STORIES

James Crotty

James Crotty

The man who discovered the west's riches

James Crotty was an Irish prospector, who travelled to the Victorian goldfields as an 18 year old to seek his fortune. When gold was discovered in western Tasmania, Crotty decided to try his luck. He camped at Mt Lyell in 1884, bought a one-third interest in a 20-acre lease at Mt Lyell called Iron Blow, and set about looking for gold.

And find gold he did. In fact, it was said that if you pulled grass up by the roots at Iron Blow, the gold would sprinkle out of it. When James Crotty walked the 100 miles to Waratah to register his find in 1886, he declared, 'I'll be that rich, I'll buy Ireland and make it a present to Parnell'. This young man already looked set to guide the fate of the west coast, but his path was a winding one.

The gold at Iron Blow proved to be difficult and costly to extract. Crotty couldn’t know it at the time, but Iron Blow was the cap of a massive copper deposit. There was some gold at the surface, but the real riches lay in the hidden copper, deep in the earth.

The mine consumed Crotty’s money, but he persisted with it – borrowing money and working in the Sydney sewers to support it. As the gold began to dry up, he advertised for investor, and in 1891, Mr Bowes Kelly of Broken Hill Proprietary Limited (B.H.P) arrived to assess the mine. There was little gold to be found by that stage, and Bowes Kelly successfully negotiated a lower investment price than the 18,000 pounds Crotty was asking for. Crotty was forced to accept, and became a minor shareholder in the newly formed Mount Lyell Mining Company.

Copper was soon pouring out of Iron Blow, and making a fortune for Bowes Kelly, who began construction of a railway to transport the copper to market.

While Crotty had become a wealthy shareholder, he was furious with Kelly, and swore revenge. He bought another lease of land at North Lyell and began a rival company – the North Mount Lyell Copper Company.

During road building for Crotty’s new mine, workers stumbled upon copper deposits that were even purer than Iron Blow. So James Crotty began planning his own railway, along the King and Bird Rivers to Kelly’s Basin. The North Lyell Railway was longer, flatter and straighter than Bowes Kelly’s Abt railway, and could take larger locomotives. New towns sprang up along the line, including the towns of Crotty, where the copper ore was smelted, and Pillinger, which began to rival Strahan as the major port on the west coast – with its own sawmill, brick works, ore crusher, stately hotels, stores and beautiful homes.

Crotty was prospering, with better locomotives, richer towns and purer copper than Bowes Kelly. He travelled to England to attract more investors, and denounced Kelly and his Abt railway as a failure.

Investors begin to move from the Kelly side to the Crotty side, and James Crotty looked set to overtake Bowes Kelly as the success story of the west coast.

But it was not to be. One Saturday morning in 1898, the North Lyell Mine smelters collapsed, and production slowed to a crawl. Then, in London, James Crotty fell ill, and within a few short weeks, passed away.

Soon after James Crotty’s death, his mine manager fled the country, and investors demanded their money back. The Board of Directors had no choice but to merge with the Mount Lyell Mining Company, under Bowes Kelly.

After the merger, Bowes Kelly decided to close the North Lyell Railway. The railway lines were pulled up, towns abandoned, and the wilderness took hold once again.

Even the little town of Crotty, named for this extraordinary Irishman, now lies submerged beneath the dark waters of Lake Burbury.

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