Undated postcard of the Mt Lyell mine (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)
In 1882 fine gold shed from a thick ironstone mass (the 'Iron Blow') was detected by three men in the Linda Valley. They pegged a claim and traced the auriferous material to the eastern flank of a ridge connecting Mount Lyell to Mount Owen. They worked the alluvial gold by sluicing the slopes. Others followed, though development was expensive and difficult, due to isolation and poor access through thick scrub. In 1886 F Henry, J Crotty and W Dixon formed the Mount Lyell Gold Mining Company (a Launceston company) which developed the Iron Blow. An 8-head stamp battery was erected, but recoveries were poor. In 1892 two Adelaide financiers, Kelly and Orr, realising that a fortune in copper was being washed down the sluice boxes, bought the mine and formed the Mount Lyell Mining Company. By now 28 companies were working the field.
As the surface gravel, soil and button grass were sluiced away, in 1893 a pyrite orebody was exposed. Within the main mass were richer patches, one of spectacular grade which provided the impetus for the rapid development of underground mining. The following year the Mount Lyell Bonanza produced over 850 tons of high grade copper and silver ore. Profit enabled more development, including an Abt railway from Strahan in 1896. In 1895 Robert Sticht arrived as chief metallurgist and perfected pyritic smelting. By 1901 the new township of Queenstown was flourishing, and Sticht had 11 blast furnaces working in the smelting plant.
Meanwhile, rich ores were discovered at North Lyell. After internal feuding, Crotty left the Company with the lease of North Lyell. His North Lyell Copper Company rivalled Mount Lyell, establishing a railway to Macquarie Harbour, and the towns of Gormanston, Crotty and Pillinger. North Mount Lyell had richer ore than the Mount Lyell Company, but its new furnaces failed, Crotty died, and in 1903 the company amalgamated with Mount Lyell to form the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company, real power remaining with the original Mount Lyell board. The amalgamation meant the end of Crotty and Pillinger.
In 1914 the Company built its own hydro-electric power scheme. In 1922 the Iron Blow, now a vast open cut, was phased out, leaving underground workings to supply the ore. Its copper contained many impurities, and from 1928 further refining by electrolysis produced copper 99.8 percent pure. From 1934 to 1972 the West Lyell mine produced 47 million tons of copper ore.
In 1963 the Abt railway closed, as maintenance costs were high, while road transport to Strahan was easier. Economic problems saw the closure of the refinery in 1964, and the smelters in 1969. In 1976 depressed copper prices forced the retrenchment of almost half the workforce. The Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company, now a subsidiary of Renison Goldfields Ltd, suffered continuing problems and in 1993 work stopped at the mine. Twelve months later it was taken over by Gold Mines of Australia, but low copper prices made the operation unviable, and it was sold to an Indian company, Twin Star Holdings. They use the ore for smelting operations in India, and in 2004 employed about 270 people. (See also Mount Lyell fire.)
Further reading: G Blainey, The peaks of Lyell, Melbourne, 1954.