Gold mining ghost town cemetery tells of hard lives

It’s desolate and dry at Arltunga. It’s hard to see how people managed to live there, and very easy to see why they died.

At 100km east of Alice Springs, even today it’s a long way from anywhere. Yet it was the first substantial European settlement in Central Australia thanks to the lure of gold. Beginning in 1887, a rough settlement sprang up framed by the unforgiving East Mcdonnell ranges. By 1913, the town’s hey day was well over.

It would have been a tortuous place to eke out a living mining, and just as awful a place to die.

The  remnants of the main township (pictured below) and the surrounding 5000 hectares are a historical reserve, a  tourist attraction to those dedicated enough to make the drive.

There are multiple burial sites around the town with a scattering of graves, most marked quite scantily.

The White Range cemetery is the largest, and features mostly wooden crosses.

The White Range Cemetery today. Images Sharyn Moodie

It’s difficult to find information on the individual men buried there – there is no visible evidence of women or children’s graves or Aboriginal burials.

A cracked information sign gives some insight into the best marked sites.

Joseph Hele was one of Arltunga’s pioneers. He had been a teamster who sold up to go prospecting in the early 1880s with his mate Isaac Smith, who was the first to find gold at Paddy’s Waterhole, the Arltunga field’s first name. But he was a poor man when he died of dysentery.

Medical problems in the goldfields were difficult to treat. Hazards included mining explosives, the very fine ore dust which caused lung disease, typhoid outbreaks, influenza, “dropsy’’, and alcohol related liver disease  (Holmes 1980)

Robert Stuart (pictured left) was 63 when he died of an abscess of the throat. Yes, his tombstone says 55, but it was wrong.

The stone also displays the Masonic symbol.  The fact he has a stone at all indicated he was important to the community, although he had only apparently been at Arltunga about five months when he died.

Charles William (right) was at Arltunga  by 1896 and ran multiple claims over the years. He was  doing well by local standards when he died of ‘exposure to cold and rain after a seizure, to which he was known to be subject’’.



Image State Library of South Australia. Taken at a rece day in possibly 1913. Viewed at

Police constable Matthew Dowdy (pictured above far right, back row) is one of the later burials still evident. He died of gangrene on  17 June 1915. Conflict between miners and pastoralists would have kept him busy during his ten years stationed at Arltunga. He was known to have had personal disputes, particularly with the local battery manager.  Dowdy was accused of insobriety, and was illegally keeping horses on the town common.

“One complaint of excess stock running loose on the town commonage was ignored because Constable Dowdy was breeding horses himself and running them on the common. An enquiry led to a recommendation that police should not be permitted to breed stock apart from that necessary for personal and household consumption” (Wilson 2000).

Pictured below are the town’s lock-up and Constable Dowdy’s headstone.

SOURCES: Holmes, K, 1980 ”The White Range Settlement Area, Arltunga Goldfield, Northern Territory; A look at the lifestyle of an isolated mining area using written and archeological records.”

WIlson, WR 2000; A FORCE APART? A History of the Northern Territory Police Force 1870 – 1926 W.R. (Bill) Wilson BA (Hons), Northern Territory University.

State University of South Australia, Men of Arltunga, 

Published by Sharyn Moodie

Travelling around Australia for work, I've found so many amazing headstones. But what is more amazing is the stories behind some of these deaths, and the way newspapers of the day reported them.

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