Gilberton township was the main town for the Gilbert River goldfields. The Gilbert River received its name from John Gilbert, a member of Leichardt’s exploration team, who was speared in the lung by an aboriginal. It was proclaimed in 1869, however, due to difficulties and hostilities from the local aboriginal tribes the township was abandoned in 1873. At the towns peak there were 3000 Chinese and 500 European inhabitants. The town had seven pubs, a general store, a soft drink factory and a hospital. The Chinese cultivated two separate gardens which provided Gilberton with produce.
One newspaper describes Gilberton at the height of its prosperity:
"as a very well built township surrounded by magnificent gardens, producing fruit and vegetables in abundance, from the pineapple and banana to the humble but useful sweet potato and pumpkin, a town with a stately court a recently completed Commissioner's residence with luxurious bathrooms and all the other etceteras - police barracks and a lock up, a number of commodious hotels and stores - one of the finest assembly rooms in the north, a post office and numerous private dwellings together with an immense quantity of stores, goods, furniture and other property". Other reports largely contradict this glorified view of the town which was more realistically a rough bush town consisting of canvas tents and gunyahs.
Tom Martell, from which the current owners are decedents of, arrived in Australia in 1855 and eventually arrived at Gilberton, where he made a home for his family. Tom carted ore from local mines to Townsville and returned with supplies for the locals. The family built a stone fortress in town which was completed in 1870 and still stands today, the family had it renovated to original condition in 2010.
Gilberton continued both alluvial and reef gold which was recovered mostly through dry blowing or sluicing. Reports state the by 1870 the alluvial gold had become scarce and everyone’s attention turned to the reef gold. It was much harder to extract as the quarts reefs had to be dug up and crushed to remove the gold, in order for this to be profitable machinery was required. There was a reluctance to supply the towns people with machinery when there were goldfields closer to the coast which were more profitable. Machine owners eventually provided equipment, however their greed meant that there was very little profit to be made for the workers.
Two cyclones in January and February 1870 resulted in Gilberton being cut off from supplies and most importantly rum. The town ran out of beef and turned to horse, possum, kangaroo, crow, parrot and many other native animals for meat. The floods and lack for supplies caused many towns people to retreat with the flood waters. These men headed to other, newly discovered, gold fields that held the allure of larger gold discoveries.
In 1872 Etheridge, now Georgetown, was officially proclaimed. Previously the Gilberton had been recognised at the centre of the shire, after the founding of Etheridge the real desertion of Gilberton began. Gilberton continued into 1873 with a meagre 120 alluvial miners and towns people who lived in constant fear of the local aboriginal tribes.
The fear of aboriginals was a real and constant treat in the area, long before Gilberton was a town. The aboriginal who speared John Gilbert was a member of the Yanga tribe, a tribe located around Gilberton. In 1864 McDonald past through the area and found one of their horses killed and eaten by aboriginals around were the Gilbert goldfields would later exist. 1868 had explorer Daintree comment that the Gilberton area "is a difficult country to travel over and as the Aborigines in it yet hold their own, it is unsafe for individual prospectors". These accounts and many more explain why the northern Australian aboriginal were thought to be more "treacherous and murderous villains in the colony". In June 1871, the respected, Gilberton town member John Corbett, was murdered while travelling. The inquest was held at the Gilberton courthouse with Tom Martell testifying that he had seen Corbett the night of the murder. Corbett had enquired the distance to the upper Robertson River crossing, Martell recommended, after seeing aboriginals that way, that Corbett camp for the night and continue in the morning. Corbett declined and continued, his body was later found. The Chinese were frequently attacked and the question remains is it because their settlement was separate from the main town or because their flesh was considered a delicacy? What is indisputable is that many Chinese left the area due to the very real fear from local aboriginal tribes.
On the night of November 1873 the aborigines, under the cover of night, descended on the house of one of the remaining white residents, Mr Cameron and as a result the remaining residents of Gilberton fled. and by January the Gilbert goldfields were abandoned. It has been said that Gilberton was abandoned due to conflict with the aboriginals, this is very true for the remaining inhabitants, however, the decline of Gilberton was the result of this and many other problems faced by all regional Australian goldfields.
While most signs of the Gilberton township have long since disappeared there are still a few remnants of the area's rich history. All of which can be seen on a station tour, guided by current owner and local history buff, Lyn French.
Disclaimer: All though the greatest care has been taken to ensure all facts are accurate, 1869 - 1873 was a long time ago and stories change and waters get muddied. Information provided here were acquired from R.B. Brown's Desertion of Gilberton and from facts and stories gathered by Lyn French. If you have any other facts the dispute what has been mentioned we are always interested to know other sides of the story.