Cloncurry, a rural town of 2400 people in western Queensland, is 1000 km west of Mackay and 270 km from the Northern Territory border. It is on the Cloncurry River, named by Robert Burke of the Burke and Wills expedition (1861) after his cousin, Lady Elizabeth Cloncurry of County Galway, Ireland. Cloncurry is the administrative seat of the Cloncurry Shire.
Pastoral occupation of the Cloncurry district began in the 1860s, leading to ferocious skirmishes and murder of the Kalkadoon Aboriginal population (discussed under Cloncurry Shire). It was mining, however, on which Cloncurry was founded. A remote inland settlement, the Cloncurry district was explored in 1866 by an unsuccessful pastoralist, Ernest Henry, chiefly with mineral exploration in mind. His first find proved to be sillicated iron, but in May 1867 he found the 'Great Australian' copper ore body south of present day Cloncurry. He made further ore discoveries at Kajabbi, north-west of Cloncurry. Later that year gold was found south of Cloncurry. A semi-permanent mining community developed, and in 1876 the Cloncurry Township was surveyed.
Another major copper lode was found in 1880 at Argylla, west of Cloncurry, and in 1884 the Great Australian ore body was exploited with an on-site smelter.
Ernest Henry opened a store at Cloncurry in 1876, and a hotel soon followed. The harsh climate and the dangers inherent in mining required a temporary hospital (1879), which was replaced by a permanent building in 1884. A telegraph connection was opened in 1883 and a school in 1884. The Cloncurry Advocate began publication in 1889. Cloncurry's population was barely 240 people in 1901, but it quadrupled in the coming decade, and Church of England and Catholic churches - and a Masonic temple - were built in the period from 1906 to 1910. The main stimulant for growth was the arrival of the railway in 1907, making Cloncurry a regional pastoral railhead and a railway depot. Branch line extensions, one to Mount Isa in 1929, diminished but did not remove the railway's economic importance.
Cloncurry was a temporary aerodrome for the London to Melbourne air race in 1919, and three years later the town was a scheduled destination for the first Qantas air service. In 1928 Cloncurry was the commencing headquarter of the Australian Inland Mission's flying doctor service. The aerodrome runways were sealed in 1944 after use by the RAAF in war time.
The choice of Cloncurry as the centre for the flying doctor service was an indication of its status as a frontier town. A considerable amount of mining continued in its hinterland, and while economically important, this activity required significant road maintenance, absorbing scarce shire funds. Nevertheless, the shire was able to replace typhoid-prone wells with reticulated water, and in 1937-39 an electric power plant and a new shire hall were opened. Postwar wool prices injected prosperity into the district, and a civic centre and swimming pool were significant new additions to the stock of amenities. Town sewerage was installed in the 1970s. Mount Isa, west of Cloncurry, overtook Cloncurry in population and was severed from the shire in 1963. Mining continued in importance with the Mary Kathleen uranium township (1957-82). By the time that town was closed down, Cloncurry was developing plans for a 'flying doctors' tourist attraction - the town's location on the Matilda Highway enabling it to capitalise on inland tourism.
Cloncurry has an aerodrome, hospital, a swimming pool, a golf course, racecourse (five meetings a year), abattoir and saleyards, a primary-secondary school, Catholic primary school (1909), three churches and aged persons' accommodation. The town's heritage can be seen at the flying doctor museum, the Cloncurry-Mary Kathleen memorial park and museum, an extensive mineral display in the old post office and two small cemeteries on the town's outskirts, containing the bodies of Chinese miners and Afghan and Baluchistan camel drivers. Cloncurry's court house (1890s) and post office (1906) are listed on the Queensland heritage register. The old shire hall (1939) has been restored, and is again an important community centre.
Cloncurry's census populations have been:
Cloncurry 100, 1867-1967, Cloncurry, Cloncurry Centenary Celebrations Committee, 1967
Perry Hardy, A short history of the Cloncurry district, Cloncurry, Cloncurry Shire Council, 1983