A letter from a dead man.
“Seven hundred level. North Lyell mine, 12-10-12. If anyone should find this note convey to my wife. Dear Agnes. – I will say good-bye. Sure I will not see you again any more. I am pleased to have made a little provision for you and poor little Lorna. Be good to our little darling. My mate, Len Burke, is done, and poor old V. and Driver too. Good-bye, with love to all. Your loving husband, Joe McCarthy.”
These are the final words of a man to his wife, a man about to perish in the North Mount Lyell disaster, one of the greatest disasters in Australian mining history. On a late Saturday morning in 1912, a fire raged through the somber catacombs of the Mount Lyell copper mine. For many workers, the alert reached them too late. Forty-two men perished on the mountain that day.
The nearest settlement to the disaster was Gormanston, a small town perched on the slopes of Mount Owen in western Tasmania. Built for the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company operations for the Iron Blow open cut copper mine, Gormanston was used as a relief centre for the disaster. And, like many towns that shone briefly during the mining booms in western Tasmania, it soon waned. People decamped, buildings were moved or left to crumble and the town became a forlorn testament to a bygone era.
A ghost town
While the town post office closed in 1979, and most of the town’s buildings (which are few) wearily endure through shattered panes and dark, crumbling hulls, Gormanston is not technically a ghost town anymore. Gormanston – according to my friend and resident Luke Campbell, who lives with his family in what was formerly the town bank – now contains two houses that are permanently occupied. As of 2013, the town’s population was officially six.
When I recently visited Gormanston, I was pleasantly surprised. The place has real atmosphere. Stopping roughly half a kilometre from town, I beeped my horn while talking to Luke on the phone. “Is that you?” he said. I found this amusing. Gormanston is a place of little activity, where a noise can easily betray the presence of an outsider.
Rolling into town, the gravel crunched noisily under my tires, piercing the ghostly silence of the streets. Several rabbits darted across the road, while a cool, overcast sky lent the place an otherworldly air. It’s hard to imagine that this small, all but lifeless town was once home to eleven pubs. Eleven! After being welcomed by Luke and his family, we decided to explore, heading to an old abandoned hall near the top of town.
Here slabs of timber and iron peeled away in gaping chunks, within and without. It was as if we were hiding in Dresden in the ’40s, evading the bombs that had all but shattered our hideout. As the light faded fast behind the hills, I used my phone to illuminate a hive of bees hidden in the corner. Later that evening my friend and photographer Dee Kramer found, rather curiously, that his photos of the hall had disappeared, while other shots remained.
Just two days ago, several days after returning from my visit to Gormanston, Luke phoned me. He knows I’m always sniffing for a story. “A local told me six or seven ghosts roam these streets Tope. There could be a reason Dee’s photos disappeared.” Of course I had not a skerric of proof for such a story, but if ever there were a place for 42 souls to escape from the smouldering, caliginous tunnels of Mount Lyell, Gormanston would be a wonderful (and likely) spot.
Things to do in/near town
- Climb Mount Owen – a splendid walk high above town, taking roughly three/four hours return.
- Talk to explorer, guide, consummate entertainer and mayor of Gormanston, Luke Campbell.
- Explore the streets (which are extremely atmospheric) and bask in the silence beneath the hills.
- Visit Linda, a ghost town located just one kilometre (a nice walk) downhill from Gormanston.
Gormanston is located five minutes drive from Queenstown in western Tasmania and is the closest settlement to Lake Burbury – a man-made lake used to produce hydro-electricity. Lake Burbury also contains the remains of the ghost town Crotty at its murky bottom.
28 thoughts on “Ghost Towns of Tasmania – Gormanston”
The North Mount Lyell mine disaster is very tragic and sad. On my visit to Mt. Lyell mine in 2012 our tour was delayed because of a broken down bogger so we went up and explored the remnants of this town and other areas nearby. I was heartbroken as I always am to see such sad little towns abandoned and still feel terrible about the state of Zhean. I thank for posting such nice and beautiful work and am looking forward to reading more of it.
I find it fascinating theses little towns were abandoned. Of course change is inevitable, but to just leave a whole town! And yeah, the North Mount Lyell mine story is very tragic and sad.
Thanks for your kind words.
Great read but sadly no ghosts up there….. Was born & bread in Gormy and spent lots of time in Luke’s house in my time there…. Such a lovely house, lucky owner he is! We still visit Gormy a lot, drive around and talk about the good old days!!
Wow, what a spot to be born and bred in. I speak to Luke regularly and he loves it. Might even see you down there one time!
Thanks for stopping in.
I’m planning on checking this out when I visit Tassie in October. So glad I found this page!! Abandoned buildings are my favourite! I love the stories and the history and the photography potential!
Then you’ll love it Kaye, such an atmospheric part of the world. I’m looking forward to exploring more of this area, for sure.
Hi Andy. Thank you for your piece on Gormanston. It brought back lots of memories. I was invited to stay there with my uncle and aunt during the September school holidays over 56 years ago. My uncle worked in the mines of course.. I am close to seventy but I remember that visit as though it was yesterday. I stepped off the bus into misty rain and the smell of sulphur. My uncle picked me up in his 1959 Ford Zephyr and drove to the house which was only about 200 metres away. They drove everywhere because of the weather it seemed. Even to the general store which was a 2 minute walk from their house. Everyone knew everyone in Gormy. The atmosphere was amazing. There was an incredible feeling of isolation but balanced by the kindness and friendliness of the people.. I returned to Gormy for the first time in many years, 2 years ago, I was overcome with sadness but there was a presence or feeling which I cannot describe fully. Not of ghosts as such, although I am sure there will be ghosts. The closest I can describe it was the sort of sensation you get when you visit an old house where you once lived and return many years later to walk though the empty rooms. . .
Wow, that would have been really interesting to return many years after seeing Gormanston in its heyday. A bit sad I bet! And thank you for your description Bill, it really added to this piece and gave me (and readers) more of an idea of what life in Gormanston was like.
Thanks for your insights into Gormanston. My husband, and I travelled around Tasmania this time last year with our 2 year old son in a camper van and made it a priority to see the West Coast….along the way we stumbled across this intriguing little town, Gormanston. We couldn’t believe how drawn we were to this little place, especially as neither of us had ever heard of it until that day. We drove around in amazement and wonder, wishing we had someone to walk us through the history of that little place, and got the feeling that it was once a buzzing hub. It wasn’t until some days later when we managed to get internet coverage that we looked it up and were amazed by the stories of 11 pubs and the incredible history Gormanston contains….truly great.
One last thing i must mention, and a thought that still bothers us…..As we approached Gormanston along the highway, a little cottage to the left caught our eye. On the deck was a man gazing out …above him hung a flag with the name of our local NRL football team – the Manly sea eagles! We couldn’t believe it. My husband begged me to pull over so we could talk to him….ask him about this place…..sadly, we didn’t stop to chat to him, but instead quietly drove the streets ourselves. We still wonder about this man, and his little cottage flying our Manly flag. I wonder, was this your friend, Luke Campbell? I suppose we owe this man a thank you too, as was it not for him, we would not have pulled in to explore this little piece of Australian history at all, and would have missed out on learning about this lost little town in the hills of the beautiful West Coast of Tasmania.
Awesome you got to see Gormanston. As you know, it’s well worth it! I’m actually hanging out with Luke at the moment (he’s visiting Byron Bay) and I just asked him about the Manly flag and he said it was his neighbour. It’s a small world in Gormanston!
Loved your piece on Gormy and Linda. I worked on the Crotty Dam (the lake hadn’t been named then) when it first started. We bought a old shack at Linda for about $300.00 , made a killing when we sold it for $ 600.00. I worked their for about 12 months till the weather chased me back to sunny Qld. I have fond memories of the place though. Cept for the snakes Linda was crawling with them.
Great to hear your perspective on the area. Didn’t see any snakes in Linda although I saw a big tiger snake on nearby Ocean Beach.
Certainly better weather in QLD!
Interesting with lake burbury at such low levels I wonder if remnants of crotty township are becoming visible ?
It appears that Crotty’s back above water Rafe. At least for a while.
Whenever I visit Tasmania I try to visit the west coast and in particular Queenstown and Gormanston.
Gormanston has always for me had a sombre and erie atmosphere – it’s hard to imagine it as a crowded and bustling town. Yet I know it was, my father was born there in 1911 and was just baby when his father, Zephaniah Lewis, perished in the mine disaster. It’s nice that Luke has such a fondness for the place and I hope he and others will continue to live there.
Wow John, I appreciate you commenting here. What a connection you have with the place!
Actually Luke recently left Gormanston for personal reasons. I spoke to him just the other day and he really misses it. I really hope it keeps going too, although not much work down there..
Hi Andy, Thanks for this great article. I viseted the west coast & Gormanston in May 2016, what an intriguing place.
I have been looking at some of the propertys for sale, but I’m also mindful of the contamination of soil and water. I hear some of the families living here relocated after their children were poisoned with lead.
Did you ever discuss this with Luke? Any insights into the severity of contamination around Gormanston? Would you consider fish from Lake Burbury safe to eat, given the site of the Crotty Smelter is under there.
I suppose I’m asking your opinion on the safety of living in Gormanston, given its mining past.
Thanks Andy & Luke,
Hi Mike, some good questions you’ve got. Unfortunately I haven’t been back to Gormanston since the date of this article and Luke has since moved on. Also, I don’t have the answers myself. Although I’m sure you could make a few enquiries, perhaps in Queenstown?
Revisited Gormanston today 18th Feb 2018 could not taken in how nature had taken back what was hers since leavinig in Dec 1960. The buildings that have disappeared, so much history gone forever. The local hall, the working men’s club now a derelict shell the school gone forever.
The Post Office demolished so many memories there. My hope is that somewhere these memories will be preserved for future generations to look back on to those who toiled and bought prosperity to the West Coast
Thanks for the update Michael. Interesting you’ve gotten to see such changes in Gormanston, for better or for worse. Yes, I’d like to see the old town recorded for posterity too 🙂
My family lived in Gormanston in 1937. My father went there for work as it was during the depression. Sadly my sister, aged 8, caught the deadly polio and was hospitalised there. I have some stories of our time there.
Wow Noelene, Gormanston has certainly seen some hard times! I hope everything turned out okay in the end. Have you returned recently?
Wow what a lovingly written piece on Gormy. We bought a house in Gormy in November last year and are raising our seven year old here in amongst the majestic soaring mountains, fresh alpine air and the wildness of this magical place.
Such an amazing place to live – only five minutes from the services that Queenie provides but once back home in Gormy again you feel a sense of remoteness and isolation (in a good way).
Both my husband and I are obsessed with the history of this incredibly sacred place and do lots of exploring of the ruins, finding old artefacts and researching its history.
I love flowers too and amazingly, in the warmer months, one can amble through the bush and find roses, glads, fuschia, dahlias and other garden flowers just growing right there amongst the manferns and acacia, still blooming where once someone’s front garden once was.
A truly spectacular place to live. We feel privileged to be here and hope we stay forever. Thanks again Andy : )
Hi Heidi, thanks for your comment.
So glad to hear you’ve made your home there and you’re loving it! As the place has so much atmosphere and there’s so much to do nearby, I can totally understand your enthusiasm. I could also imagine the flowers over there, as over Linda way I had a few wanders in the hills and encountered some pretty flora.
June 22 2022
I was born in Queenstown Hospital 11/11/1936 and lived in Gormanston, went to the convent school moved to Queenstown when I got married in 1960, my parents moved also in late 60’s . The above old “hall” was a sports club, had a canteen 4 full size billard tables one side dance floor come badmiton court the other. We lived in a house overlooking the highway and the gravel oval and swimming pool on the left, hand a lot of great memories about good old gory
Thanks for that input Bernie! Nothing like hearing from a local as to what actually happened there and what it was like. I bet you do have some great memories…
I came across the article on Gormanston tonight.
My parents worked for a relation who operated the Lee Fook Brothers general store in Gormanston until around 1950. I was born in Queenstown in 1941. My parents move to mainland around 1950. I passed through Gormanston in December 2012 and noticed the burnt out remains of the general store still existed.
It was interesting to read the various comments about Gormanston.
My grandfather & his brother were born in Gormanston around 1900 – the family lived on Ormiston Street – their father worked for Mr James Wilson – a builder & contractor.
I will be calling through 9/12/2022 (tomorrow) in the afternoon to take photos of the street itself – my cousin is writing a detailed family history & asked for some photos of the street.
Can you advise where there was a hospital in the town at the time of their births – both have Gormanston as their birthplace on the birth certificates (I have a copy of one with me). I would like to photograph that site also – if possible.