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Faculty of Medicine, Health & Molecular Sciences  

Mount Isa Centre for Rural and Remote Health


235 approx.

569 km from Mt Isa
1149 km from Townsville
2205 km from Brisbane

General Information
Located on the Albert River, Burketown is located in the heart of the Gulf country. The town dates back to 1865 were it was established as a port to service the newly established stations in the gulf. Burketown has survived the ravages of fire, flood, cyclone and plagues, with the hardy locals picking up the pieces each time and rebuilding. The town is situated on the boundary between the northern saltpans and wetlands and the grass plains to the south. The area's wetlands are famous for their barramundi, with many tourist and sports anglers making the trip each year to do piscatorial battle. The wetlands are also the breeding grounds of prawns, crocodiles and many bird species. The surrounding grasslands support a great array of native wildlife, including emus, kangaroos and wallabies. The roads to Burketown are not sealed and are frequently cut by the wet season rains. At times Burketown is only accessible by boat from the Gulf.

Being so far north, the town of Burketown experiences distinct Monsoon and dry seasons. The Monsoon starts in November or December and brings spectacular storms and can even bring cyclones. The temperatures during this time hover in the high thirties and low forties and are accentuated by the oppressive humidity. The dry season is from April to November and brings magnificent sunny days, with temperatures in the mid to high twenties.

The first European exploration of the Gulf of Carpentaria came with the Dutch East India Company ship Duifken captained by Wn. Jansz in 1605. In a search for new resources, Jansz sailed his yacht from Bantam south past New Guinea missing Torres Strait (Discovered and named by Torres in 1606) and entered the Gulf of Carpentaria. After charting the top 200 km of the cape down to Cape Keer-Weer the returned to the islands. A further expedition involving two ships in 1623 lead by Jan Carstenszoon returned to the Gulf, naming it after the Dutch East Indian general Peter Carpetier. This voyage extended the charted lands as far south as the Staeten River. Arriving in the dry season of April and May they were not impressed with what they saw. This account limited the interest in the lands to the south and it was not until 1802 that Mathew Flinders British navel vessel "Investigator" returned to the Gulf to chart the region for the royal navy. For two and a half months Flinders chartered the Gulf region, blazing a tree on Sweers Island whilst stopping for provisions. It took forty years for another European expedition to return to the gulf.
burketown Landscape
In 1841 Captain J. Lort Stokes retraced the route Flinders charted in his ship the "Beagle". Stokes found the tree blazed by Flinders on Sweers Island and blazed the revers side. On the 2nd of August Stokes discovered the mouth of a river he named the "Albert" after the Queens consort. His party ascended the river for a distance of 50 river miles in a long boat in a search for fresh water. Having followed a bumper wet reason Stokes was greeted by endless grassy plains, which he named "The Plains of Promise" after a day of exploration.

Another seven years passed until Dr Ludwig Leichardt's expedition entered the region. Crossing a river that he mistook to be the Albert (Later named the Lichardt by explorer Augustus Gregory), Lichardt pushed on west and came upon a "fine running brook" which Leichardt named Beames Brook after Walter Beames Esquire of Sydney. Lichardts first encounter with the Albert River was 20 km south of the present day site of Burketown.

In 1856 Augustus Gregory on his expedition from the Victoria River to Brisbane, stopped to meet the "Sandfly" in the Albert River for a resupply. The impatient Gregory marked a tree and left letter of his intentions for the resupply party and headed off to further explore the region. After the supply party caught up with the expedition, they went on to name the Lichardt River on their journey down the Queensland coast.

Next to come into the region were the rescue parties for ill-fated Burke and Wills transcontinental expedition. The search party of John McKinlay that set out from Adelaide on the 16th of August 1861, making it to within five miles of the mouth of the Lichardt River in May 1861. At the same time William Landsborough and his party aboard the "Firefly" being escorted by the "Victoria", set out for the Albert River. They aimed to set up a rendezvous and supply dump for the overland rescue party of Frederick Walker. The expedition set up a base on Sweers Island. Here Captain Norman maintained a flock of 7 sheep, planted a small garden and even built a small pool below the low tide mark to keep the 57 of 126 surviving turtles that had been captured on Bountiful Island. Landsborough in the Firefly was the first man to sail a ship up the Albert River, making camp at the future site of the Burketown boiling down works some 20km upstream. Whilst waiting for the Walker party to arrive Landsborough's men collected many botanical specimens and thoroughly explored the surrounding region.

On the 6th of December 1862 Walkers party arrived and for 14 days enjoyed the hospitality of the crew of the Firefly. Feasts of turtle and fresh cress, onions, radishes and sprouts from the Sweers Island garden were memorable enough to be entered into the weary travellers logs. Walker set out again south never finding Burke or Wills, instead he died of "Gulf Fever" on the 12th of February 1862 about 70km out of Burketown on Floraville Homestead. A monument on his head stone is still present today.

On the same day Walker lay dieing, Landsbrough was breaking camp, not before blazed a tree and buried more supplies in case Burke and Wills returned to the Albert. With little fan fair, the leaking Firefly was abandoned where it settled and the party headed back to Sweers Island in the Fireflies tender.

Over the next 3 years the stations of Gregory Downs, Floraville, Beames Brook and others were established in the Gulf. It was obvious that a town and port was needed in the Gulf. Towns and Company chartered a small vessel the "Jacmel Packet" and on 12 June, 1865 it arrived off the mouth of the Albert River. The goods were eventually landed on the present site of Burketown. By September 1865 the population was about 40 and by October a store and a hotel were under construction, the balance of buildings were humpies.
Burketown Pub
Burketown Pub
Burketown soon became a classic "wild west town", where most carried guns, prices were high and the Whisky flowed. The town did not have a lawman until in February 1866 Lieutenant Wentworth D'Arcy UHR with 8 troopers arrived, accompanied by William Landsborough, the first Police Magistrate. Soon after their arrival the ship the Margaret and Mary came into port rife with "The Fever" (Never properly identified, though to be Typhoid). The majority of the crew and passengers died including the Captains wife. Landsborough evacuated many survivors to Sweers Island for a period of 18 months, where a further two died and were buried on the Island.

"The Fever" periodically decimated the fledgling town of Burketown over the following decade, reducing the population from 1600 to 554. Yet the towns' folk managed to keep productive and started to exporting casks of tallow from Ellkins Bros boiling down works.

The first Burketown land sale began on 14th August 1867, 75 allotments were sold. About this time the barge "Captain Cook" arrived with machinery for another boiling down works being erected by J. G. MacDonald. A paddle steamer, the "Pioneer" ran the tallow between Burketown and Sweers Island for export. The town was proclaimed on the 7th of August 1868 and October of that year Towns and Co. began traded wool, tallow, hides and skins between Sweers Island and Batavia. It took until the 31st of January 1885 for the Shire of Burke to be proclaimed encompassing 41 988 km2 of the surrounding land.

In March 1887, Burketown consisted of 138 people, 4 hotels, a general store, 8 small neat weatherboard cottages and a 3-trooper police station. At 11 a.m. on 5th March 1887 a cyclone accompanied by a tidal surge struck Burketown. 11 hours later 98% of the town was gone and 7 people had died. The heroic actions of a raw-boned Scotsman, Sergeant John Ferguson, saved many lives. Two hotels were completely destroyed and 5 houses carried away. Of the humpies no trace existed and stock losses were enormous. In typical fashion the town was rebuilt, with the addition of a State School the following year.

The present day Burketown is a laid back community, with a diverse cultural mixture. The spirit of the community shines through whilst meeting the challengers of living in a remote area at times isolated by flooding rains. As with most of the Gulf communities, the locals are known to enjoy Barra fishing, rodeo's and campdrafts and the odd beer.

Useful Links
For more information visit the Burke Shire Council website.

See also:
Queensland Holidays
Mount Isa Centre for Rural & Remote Health   Funded by the Department of Health & Ageing, Australian Government
Telephone: +61 7 4745 4500  Fax: +61 7 4749 5130   Email: micrrh@jcu.edu.au
Content provided by: various sources.   Authorised By: Pashen, Dennis.