I'm a freelance writer living in Brisbane. I love bushwalking, kayaking, wildlife, history and travel.
Devastating cyclone wiped out Innisfail
The Innisfail Historical Society is holding an event at the Shire Hall on Saturday 10th March at 7 pm for residents of the town to come together and remember the terrible cyclone that devastated the town one hundred years ago on March 10th, 1918. That unnamed cyclone was the "Event of the Century, and one of the greatest natural disasters to hit the Eastern Australian coast".
I met Les Alexander in Townsville a few years before he died in 1984 in his late eighties. He still had vivid memories of the cyclone when he talked with me about how it wiped out Innisfail, Mission Beach and Tully. He sheltered in the town hall building during the cyclone with hundreds of town residents that fateful day and night.
Les Alexander with his sister Margaret Bunting in 1917
Les was born in the mining town of Irvinebank on 23 September 1895. At that time, Irvinebank was a thriving tin mining town west of Herberton. Les' grandfather Charles Booth Alexander was John Moffat's engineer. According to Les, John Moffat was the father of the North. He was the man who opened up the Atherton Tablelands and the mining fields of Herberton, Chillagoe, Watsonville, Irvinebank and Mt Garnett.
His grandfather on his mother's side was Frederick Cutten, a pioneer of the Clump Point area. Frederick and his sons managed the property "Bicton". Frederick Cutten died in 1889 leaving his four sons to continue to farm their 1214 ha property The Cuttens farmed mangoes, bananas, pineapples, citrus fruit and coconuts. They also manufactured their own coffee and grew tea. Their produce was shipped south on cargo-boats.
Les went to school in Irvinebank and used to go down to visit his uncles with his family in the school holidays. He had many happy memories of Bicton and described it as like paradise. The boys loved going out on the boats to collect the loadings. Les remembered the Aboriginal tribes of the area. He used to see the old men making dilly bags and baskets, and boomerangs and spears. The dilli bags were made out of fine lawyer cane, which was stripped and strung up with a glass bottle.
He told me he used to love going out on the reef with the Aboriginal boys in their bark canoes. The canoes were made from the inner bark of a species of scrub fig tree and they were very pliable and strong. They were about six feet in length and carried two to three boys at a time. The boys used cuttlefish shells or their hands to paddle.
The Innisfail town hall was one of only twelve buildings in the town of 3500 residents that survived being blown flat or unroofed by the cyclone. Les told me there was also a gigantic storm surge: at Mission Beach where sea water 3.6 meters deep swept hundreds of meters inland.
Cuttens with Edmund Banfield at Bicton before cyclone
The official death toll from the cyclone may never be known as many of the Aborigines in the area disappeared into the rainforest. Les said twenty-eight people were killed but records show thirty-seven people died in Innisfail, and an estimated forty to sixty more (mostly Aborigines) died in outlying areas.
After the cyclone, Les was anxious to get down to Clump Point to see his uncles. All foodstuffs in the town had been requisitioned following the disaster, but he finally persuaded the councillors to let him go. He managed to get some emergency supplies and set out with Mr Worth on his ship the "Olive".
On the way, they called into the Barnard Island to check on the lighthouse keeper. They found the house wrecked. Les described the scene "We went ashore at the North Barnard, and things were in a terrible tangle. Everything was blown about. We scrambled to the top of the hill, through the scrub and undergrowth and found the house wrecked. Part of it had blown over into the sea, and the distress signal was still on the flagstaff. There was no sign of life". Les assumed the worst.
There was a wooden tramline, which went from the beach to the top of the hill which was wound up with a crab winch. At the bottom of it, they found a tangled mess of scrub and dead flying foxes. They also found some packets of ship's biscuits and a goat with three legs. One of its legs had been chopped off by flying debris. The biscuits were a clue the lighthouse keeper had already been rescued by a passing ship.
The Olive continued down the inside passage to Kurrimine Beach. In those days Les said the area was called Murdering Point. The only inhabitant, Andrew Illich waved his shirt at them from the beach.
Andrew, whose father had been the first settler in that area had lost everything. His boat was wrecked and the bridal track he used to get up to Silkwood was closed in by fallen rainforest.
Les said Andrew was a good diver and great fisherman, so they gave him some rations and continued down the coast.
They then came to Garner's Beach where they found the Garner family who had been badly affected.
When they reached Clump Point they found that "Bicton" had been completely destroyed. The plantations and jetties were decimated and the thirteen-bedroom house had disintegrated. By this time the Cutten brothers were elderly men and although they rebuilt the house they never really recovered according to Les.
Les and his brother in law were stunned a few days after the cyclone when they went to check on some horses. They found some of their supplies that had been waiting to be picked up from a grass thatched receiving shed on Dunk Island had landed high up in some tea trees on North Mission beach.
Les described the scene "There were a lot of tea trees about ten feet high covered in seaweed where the sea surge had come. And on top of the tea trees was the consignment landed there all in one heap. The only thing we lost was a bag of sugar which I suppose melted, and a long-handled shovel".
There was also a boat and oar belonging to Edmund Banfield, the ex Townsville Bulletin journalist who lived on Dunk Island from 1897 until his death from peritonitis in 1923. He became world famous for his books including "The Confessions of a Beachcomber" and "My Tropic Isle". Banfield used to paddle his boat out to passing steamers to get the mailbag. He described the cyclone on Dunk Island in his book "Last Leaves from Dunk Island" which was published after his death. He wrote "…with the strength of the wind the barometer fell until between 9 and 10 p.m., when, with a conglomeration of terrifying sounds varying from falsetto shrieks to thunderous roars, the centre of the cyclone seemed to bore down on the very vitals of the island. The devastating assault lasted about half an hour; it was followed by a lull, succeeded by another attack of violence from the north and north-west; then, as orderly as the storm had developed so it subsided".
Brammo Bay was fairly sheltered although Banfield did lose his boat, boatshed and the roof of his house.
Les said when they finally found the horses and cut them out of the scrub the previously quiet saddle horses were wild and savage. They had been locked in for days by fallen trees.
Les told me about the Aboriginal mission on the Hull River. It was totally destroyed and the mission Superintendent Jack Kenny and his daughter were killed along with some of the Aborigines during the cyclone by flying timber. Mr Kenny's pregnant wife survived.
Banfield sent a wire to the Townsville Daily Bulletin, which was published a few days after the cyclone. He described the scene he saw when he went to the Hull River Mission ".. a scene of sad disaster, and the entire demolition of all the buildings. Mr Kenny and his daughter Kathleen were killed during Sunday night"
His Dunk Island dinghy was found on the mainland beach, having "weathered the storm without captain or compass."
No one knew for sure how many of the Aborigines were killed according to Les because many of them got caught up in the huge tidal surge after heading into the rainforest. Some sheltered under the mission building but died when it collapsed after being blown off its blocks.
The mission was never rebuilt and most of the Aborigines were relocated to Palm Island.
There were some amazing survival stories. Two men who couldn't swim were caught in the tidal wave. "George Brett climbed onto a large log and was carried right up to the mouth of Maria Creek and far into the scrub" Les said. "His mate Anderson grabbed a tree and held on all night. At 4am, he climbed down and got to the beach. His skin had been rubbed raw". Les said these two men were the only survivors at Fig tree Beach.
Mr Alf James was drowned when the sea swept inland. Les and some others found him days later and they rolled him in a blanket and buried him there.
After the cyclone the family rebuilt "Bicton" but the Cutten Brothers dream of having the first tea plantations in Australia died with the cyclone. Sadly the brothers did not live to see what became of their tea trees. By natural selection, the seeds from their original trees were used to start the very successful Nerada tea plantation. In 1980, almost 100 years since the brothers planted the tea trees, a group associated with Nerada tea found the original trees hidden in dense rainforest, a kilometre northwest of Bingil Bay Township. Twenty years earlier Dr Maruff had found the trees and used the hardy seeds to establish a nursery in Innisfail.
Les showed me some photos of the disaster. I was impressed by one where he said he was casting his election vote amidst the ruins of Bicton. I guess politics didn't stop for disasters in those days.
The anniversary event should be very interesting. Unfortunately, I can't go, but I'm sure Les will be there in spirit.