Underground Hospital, Mount Isa
Beth Anderson Museum and Underground Hospital
- Medical facility
Joan Street, Mount Isa Base Hospital, Mount Isa 4825
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. As a wartime underground civilian hospital, built by civilians, it appears to be unique in Australia.
The underground hospital occupies an area roughly 20m square in the southeast corner of the Mount Isa Base Hospital grounds, and entry is via the Beth Anderson Museum building, which is accessed from Joan Street.
The layout of the underground hospital consists of three parallel east-west tunnels cut into shale rock, joined at their eastern ends by a 20m crosscut tunnel running north-south, forming a large reversed ‘E’. A ventilating raise is located in the intersection of the crosscut and the north tunnel, and at the rear of the crosscut opposite the north and south tunnels are two recesses for cupboards. The tunnels are of varying widths, between 2.6 to 3.5m. The south tunnel is now the entrance for visitors, while the middle tunnel is now the exit. The north tunnel is still sealed.
Before restoration, little remained of the original furnishings and medical equipment. However, between 1997 and 2001 the internal fit out was reproduced, based on photographs from 1942.
The war in the Pacific reached the shores of Australia on the 19 February 1942, when Darwin was bombed. Within days Timor fell to the Japanese, the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth was sunk during the Battle of Sunda Strait, and Broome, Derby and Wyndham in Western Australia were all bombed by Japanese aircraft on 3 March.
The threat to Mount Isa seemed very real because there appeared to be little military opposition left in the north of Australia, and the Mount Isa Copper Mine was seen as a strategic resource of great value to the Japanese. Reacting to the perceived threat of air raids, Dr Edward Ryan, Superintendent of the Mount Isa District Hospital, decided to take precautions. He 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 work was done during March/April 1942. The drilling, blasting and mucking out was mostly done over a two-week period, with the fitting-out taking a few more weeks. 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 raise 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 gravelled pathway. Inside the underground 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, while the floor was bare earth. The hospital was equipped with electric lights and a telephone, and 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 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 closed in the 1960s, when rubble, excavated during the construction of the new four-storey hospital wing, was used to close the three entrances. The ventilation raise was also filled in. 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. The entrance was closed, but reopened in 1994. While the entrance was open and its future was being discussed in the media, a fire broke out in the southern tunnel at 1.30am on 27 August 1994. A public meeting in late 1995 showed that community support had swung strongly in favour of conserving and developing the underground hospital rather than again burying the entrance. Vandals set a second fire on Sunday 26 October 1997 causing further damage to the interior.
Restoration efforts from 1997 to 2001, based on old photographs, have returned the tunnel to its appearance during 1942. Some of the original furniture has been reinstated from storage elsewhere on the hospital grounds. Visitors to the Beth Anderson Museum can enter the underground hospital from the southern entrance, and exit from the central entrance. The northern entrance remains sealed and unreconstructed.
Former Underground Hospital, Mount Isa, Queensland Heritage Register 601102
Medley, Margaret, “The Underground Hospital—Mt Isa", National Trust Queensland Journal, April 1998.
Mathewson, Catriona. “Hidden history reveals united spirit".