Cunnamulla and water.
Within the Murray-Darling basin on the Warrego River, 750 km due west of Brisbane, lies the celebrated town of Cunnamulla. In the Gunya (or Kunja) dialect of the original inhabitants – an offshoot of the Bidjara language, which is being revitalised and taught in local schools – “Cunnamulla” referred to a deep waterhole in the Warrego River, the northernmost tributary of the Darling river. It was this reliable waterhole that drew the intersection of two major stock routes (following the recommendations of Australia’s first North-to-South explorer, William Landsborough), attracted the Cobb & Co coaches, and proved the perfect site for a new township in 1868.
That year brought a courthouse and a Post Office, then in 1877 a Provisional School opened. These modest establishments had been instigated in Queensland in 1869 to tackle the problem of providing basic education with a limited budget to a far-flung population. The local people were responsible for providing a suitable building, and provisional school buildings were often of a very low standard. Moreover, teachers’ salaries were low, and their standard of training correspondingly poor. Provisional schools were intended as a temporary expedient which would eventually be replaced by standard State schools. Often the provisional school withered away as population shifted, the gold played out or the railroad moved further west. However, Cunnamulla prospered, and it had a State School by 1885.
Transport links; River, road and train.
In 1879 Cobb & Co. drove the first coach through from Bourke. Cunnamulla was one of many settlements which grew up in South-West Queensland as a result of the activities of Cobb & Co. and is the only one to have survived. This is pointed out in town by the nostalgic mural at the Five Ways corner. In Henry Lawson’s delightful short story set in Cunnamulla, “The Hypnotised Township”, the action stems from rivalry between Cobb & Co and local coach drivers and mail contractors. Just 200 km north of Cunnamulla one of Cobb & Co’s five coach works was built in Charleville, and this factory was the longest survivor, operating until 1920.
Charleville was also the terminus of the Western railway line in Queensland, and originally the destination for the wool from Cunnamulla stations. However, when NSW extended its rail to Bourke, its freight rates were more competitive than Queensland’s, and the farmers began to use the Bourke connection instead to transport their wool to market. Queensland government negotiations with the Carrier’s Union were stymied by the 1891 Australian shearers’ strike, which was supported by the carriers. To discourage the transport of wool via NSW, the Queensland government then introduced the Railway Border Tax as an interim measure before the Federation of Australia mandated free trade between states. More sensibly they decided in 1895 to extend the Western railway line from Charleville to Cunnamulla. However, Queensland Rail remained physically at odds with NSW Rail, being the first operator in the world to adopt narrow gauge for a main line, while NSW had selected European standard gauge.
The next bone of contention was where to place Cunnamulla’s railway station. Chief Engineer Henry Stanley visited the town, and – with an optimistic view to continuing the line further west, across the river – opted for the centre of town. However, this site threatened to encroach on the town cricket ground. After many petitions from determined locals it was decided in favour of a location north of the town, which had the extra advantage of being above the flood level. When the railway line to Cunnamulla was opened in 1898, the key drinking hole in the centre of the town had already been named the Railway Hotel in great anticipation. The hotel evidently decided to keep confusing visitors, and kept the original name until the 1970s when it became the Trappers Inn.