Acknowledgement to Patsy Crawford for her book, ‘King – the story of a river’, Montpelier Press 2000
The King River in western Tasmania is formed by the joining of the Eldon and South Eldon Rivers, which together rise on the remote south western flank of the Cradle Mountain- Lake St Clair National Park. Encircling the Eldon Range they flow south through the Hydro impoundment of Lake Burbury, before turning west through the King River Gorge, a narrow defile between Mt Huxley and Mt Jukes. Once clear of the gorge the river continues west to empty into Macquarie Harbour.
The King river area has always been remote. As the rain forest returned to the land after the last ice age over 10 000 years ago the Aboriginal people visited the area less, preferring the more open coastal areas. In 1815 James Kelly, (who made a fortune whaling from Hobart) found the mouth of the King River and reported Aborigines in the area. From around 1819 the river was referred to on charts as ‘the Kings River’ presumably after King George III, the current monarch.
Exploring the river from its mouth by boat was all very well but the real challenge was the river east of the West Coast Range. Protected from the eastern settlements by 100 kilometres of virtually impenetrable scrub it baffled runaway convicts and early explorers alike. By 1850 the Australian gold rush was on and in 1852 twenty year old Gordon Burgess found himself to be the first white man at the junction of the North & South Eldon Rivers in his search for gold. Charles Gould and Burgess returned to the area in 1860 on a geological survey and discovered that the river at the base of the Eldon Range and that flowing into Macquarie Harbour were in fact the same, King’s River. In another prospecting trip in 1863 Gould did find small amounts of gold in the top of the King valley, but missed spotting one of the biggest copper deposits in the world nearby.
For twenty years little attention was paid to the area. Then in 1881 Tom Lynch bashed his way up the King and Queen Rivers to near present day Lynchford and found gold. The rush started and soon prospectors were scouring the rugged countryside. In late 1883 three miners found the site of the Iron Blow on the ridge between Mt Lyell and Mt Owen. It was a huge iron outcrop which they believed covered gold. They began mining and over the next few years the high cost of the mine drove men broke until it was owned by, amongst others, James Crotty, who managed to get payable gold out of the mine. It soon became apparent however that the true wealth of the Iron Blow mine was in copper rather than gold.
James Crotty formed the North Mt Lyell Copper Company and quickly developed the mine, building a town and smelter at Crotty (near the current dam) and a railway to the new company port at Pillinger. In 1903 the North Mt Lyell Copper Company succumbed to competition from the Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Company. The Crotty Smelters, railway and town of Pillinger were closed down and the ore from the Iron Blow mine taken to the new company smelters at Queenstown.
Mining was taking its toll on the area. By 1900 the immediate area around present day Queenstown had been logged out for firewood to feed the smelting furnaces and the tramways were extending into the surrounding bush. The smelters used a pyritic smelting process which emitted sulphur dioxide and sulphur trioxide into the moisture laden air. The ensuing acid rain managed to kill any vegetation in the area that had not already been logged. This was to set the tone for the next one hundred years. Whilst the West Coast rains washed the exposed soil down the mountains and into the Queen River, the mine also dumped its smelter slag and tailings into the river at a rate of up to 2 million tonnes per year so the river ran grey for generations. All this and the domestic rubbish and sewerage from Queenstown flowed down the Queen, and into the King River where it was deposited along the banks and in the growing silt delta in Macquarie Harbour.
Throughout all the years of mining a parallel industry had been taking place on the banks of the King River and its tributaries. Men have been seeking and cutting Huon Pine on the river since around 1850 to the present day. Early piners would make their way up the river by foot or punt and work in the bush for months, felling the valuable trees into the river and picking them up at a boom camp near the river mouth. In 1911 Hartwell Condor built a tramway seven kilometres long to recover huon pine on the Teepookana plateau. Lake Burbury flooded the last of the pine sawmills, Bradshaws', at Princess River. Bradshaws' now have a new mill and stockpile at Lynchford whilst the Teepookana plateau is now managed by Forestry Tasmania for Huon Pine recovery.
Following the High Court decision in 1983 that prevented the damming of the Gordon and Franklin Rivers it was decided to dam the King River for hydro electricity. Plans had been proposed since 1910 for a hydro electric scheme on the King and in 1991 the Crotty Dam was completed and the King River dammed to form Lake Burbury. The water was then fed through a 7 km long tunnel to the 163 MW John Butters Power Station. Around the same time, in 1994, the new owners of the mine, Copper Mines of Tasmania set up a large tailings dam to prevent the discharge of tailings down the river. In conjunction with other remediation works, efforts are being made to clean up the Queen River.
The Queen River is recovering now and sometimes runs orange, a product of the acidic drainage from the mine mixing with iron pyrites and other minerals from the mine. Once in the King the increased flows from the power station quickly dilutes the discoloured Queen waters. The tailings in the King River are slowly being eroded and washed down to Macquarie Harbour. Where the tailings are above the usual river level they have solidified into hard pan, a crumbly rock. Huon Pine continue to grow on the river banks and the bush is recolonising the tailing flats. We see the occasional platypus returning to the river. In summer fishermen wait for trout on the banks of the King River near the power station.