Mount Isa’s Historic Underground Hospital

The Mount Isa Underground Hospital, constructed during March/April 1942 in the grounds of the Mount Isa District Hospital, was built by off duty miners from Mount Isa Mines. The structure was designed by Dr. Edward Joseph Ryan, Superintendent of the Mount Isa District Hospital. Construction work was supervised by Wally Onton, Underground Foreman at Mount Isa Mines.

The war in the Pacific reached the shores of Australia on the 19th February 1942. Darwin was bombed by aircraft operating from four aircraft carriers in the Timor Sea. Within days Timor fell to the Japanese, the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth sank during the Battle of the Java Sea, while Broome, Derby and Wyndham in Western Australia, and Port Moresby in New Guinea were all bombed by Japanese aircraft.

The threat to Mount Isa seemed very real because there appeared to be little military opposition left in the north of Australia after the devastation of Darwin and the West Australian towns. The Mount Isa Copper Mine was seen as a strategic resource of great value to the Japanese, being recognized as one of the world’s major deposits of copper, lead, zinc and silver. It was believed that like the Japanese controlled tin fields and rubber plantations of Malaya, and the oil fields of Borneo, the Mount Isa Mine was probably a target for invasion forces and air attacks.

Reacting to the perceived threat, Dr. Edward Ryan decided to take precautions to protect Mount Isa District Hospital from air raids. Dr. Edward Ryan contacted Vic Mann, MIM Mine Superintendent, who offered the co-operation of the company and the services of Underground Foreman Wally Onton to supervise the project. The company supplied all the equipment for the work, which was done by Mount Isa miners who volunteered their time.

The drilling, blasting and mucking out was mostly done over a two-week period, with the fitting-out taking a few more weeks. The work was done during March/April 1942, during which approximately 100m of tunnel were excavated. Three parallel adits were driven into the hill face and then connected to a crosscut level to form a large underground shelter with an ‘E’ shaped plan. A vertical rise to the hillside above helped ventilation and was also equipped with a ladder to serve as an emergency exit. The excavation was timbered using the contemporary mining methods of the day, then equipped with furnishings and fittings to perform all the functions of a hospital. There were male, female, and maternity/children’s wards, a surgical theatre and a delivery room.

The finished underground hospital was about 100m from the rear of the nearest hospital building, with access along a graveled pathway. The three entrances were secured by locked timber gates. Inside the hospital was framed either with sets of round native timber or sawn Oregon timber, the ceiling was sawn hardwood planks and some of the walls were lined with gidyea logs. The floor was bare earth. The hospital was equipped with electric lights and a telephone. Furthermore, buckets of water and sand, stirrup pumps and shovels were present in case of an air raid.

Dr. Ryan kept the shelter fully equipped and ready for use with linen, medical equipment, dressings and pharmaceutical stocks. Once a week there was an air raid drill, and nurses and orderlies wheeled less-seriously ill patients up the steep gravel path to the underground hospital.

Mount Isa never experienced air raids, and it soon became apparent that the attacks on Darwin and other northern towns were harassing raids rather than the prelude to an invasion. History shows that Japanese resources were extended to their limit and, after the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, their naval power was destroyed. The threat of invasion disappeared as the Japanese forces were driven from New Guinea and into retreat from the Pacific.

Although air raid drills ceased, the underground hospital remained in use for less urgent purposes. The shelter was used as a dormitory by the nurses on hot nights, then like most unused spaces, it gradually became a store room of hospital equipment and files. After the war, lax security allowed young children to play in the tunnels, which still contained medical equipment and pharmaceutical supplies.

The shelter was finally closed sometime during the 1960s when rubble, excavated during the construction of the new four-storey hospital wing, was used to close the three entrances. The ventilation rise was also filled in. For approximately ten years the underground hospital remained closed until the fill at the north collapsed in 1977, and at the main entrance in 1988. Each time an entrance opened there was debate in the community regarding the future of the site. In 1992 the main entrance again collapsed and there was considerable debate about the site because of the Australia-wide interest in WWII sites during celebrations which commemorated the Battle of the Coral Sea and the 1942 threat of invasion.

The entrance was again closed, but reopened in 1994. While the entrance was again open and its future was being discussed in the media, a fire broke out in the southern tunnel at 0130AM on the 27th of August 1994. Queensland Fire Services found water was ineffective and, not knowing the layout of the interior, or the source of the fire, they waited until daylight and filled the tunnel with high expansion foam to extinguish the fire. The Mines Rescue Unit and volunteers later removed most of the burnt timber and stacked it at the main entrance.

In response to the fire, the hospital administration installed a locked trapdoor of heavy steel mesh over the collapsed entrance, and the entrance has remained open but secure against entry for the past three years. A public meeting in late 1995 showed that community support has swung strongly in favour of conserving and developing the underground hospital rather than again burying the entrance.

In 1996 a Steering Committee, representing the owners, heritage conservation organizations and corporate and community representatives, was formed to manage the future of the underground hospital. A conservation strategy, funded under the Queensland Heritage Grants Program and the Queensland National Trust, was prepared at the request of the Steering Committee. Vandals lighted a second fire on Sunday the 26th of October 1997 causing further damage to the interior.

Plans are in place for the interior of the hospital to be cleared by Green Corps (Young People for the Environment) and volunteer labor. The work will be carried out in consultation with the Cultural Heritage Branch of the Environmental Protection Agency. All artefacts will be documented, tagged and stored at the North West Queensland Museum in Mount Isa. Re-timbering of the interior will be carried out under the supervision of Mount Isa Mines engineers who will also provide some of the equipment required for the project.

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