The Mount Isa Underground Hospital was one of the items on my ‘to do’ list for the town and I was not disappointed in my choice. As mentioned previously, Mount Isa is a town established on the mineral resources of the area and the mine perimeter is just one street away from the town centre. Hardworking pioneers broke in the countryside and the town of Mount Isa now stands as a multicultural testimony to the efforts of those who have gone before and those who call the town home.
The advent of WWII in 1942, had little impact on Australia until the Japanese attack on Darwin. When American troops arrived in Northern Queensland to help defend the top end of Australia, the community was prompted to consider the implications of bombing occurring further south and the damage to existing medical facilities: safeguarding medical services was essential. The community project was spearheaded by medical staff, influential townspeople and the local mining industry; and supported by volunteer labour.
One of the entrances to the Underground Hospital
By March 1942 by off-duty miners, having already worked an eight-hour shift on the mines, volunteered a further four-hour shift to blast rock necessary to excavate an underground area big enough for the hospital. Members of the public came behind the miners and shovelled the blasted rock out ready for the miners to arrive the following day to blast deeper into the tunnels.
Carved out of shale rock, it consisted of three parallel tunnels joined at one end by a 20-metre-long tunnel, creating a reverse E shape. The Underground Hospital was completed and medically fitted out by April that year. There were male and female wards, a maternity/children’s ward and a surgical theatre, all underground. Fitted with electricity and telephones it was more than a makeshift facility.
The north tunnel of the hospital was timbered like a mine and Oregon hardwood used: some posts still hold up the ceiling and are resistant to termites, a necessity in Australia. Local hardwood was used to top lag the posts that rested on wooden caps. The hospital was furnished and medically equipped but by the time it was ready, the threat from Japan had receded and it was never called into use as a hospital. However, it was used by off duty medical staff as a rest area because it was cooler than their above-ground residences. After the war, the hospital fell into disuse and became dilapidated, forgotten and vandalised.
Nurses uniform of the 1940s and the cupboard contains medicines found in the tunnels during the 1997 rediscovery
In 1997 it was unearthed and 1940s light shades, bed tables, as well as post war material such as unidentified machinery and furniture were found as well as implements used in the construction of the hospital.
Today, the facility has been lovingly restored by volunteers who conduct tours through the facility and maintain a large well-stocked museum of medical memorabilia, found in the hospital or since donated.
Trolley Bed in one of the passage wards
To get 40 beds into the hospital bunking the beds in tiers was a necessity
Along with many other items retrieved from the medical contribution to the war effort, the kerosene lamps lined alongside the garden in the photo below were used at the Camooweal airstrip for the Flying Doctor’s plane. The nurse would have to light them for the plane to land at night. When the plane came back to Mount Isa cars would light up the strip for the plane to land.
The effort of volunteers to keep what has become a significant medical museum open is a tribute to their dedication and passion: some have a medical/health background while others acknowledge the value of preserving a significant part of Mount Isa’s history.