HISTORY OF BIRDSVILLE & SURROUNDS

The area surrounding Birdsville was first explored as early as 1845, while surveyor Charles Sturt was searching for an inland sea. He made it to Eyre Creek before the extreme climate forced him to return south. In 1860, Burke and Wills set up Camp 76 on their return trip from the Gulf of Carpentaria. It is believed Robert Burke marked a coolibah tree on the banks of the Diamantina River, and this mark is still easily seen today.

Surveyors used Birdsville as a depot while working in the Simpson Desert. Augustus Poeppel carried a surveyor's chain for the length of the Queensland/South Australian border, culminating at Poeppels Corner (the intersection of the Queensland, Northern Territory and South Australian borders), however the chain had stretched and he was about half a kilometre out. The border had to be re-surveyed.

In the early 1870s, itinerant merchant Matthew Flynn crossed the Diamantina River and built a rough depot, which was known as Diamantina Crossing. Today more commonly known as Birdsville for its abundant wildlife, the small depot became the customs point for stock and supplies entering South Australia.

Cattle duffer Harry Redford (alias Captain Starlight), stole Queensland cattle and in a show of brilliant bushcraft, drove them south to Adelaide where they were sold. He effectively pioneered the Birdsville Track and when finally caught, no jury of peers in Queensland would find him guilty.

Birdsville grew in 1884 when the railway extended from Adelaide to Marree. Until the late 1930's Afghan camel traders bought supplies 520km up the Birdsville Track. They took six weeks leading more than 100 camels from bore to bore. Following their footsteps today takes only seven hours in a conventional vehicle. An old head stockman tells the tale of alcohol taking second priority only to food! Knowing the extra brass offered for their labour, the Afghans would wrap the long neck beer bottles in straw and continually soak them throughout their journey.

Pastoral occupation and development began in the 1870s leading to a 90-year droving era that went down in pastoral history. In excess of 2000 Channel Country cattle were moved south down the Birdsville stock route. One drover in the team would have to ride forward to check that a water-hole could handle the stock. If not, the thirsty beasts would have to be pushed upwind and on to the next stage. If the wind changed direction, the cattle would smell the water and stampede, and sometimes the whole mob was lost.

Around the same time, Sir Sidney Kidman began putting into action his dream of building a drought-free empire. He had a chain of properties from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Adelaide, including thousands of hectares in the surrounding area. At the height of his success, his land holdings were larger than England. A monument has been erected at the Tree of Knowledge, where Sidney Kidman camped while developing his holdings.

Prior to Federation in 1901, Birdsville was a thriving community with a population of about 90 Europeans and 180 Aborigines. Three hotels, two general stores, a school and a cordial factory serviced the community.

The ruins of the Royal Hotel still remain and it was this hotel that was acquired by the Australian Inland Mission Hospital. In 1922, this site housed the first pedal radio transmitter, which is now displayed in the Birdsville Museum.

HISTORIC BUILDINGS

Birdsville has been called Australia's most isolated outback town. It stands between the sandy Simpson Desert and the gibber plains of the Sturt's Stony Desert, just 12km inside the Queensland border in far western Queensland. European settlers moved into the area in the 1870s, looking for minerals and grazing land for cattle. Birdsville was established as a centre for stock routes for the cattle country and as a Customs collection point.

In the days before Federation in 1901, a toll was payable on all stock and supplies entering South Australia from Queensland. These duties kept three excise officers busy - and Birdsville was a thriving community. Today the Diamantina Shire is the second largest shire in Queensland (approximately 95,000 square kilometres), and has a population of 350 people. The town of Birdsville has a population of approximately 110. Several of the buildings from the early days still stand in Birdsville.

AUSTRALIAN INLAND MISSION HOSPITAL

The old hospital was originally a hotel - the Royal Hotel - built between 1882 and 1883. Around 1890 the Australian Inland Mission purchased the building, and from 1923 it was used as a hospital. The first pedal radio transmission took place here in 1922. The modern Frontier Services Birdsville Clinic was built in 1953 after the land was purchased for $1. The materials for the building were sent from Sydney to Marree and up the Birdsville Track for a cost of $20,000. The clinic is staffed by two qualified remote area sisters. The clinic provides medical care for people living in Birdsville and the surrounding area as well as the many people passing through the area. The Charleville Royal flying Doctor Service services the area fortnightly.

BROOKLANDS STORE

The store and the neighbouring house were built of stone in 1891, in a similar style to the Royal and Birdsville Hotels. It was originally a station store and was turned into a general store in 1963. It closed in March 1998, and the store was transferred to the Roadhouse.

TATTERSALLS HOTEL

This was the first hotel to be built in Birdsville in the early 1880s. It was built on the present site of the school situated in Adelaide Street next to the Birdsville Hotel. It was later pulled down and the materials used to build a council house, which was used as a second school in 1921.

THE ROYAL HOTEL

The Royal Hotel was built in 1883 and was constructed of dehydrated gypsum (or kopi) mixed with sand and water to achieve a bonding compound for the stonework. It was the second hotel built in the town and originally had a Spanish-style enclosed courtyard. It ran as a hotel for 40 years before being converted to an AIM Hospital in 1923. It operated as a hospital for 14 years, serving as a base for the Inland Mission. The Royal Hotel is situated on the corner of Adelaide and Frew Streets, adjacent to the Roadhouse. It is now listed for restoration and preservation by the National Trust.

BIRDSVILLE HOTEL

Built in 1884 from sandstone obtained from a quarry 16km east of the town, this was the third and final hotel built in Birdsville. In 1905, a cyclone leveled the less sturdy outbuildings, leaving only the main structures standing. Then in 1964 part of the hotel was destroyed by fire, making it necessary to rebuild the accommodation section. It was at this time that the carbide and kerosene lamps were replaced with 240-volt electricity. Air conditioning was installed two years later.

Another fire blazed through the interior of the hotel in 1979 and the main bar had to be rebuilt. In 1986, a lounge bar was added and became known as the green Lizard Bar. This was due to the formation of a league of members who assembled there during the acute beer shortage in 1986, when the only drink available in town was crème-de-menthe and lemonade.

The Birdsville Hotel is recognized all over the world as one of the most famous outback hotels, attracting many tourists to this far-away destination. These days, the hotel boasts 18 modern motel units, a guest laundry and a beer garden. The front bar displays some great historical memorabilia also.

CACOORY RUINS

The homestead was built in 1877 from sandstone by optimistic settlers from South Australia, who brought the stone with them. Sidney Kidman bought the property in 1899, this being one of his first properties purchased on his own after the death of his brother and former partner Sackville Kidman. Due to the continuation of a drought where 3000 head of cattle perished, Kidman was forced to close the homestead and in 1906 the property was abandoned. The roofing iron was removed during World War II to help overcome a shortage of corrugated iron. Cacoory now stands alone as a shell of a once impressive cottage situated 80km north of Birdsville.

CORDILLO DOWNS SHEARING SHED

In 1878, a pastoral lease was taken up for Cordillo Downs Station in far north-eastern South Australia, and by 1883 10,000 sheep were being run on the property. In 1900, Cordillo amalgamated with Cadelga and Haddon Downs and the property spread across 102,400 square kilometres, and boasted the largest shearing shed in Australia, shearing 100,000 sheep a year. Shearers caught the train to Lyndhurst some 600km south then cycled the rest of the way! The wool clip was transported by Afghan camel train to Farina on the Central Australian railway, 50km south of Marree. The domed roof of this old shearing shed is characteristic of the buildings on Cordillo Downs Station. On the flat gibber plains of the region, wood is a very scarce and method of construction to minimize the use of roofing timber was sought. The solution was a domed, corrugated iron roof structure, supported by buttressed stone walls more than half a metre thick. Although Cordillo was well suited to running sheep, predation by dingoes eventually forced a change to cattle in 1941. Today, Cordillo Downs runs cattle only.

HISTORIC DATES

  • 1845 • Sturt made two trips into the Birdsville region
  • 1860 • Robert Burke arrived in Birdsville and marked a nearby Coolibah tree
  • 1879 • P. Burt purchased Matthew Flynn's depot and built the first store
  • 1881 • Original Adria Downs lease. Government officially proclaimed four square miles for town reserve - November 3rd
  • 1882 • Town gazetted. Police station and Royal Hotel building works commenced. Both buildings are still standing
  • 1883 • Birdsville Gaol built and Customs House built
  • 1884 • Birdsville Hotel built
  • 1885 • Town surveyed by F.A. Hartwell
  • 1885 • First death recorded on police files - Edward Blair, part owner of the Birdsville Hotel
  • 1886 • First divisional board meeting held on March 2, at the Birdsville Hotel
  • 1886 • First application for telegraph connection - June 8
  • 1888 • Courthouse registered - February 29
  • 1889 • First white child born - Samuel William Smith, April 2
  • 1891 • Brookland's Store Built - firstly as an English bank then as a station supplies store and staff dwellings
  • 1894 • Frew's store used to hospitalise Typhoid cases
  • 1899 • First provisional school opened
  • 1901 • Federation. The end of border taxes collected by Customs outpost
  • 1923 • First hospital opened in the Royal Hotel and called the Brisbane Home
  • 1925 • First telegram sent by battery-operated radio on August 13
  • 1929 • First pedal wireless
  • 1929 • First Royal Flying Doctor Service
  • 1929 • First aircraft landed (Wapiti RAAF)
  • 1931 • Diprotodon jaw bone found at Wool wash by Bob Gaffney
  • 1936 • Ted Colsen became first white man to cross the Simpson Desert
  • 1937 • New hospital opened and called the Birdsville Nursing Home
  • 1939 • Dr Madigan and his party crossed the Simpson Desert
  • 1951 • Australian Inland Mission (AIM) burned down (on current hospital grounds)
  • 1952 • AIM rebuilt by Dr Hargraves who also built the hospital in 1937
  • 1961 • Artesian bore drilled for town water supply
  • 1963 • Adria Downs Station supply store (Brookland's store) became a retail general store for locals and tourists
  • 1964 • Hydro-electric power first generated from the artesian bore
  • 1967 • Worst dust storm on record - visibility 9ft all day
  • 1974 • Highest recorded flood in the Diamantina River at Birdsville
  • 1976 • Switched over to diesel generated electricity
  • 1976 • Telephone connected to Birdsville on August 16
  • 1976 • Small fire at the Birdsville Hotel
  • 1979 • Birdsville Hotel burned down (Only a few original walls and floors remain)