These days Duchess consists of a lone hotel, a few ramshackle outbuildings and a new $200,000 railway platform. Mail gets to to nearby cattle stations via train and Duchess continues to act as a station although rail traffic consists mostly of ore trains that pass right on through.

Duchess Hotel

The Duchess Hotel is still a going concern and publican Bill Johnston is quick to point out that he supplies the bars of 4-5 nearby mines - grog sales worth 1.4 million dollars a year.

The remainder of Bill's clientele are passing truckie's and traveller's, local station employees and various contractors servicing the mines, roads or rail.

Apart from the pub Duchess is just a memory - her glory days a brief hurrah in the early part of the 20th Century.

The Beginnings

Alexander Kennedy, the pioneer pastoralist, discovered a rich copper ore body in 1897 and in collaboration with other regional pioneers, began full scale production of the Duchess Mine.

It is reputed that Kennedy named the burgeoning town in honour of an aboriginal woman who claimed to be the mistress of St. John de Satge of Rochedale, an English nobleman nicknamed 'The Duke'.

In 1912, with WW1 driving the price of copper up, a rail link from Cloncurry was established to service the Duchess smelter. Attorney General John Mullen turned the 'first sod' on April 9, 1926 and the town was joined by rail line to Mount Isa.

Population estimates are vague - anywhere from 1000 to 3000 people by 1917. Duchess had become an important depot for the camel trains who serviced the stations and the usual shops and amenities were established to meet the needs of a town whose future looked bright.

A school had been built and a picture theatre, three drapers and two motor garages ensured Duchess had the face of a modern town. The arrival of the first model T Ford in Duchess had been cause for celebration and an early advertisement proudly announces 'Love Bothers' as the local Chevrolet dealer.

An old hand drawn map shows a town surrounded by numerous small mines and sporting three hotels, a saw mill, Masonic Hall, 2 Chinese market gardens, a lolly shop, fruit shop, Catholic church, cricket ground, tennis courts and race track and various residential houses.

The remnants of a rail side restaurant can still be seen alongside the new rail platform and a letter by someone called 'May' recounts the arrival of a train destined for Mount Isa -

"…A hectic hour followed the arrival of a tram as passengers, mostly men seeking employment in Mt. Isa, streamed across the road to the hotel. The roomy dining room was usually full, the only occasion it was so, as with the exception of a few graziers around about and a border or two, there was little to attract a crowd."

A Brief Flame

The price of copper had collapsed by 1920 and with the closing of the smelter people began to move away. By 1921 the population had been reduced to 344 and two years later it was less than half this number.

Phosphate had been discovered near Duchess and this was enough to maintain the hotel, a general store and a school. The school finally closed in 1983, signalling the end for Duchess as a town.

The original "Doherty's Duchess Hotel" was burned to the ground in spectacular fashion on April 1, 1913. It was a 2 storey building, typical of the era, and had been insured for £3810. The police report states the fire had been discovered by a boarder around midnight but in 30 minutes had burnt to the ground. "The whereabouts of the Licensee where unknown but the circumstances where not suspicious."

The 'new' Duchess hotel is a more modest affair. The dirt road at the front provides an entry through a couple of barn style doors. Lighting is dim to help beat the heat and ceiling fans move the air about.

In 2011 a hundred and twenty five dollars buys you a basic 'donger' style room and breakfast, lunch and dinner - reflective of the needs of the patrons. Ablutions are rural but effective and an evening beer in the bar is usually shared in the company of the hotel dogs.

The Duchess story is fairly typical of the boom and bust copper towns of North West Queensland. Kuridala is another old site with a similar history and is not far from Duchess.

“Doherty’s Hotel” was owned by my Great Uncle Edward “Teddy” O’Doherty. I was told his wife’s name was Ruby and her maiden name was Searle. They had a daughter. That’s all I know . I’d like to find out if there’s any descendants I could get in touch with. I think they lived in Cloncurry in later years. He’s buried there. I visited his grave.

Jim O’Doherty

Darwin, NT.

This article is part of a project to record the history of ghost towns in Australia. If you can contribute any information about any of Australia's abandoned towns please use the 'CONTACTUS' link at the top of the page to send us an email.

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