows the first brigade was formed in Glebe, NSW, in 1903 after the organisation was founded in England in 1877.

Nevertheless, the provision of first-aid services under the direction of a local doctor, and the establishment of a health fund were vital assets to the mining community where danger prevailed.

The Legends

Emmaville has contributed more than its share of legendary people. Who made their mark on the world stage.

There have been at least two Olympians among some notable people for whom Emmaville was their birthplace.



Sprinter Debbie Wells burst on to the athletics scene as a teenager, chosen for the Montreal Olympics in 1976 as 14-year-old to become Australia’s youngest track-and-field Olympian (she was 15 when she competed).

Then in third year at high school, she had run 11.3 seconds for 100 metres and 22.8 seconds for 200 metres, earning her the tag of the fastest girl of her age in the world and the nickname “Emmaville Express.”

She also represented Australia in the Moscow Olympics in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984.

Despite her many successes on the track, Debbie did not manage to win an Olympic medal but did manage a fifth placing in the second round of heats in Montreal.

In adult life she went on to become head sports coach at Toowoomba Grammar School in Queensland.

Debbie Wells hasn’t been Emmaville’s only Olympian.


  Rusty Richards

Thomas James “Rusty” Richards, born at Vegetable Creek, in 1882, represented Australia in rugby union played at the London Olympics in 1908. He began is rugby career at Charters Towers in Queensland and played all around the world in club and international competitions.

The Australian team won gold in London with Richards scoring a try as well as becoming an Olympic Gold medallist.

Richards also played rugby in South Africa and England before returning to Australia. He became the first (and as far as is known) only player to represent both Australia and the British Lions in rugby when drafted in to the British team on a tour to South Africa. The Tom Richards Cup now contested by the Wallabies and the British and Irish Lions is named in his honour.

Richards played mostly in the breakaway position and was described as “big, fast, versatile and opportunistic, with a natural brain for Rugby, he set up chances to score but was alert to fall back in defence.”

He continued to travel the world playing rugby before returning to Australia and enlisting in the in the AIF in 1914. He sailed for Egypt on the Transport Euripides with the 1st Field Ambulance. He was part of the landing at Gallipoli on the morning of 25 April 1915 and served as a stretcher-bearer. In July 1915 he was mentioned in divisional orders for “acts of gallantry” in May and June 1915.

His war service saw him rise through the ranks with awards including the Military Cross in August 1917 for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty”.

In 2005 he was one of the inaugural five inductees into the Australian Rugby Union Hall of Fame. Then Australian Rugby Union President Paul McLean commented: “late Tom Richards was an extraordinary character whom The Times described in 1908 as the first man to be picked for Earth if we were ever to play Mars!”

Richards died of tuberculosis in Queensland on 25 September 1935.

Other stand-out Australians list Emmaville as their birthplace.


  Sqdn Ldr Scherf

Charles Curnow Scherf, DSO, DFC & Bar (17 May 1917 – 13 July 1949) was an Australian flying ace of the Second World War

His father, Charles Henry Scherf, was born in NSW of German descent and became a grazier in the Emmaville area.

When World War II broke out, Scherf was working on his father’s property. On 12 September 1941 he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force.

Scherf was sent to Britain where he undertook advanced flying and operational training. He joined No.418 Squadron (a Royal Canadian Air Force attack unit flying Mosquito light bombers) on 13 July 1943.

Scherf began “Intruder” operations against enemy airfields in France. He flew an escorting Mosquito on 15 September when eight Lancaster bombers of No.617 Squadron attacked the Dortmund-Ems Canal, Germany, at low level and suffered heavy losses.

By the end of February 1944, he had destroyed seven German aircraft on the ground or in the air and shared the credit for shooting down an eighth. He was made acting squadron leader on 13 March and posted to headquarters, Air Defence Great Britain, as a controller of “Intruder” operations.

When he was off duty, he revisited No.418 Squadron and flew combat sorties. During three such so-called holiday excursions— on 5 April, and 2 and 16 May—he added a further 16 German aircraft to his tally. On 4 April he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his performance on night missions. Acting Flt Lt Scherf was awarded a Bar to his DFC in May for displaying “the greatest qualities of gallantry and skill”. His Distinguished Service Order recognised his “enterprise and fearlessness”. In a total of 38 operational sorties, he was credited with 14½ kills in the air, nine aircraft destroyed on the ground, and a further seven damaged.

Scherf returned to Australia in September 1944 and was posted as chief flying instructor to No.5 Operational Training Unit, Williamtown. He later transferred to the RAAF Reserve and was discharged on 1 July 1947 and went home to Emmaville.

On 13 July 1949 his car hit a tree and overturned on the Inverell road, 3.2 km from Emmaville. He died later that day from his injuries. His wife, son and three daughters survived him.


                                                           Frank Coughlan’s Trocadero Orchestra

Frank James Coughlan (7 June 1904 – 6 April 1979) was an Australian jazz musician and band leader. He is described in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as “One of the most influential musicians in the development of jazz in Australia.”

His father William was a tin miner in the Emmaville area and leader of the Glen Innes and District band. He taught all his five sons to play brass instruments.

Coughlan moved to Sydney in 1922. He played trombone and trumpet and arranged music.

In April 1936 Coughlan led the 13-piece orchestra at the opening of the Trocadero, Sydney. He continued to lead the band at the Trocadero before and after service in World War II.

It is noted that Coughlan loved jazz music, studied it feverishly, and sought to play as much as he could with as many musicians as he could.

The Trocadero band’s formation coincided with the arrival of swing music and the band played the genre as well as commercial favourites. From September 1938, some of its members played traditional or Dixieland jazz. A feature film, The Flying Doctor (1936), included the Trocadero band in a nightclub scene, and the band made several records. Elected president of the Sydney Swing Music Club in March 1936, Coughlan wrote articles (1936-37) on the history of Australian jazz in the Australian Music Maker and Dance Band News.

Often hailed as “the Father of Australian Jazz,” Coughlan remained dedicated to jazz throughout his life. He died on 6 April 1979 at Randwick, NSW, aged 74.


 Clifford Kwan-Gett

Clifford Stanley Kwan-Gett, an Australian-born Chinese American engineer, physician, and artificial heart pioneer, was born as Clifford Gett in Emmaville in 1934.

His father Walter Gett owned the Yow Sing & Co. General Store in Emmaville. Kwan-Gett was the eighth of 10 children and the first in his family to attend university. At the University of Sydney, he obtained degrees in Science and Engineering and later in Medicine. He married Joo Een Tan and adopted his Chinese family name by changing his surname from Gett to Kwan-Gett.

In 1966 Kwan-Gett moved to the Cleveland Clinic in the US to research artificial heart technology with Dr. Yuki Nose. In 1967 he moved to Salt Lake City with Dr. Willem J. Kolff to establish a new Division of Artificial Organs at the University of Utah. During his tenure as director of engineering and the sole surgeon with the artificial heart program at the University of Utah from 1967 to 1971, Kwan-Gett invented a pneumatically powered total artificial heart system.

In 1971 Kwan-Gett left full-time research to take up fellowship and residency training at the University of Utah. He became board-certified in both thoracic surgery and general surgery. Kwan-Gett practiced cardiovascular thoracic surgery in Salt Lake City and remained active in the artificial organs research community there until he retired in 1995 and moved to San Diego.

Pictures from the State Library of NSW collection, https://mgnsw.org.au/ .
Sources: National museum Glen Innes Examiner records from TROVE. Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Comments, corrections and additional information welcome.


Black Mountain: the early years

Around the end of the 19th Century, Black Mountain was a thriving farming village, north of Armidale and south of Guyra on the Northern Tablelands of the New England region of NSW.

The climate ranged from warm in summer to bitterly cold with snow and frost in winter. Not much has changed.

Drought was not unknown; an April 1988 report noted: “The weather is as dry as a lime burner’s wig, and it is with difficulty those who are inclined to plough can get on with the work.”

The date of first settlement is unclear, but it was probably around the middle of the 1880s – explorer John Oxley reached the Northern Tablelands in 1818 and Armidale was gazetted as a town in 1849 as squatters began taking up land offerings in the area. European settlers began taking up land around Guyra in 1835 and it is likely some chose the Black Mountain area, though it wasn’t named then.

A public school opened at Black Mountain in 1882 when the required student population of 20 was reached. By 1998 the enrolment was 65.

Six years after the school opened, parents and friends were still agitating for financial assistance to introduce heating. In the absence of any help coming from the Ministry of Instruction, at a meeting of parents and friends a one shilling levy was proposed for each child attending the school to purchase fuel to heat the school in winter. It was also thought a good idea to ask the department to consider providing a kitchen for the residence of the teacher (Mr Lane).

These were austere times.

The railway was the catalyst for the expansion of the settlement. The main northern line (then known as the Great Northern Railway) was extended from Armidale to Wallangara progressively opening until completion in 1888 and was the main rail link between Sydney and Brisbane until 1930, although a change of gauge was required at the NSW-Queensland border.

The line from Armidale to Glen Innes passing through Black Mountain (612 km north of Sydney) and Guyra opened in 1884.

In the late 1800s to the early 1900s Black Mountain had a butter factory, hotel and sawmill as well as a post office at the railway station, hall and general store with associated butchery and bakery. There were two churches, Anglican and Baptist (the Union Church); Presbyterians met in the local hall.

At one time Black Mountain was the headquarters of the New England Baptist Mission. Baptist history records that members of the Black Mountain congregation brought the property at the corner Rusden and Jessie Streets in Armidale in 1918 where the city’s Baptist Church was re-established.

In 1915 a traveller noted that there were about a dozen houses in a cluster near the Black Mountain railway station. He wrote in a report for the Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton) under the heading, “A Trip to Black Mountain” that the village derived its name from a hill “with a saddle between the two ends; on this it is said there was once a sacred bora tree (linked to aboriginal initiation ceremonies) and corroboree ground”.

That would seem to reinforce the notion that the place originally was called Blacks’ Mountain. Many reports referred to it as “the” Black Mountain.

Black Mountain even had a Progress Association which took issue with moves to rename the Boorolong Railway Station (as it was then, even though it was in the heart of the village) to Duval, the name given to a table-top mountain between Armidale and Black Mountain. Sanity apparently prevailed, and the station was duly renamed Black Mountain.

Sport played a big part in the lives of residents – cricket and tennis were the main leisure activities. There were even football (rugby league) and hockey teams at one stage. Gold – and other minerals – had been found in the wider Tablelands area. Antimony was mined near where the Malpas Dam is now and shipped out by train from Black Mountain.

As well as livestock (wool, meat and dairy), potato growing proved successful. The red volcanic soil was also noted as suitable for orchards; grapes also were grown. Grain crops were tried but the climate (snow in winter and frost in autumn and spring) made harvests unreliable. Stone fruit growing had some success but again the climate was problematic.

“Cherries and gooseberries are main crops; raspberries, currants, plums, apples and pears are abundant, while occasionally are to be seen walnut chestnut and elderberry trees,” the writer in the Grafton newspaper noted.

There was also an angora goat farm.

Blackberries, rabbits and foxes were a problem for farmers.

One newspaper correspondent noted that there was ice skating when the water froze: “Skating on the ice has become a pastime of some of the more leisured members of the community, particularly the youths. Owing to the intense cold and continued frosts, a pool of water in the Boorolong Creek, not far from the residence of Mr Robert Youman, became deeply encrusted with ice, and being sheltered from the sun it attained a thickness of nine inches. The sheet of ice became sufficiently strong to support the weight of no fewer than eight persons.”

The hive of activity in the area attracted bushrangers, most notably Captain Thunderbolt who set up shop in a cave with views of the road north as it passed up the steep range that became known as the Devil’s Pinch.

The cave is still there today, above the New England Highway.

At the turn of the century things were relatively rosy in the village. But trouble was coming.

Robbery Under Arms

First, two bushrangers held up Enos Scott’s Great Northern hotel in July 1883.

The Sydney Telegraph reported on Saturday 21 July: “The latest exploit on the part of the gang— for there certainly exists a gang — is the successful sticking up of the landlord of the hotel at the Black Mountain. Mr Enos Scott, a respectable man, keeps the Great Northern Hotel at the Black Mountain. The place is somewhat lonely, and is chiefly used as a stage for the coaches, and naturally offered special facilities for any persons who felt inclined to rob it under arms. Mr Scott was on the point of shutting up last night, when two armed men came to the hotel. There were about 12 people in the bar, drinking, but their occupation was gone, when, with the cry ” bail up,” the two miscreants entered the door and covered the whole crowd with their revolvers. The revellers by this time looked anything but comfortable, and when told to file out and go into an adjoining room they went like lambs. Here they were locked in, and one of the armed men mounted guard over them. The other fellow then went into the kitchen, and, although Mr Scott’s son and a man named Schmutter had heard the disturbance in the bar, he made them bail up also, and join the prisoners in the room previously mentioned. A little incident occurred in the kitchen worth mentioning. When ordered to bail up, Mr Scott’s sou began to laugh. The bushranger looked at him, slowly raised the revolver, lowered it, turned it slightly aside, and let bis weapon go off as if by accident. The ball whizzed past young Scott, making a hole in his trousers, and grazing his right leg. After all, from whom the bushrangers apprehended any resistance bad been safely locked up in the room, the one mounted guard as already stated, while the other went out and brought in Mrs Scott to the room where the cash-box was kept and bade her hand over all the money she had. This amounted to over 100 pounds in gold, notes, and silver. They took the money, and then unlocked the door of the room where they had imprisoned the visitors, young Scott, and Schmutter. Here each man was questioned separately, with a revolver to his ear, as to what coin be had about him, and as one by one they cashed up, one of the bushrangers made him stand apart under his eye and under cover of his revolver. Having taken all they could get, and annexed a revolver belonging to Mr Scott, they left. The police have a description of the men.”

Police later arrested two men, named Elliott and Carr, in connection with the robbery. They appeared in the Armidale court on 11 October 1883.

A newspaper reported” “The case against the prisoners was particularly weak, but Judge Windeyer’s summing up was unfavourable to them. The jury, however, brought in a verdict of not guilty.”

A month later a newspaper reported that a man named Charles O’Malley, “who lately resided in Armidale” was arrested and charged with the robbery of Scott’s Hotel. When arrested, O’Malley reportedly said: “I do not deny the charge. James McManus and I stuck up Scott’s Hotel and robbed it. McCosker and Paddy Gabin had as much to do with the sticking up as we had.”

O’Malley was convicted and sentenced to 10 years “hard labour on the roads.” The court heard he was the one who wounded “young Scott”. O’Malley gave evidence against McCosker, McManus and Galvin. Strangely, apparently, they were acquitted. The Sydney Evening News noted: “The result of the trial has caused much comment and is felt to be highly unsatisfactory.”

Hotel burns

Worse was to come for Enos Scott about a year later; on 16 October 1894 the hotel caught fire and burnt down. A jury at an inquest into the cause of the fire determined: “We find that the premises known as Scott’s Hotel at Black Mountain was wilfully set on fire by some person or persons unknown and totally destroyed on the morning of 16th October 1894.” Evidence was heard that a swagman had been seen camping in the hotel kitchen some weeks before the first and told to move on. Storekeeper Adam Menzies said he had found a swagman steeling boots some months before the fire and had him prosecuted.

The coroner refused to admit evidence from farmer August Weiderman about a dream he had had about the fire.

The hotel was gone. By 1989 Mrs Scott turned her hand to running a boarding house after her husband’s death.

Optimism and spirit remained; the Black Mountain Co-operative Dairy Company continued to churn out butter at a good rate. In February 1910 it turned out 10,263 lbs (4.6 metric tonnes).

But again, fate intervened. New regulations in the Dairy Industry Act in 1922 required significant improvements to butter factory operations.

The Black Mountain Co-op and Armidale factories decided the best outcome would be to merge their operations and centralise production in Armidale. An important industry – and employer – was lost to the village.

Express derails

There was high drama in 1929 when the Brisbane Limited Express train with 109 passengers on its way to the Queensland border jumped the tracks just 400 metres south of Black Mountain Station.

The accident happened about 5.30 am on Thursday 18 July. Many of the passengers were still asleep.

It is believed a rail broke due to heavy frost.

Three carriages rolled off the line, the wall of a cutting stopping them from tipping right over.

The train comprised six carriages, a brake van and two locomotives, necessary on the steep grades between Armidale and Glen Innes. The engines remained on the track.

The accident tore up about 130 metres of the line.

Miraculously, there were no serious injuries, bruising being the most common complaint by passengers jolted awake and shaken from their bunks by the crash. Luckily the train had slowed slightly within the cutting in preparation of passing by the Black Mountain station. Another 100 metres further on and the carriages would have tumbled down an embankment with likely loss of life.

One report at the time described the passengers’ escape as “probably the most amazing on record on the NSW Railways.”

Passengers clambered through the smashed windows of the carriages, lit fires along the line and huddled together to keep warm until a relief train arrived. Local residents came to help and look after passengers.

The passengers included members of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby union team in two carriages that were added at Armidale and two members of the Australian Wallabies team on their way to Brisbane. The All Blacks had defeated NSW Country 27-8 at the Armidale Showground the previous day and they and the two Wallabies from the game were heading to Brisbane for a Test Match three days later (won 17-9 by the Wallabies who won the series 3-0).

Driver Bert Finnamore said that when he looked back he saw sparks flying and expected the worst.

Another Brisbane express was about an hour ahead of the Limited and two carriages and an engine were unhooked at Deepwater further north and sent back to collect the passengers from the Limited to take them to Deepwater to join the Express after a stop in Guyra for breakfast.

Passengers eventually made it to Brisbane on the Friday afternoon. The train left Sydney at 3.30pm on the Wednesday.

A relief train was sent from Newcastle to pick up the passengers on the train travelling from Brisbane to Sydney which was halted by the crash.

A temporary deviation was built around the scene of the crash to get through train traffic moving again.

The Brisbane Limited was involved in a fatal accident involving a Black Mountain man a year earlier.

Thomas Oswald Kidd, the school master at Black Mountain, was returning from Kelly’s Plains, south of Armidale after taking people home from an ambulance fundraising function. To cross the line the railway gates needed to be opened. Mr Kidd believed the Brisbane-bound train had already passed but as he opened the gates across the railway line the train crashed into them and Mr Kidd.

Mr Kidd was 33, married with six children.

Train shot

In April 1934, passengers on the Glen Innes mail train travelling towards Armidale had a lucky escape from injury at Black Mountain.

While the train was stopped at the station, a window of the last carriage of the train was shattered, showering a woman and three children with glass.

Police were called but were unable to find any clues. When the train arrived in Armidale police there determined that a bullet had been fired through the window.

The big blow

The biggest disaster to befall Black Mountain came on Thursday, 28 October 1948.

The story made front-page news around Australia and even overseas: “Cyclone strikes NSW town – phones cut, 200 homeless” screamed a headline on the front page of Queensland’s Courier Mail newspaper on 29 October 1948.

The cyclone hit about 5pm. In just 10 minutes the village suffered massive destruction. Communication and power lines were cut. Many buildings were damaged with reported that sheets of corrugated iron finished up around 3 km to the east.

The Church of England was destroyed, the railway goods shed blown over, a steel signal railway pole was snapped, more than 20 houses lost their roofs and many chimneys were blown over. Half of the village’s buildings were damaged.

Rain and sleet accompanied the big blow and with communications down the postmaster, Mr J. Jones, had to ride a bicycle11 km to Guyra in the poor conditions to raise the alarm.

A local builder, Mr Andrew Menzies put the damage bill at 30,000 pounds (about $A 1.4 million today).

Hundreds of trees were uprooted. A horse was blown into a tangled barbed wire fence and had to be cut free.

There was one injury – 19-yearold invalid Howard McLeod was hit by a piece of timber. Sparks from a fire in the house were blown on to his bed, setting it alight. He was rescued by his mother.

About 200 residents were affected and had to leave their homes for two days until the NSW Railways came good with tarpaulins to put over the damaged roofs and some tents.

Then followed a drawn out political battle for financial assistance for the victims. Assistance never eventuated despite furious exchanges between State and Commonwealth politicians and bureaucrats.

The village was down but it wasn’t out. Despite the State Government refusing to weigh in with financial assistance, the local community rallied and with help from nearby Guyra people and the Shire Council, it rose up from the wreckage.



Just a week after the massive cyclone the village had a lucky escape from another one.

This time the cyclone passed by about half a kilometre to the north at 3.30 pm on Sunday 7 November, then passed over Lilygrove to the east, near the turn-off from the Armidale Glen Innes Road and continuing.

Trees were snapped off and debris scattered across the road near Lilygrove school.

A little further east, roofs were ripped from a house and a wool shed. Yet another, smaller, cyclone followed, coming from the south this time and severely shaking the same house that lost its roof earlier at Box Point. And still another cyclone took a different path on the same day, crossing north of Guyra and claiming roofs from a house and shed at Tenterden and flattening crops near Ben Lomond and Glencoe on the way. A hail storm killed some sheep in the area. Rain washed out a small section of the railway line near Ben Lomond.

Two years later, in November 1950, a cyclone ripped through the property Boorolong just 1.6 km from Black Mountain. The wind blew for around 20 minutes, uprooting pine trees, lifting off part of the roof of a shearing shed and destroying a veranda on a gardener’s cottage, smashing some windows and destroying a garage. About 500 sheets of corrugated iron were blown from the woolshed.

The gardener was deaf and knew nothing of the damage that occurred late at night until he awoke next morning to find a pine tree branch sticking through his window and broken glass on his bed.

The property owners were away at the time.

Still standing

Today, Black Mountain stands as a picturesque village at the junction of the roads to Guyra, the New England Highway and Tom’s Gully to the west.

A description published in a 2017 guide to the Northern Tablelands said: “This is a quaint English style village, just a few minute’s detour from the New England Highway south of Guyra. Exotic trees and well-kept gardens frame neat old cottages while the wooden railway station and garden have been lovingly restored.”

There’s no post office, no general store and the trains don’t rumble through the village anymore on the way to or from Armidale – the boffins want to turn the line into a cycle and walking trail while the locals want to see it preserved for use again by trains. The Sydney officials seem to be deaf to their pleas.

The station – on the main northern line that reached towards the Queensland border – opened in 1884, initially named Boorolong. The name changed to Black Mountain in 1886. The station closed in 1987 after 103 years of operation. The railway was until then – and particularly through the 1940s to the 60s -the prime means of transporting district produce to markets, mainly in the south.

Today, trains from Sydney to Brisbane run via the coast.

A truck stop on the New England Highway to the east of the village is the first major visible commercial activity for those travelling north in the area now, as it has been since the 1960s. There’s a nursery a little further along the highway towards Guyra 10 km away. Anyone venturing 4 km west into the village itself from the Highway turnoff will find several houses and even a new subdivision between the church and the railway line. Sheep and cattle breeding remain the main rural industries. Potatoes are still grown in the area.

The 2016 Census recorded a population of 310.

The school continues to provide quality education. The Baptist church (built in 1902 and restored in 1992) remains.

The turn-off to the cemetery is almost opposite the church and records the early settlers and their descendants.

Black Mountain is a dormitory village for farm and town workers, with no shop-front commercial activity.

There is a volunteer fire brigade.

Back on the New England Highway, the turnoff to the dirt road that leads to Thunderbolt’s cave is about 200 m south of the Road House and leads back on to the highway at the bottom of “The Pinch”.

Opposite the roadhouse is the road to Malpas Dam, the water supply dam for Armidale and a recreation area for water activity including sail-boating.

According to those who live in Black Mountain now and either farm or commute to their jobs 27 kms away in Armidale the lifestyle is idyllic. It’s a quiet place, off the main highway but within comfortable reach of the city of Armidale – home of the University of New England – in the south and the township of Guyra to the north, site of the largest and most advanced tomato-growing greenhouses in Australia (30 ha) established by the Costa group from Melbourne in 2005 and which employs more than 200 people. The company’s aim is to produce 21 million kilograms of tomatoes a year for Australian markets.

Author’s note: Most information in this article has been derived from newspaper reports on the Trove database of the National Library of Australia.

The excellent compilation by Dorothy Lockyer – Our ‘Mountain” History, for the Guyra and District Historical Society Journal No. 6 in 1993, has much more detail on the cyclone, and better pictures. She has also given an account of early Black Mountain families.
                                                                                                       – Chris McLeod