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Queensland couple's 20-year mission to protect century-old mining ruins near Cloncurry

The Wee MacGregor rail tunnel while it was in operation in the 1900s and what remains today. (Supplied: Gary Baker)

When Gary and Wendy Baker stumbled upon an old railway line on an outback Queensland cattle station in the 1990s, they knew they were looking at something special. 

"We moved here in 1995 and got lost using a map and that's how we found it," Mr Baker said. 

The Wee MacGregor rail complex and the former towns of Ballara and Hightville between Mount Isa and Cloncurry date from the early 1900s. 

Aerial footage shows rugged north-west Queensland landscape (Supplied: Gary Baker)

In 1912, copper mining was booming and the Cloncurry fields produced 45 per cent of Queensland's copper production, employing about 1,400 people who lived at the sites with their families. 

But prices plummeted at the end of World War I and the towns — which included a police station, hotel, post office, hospital and school — and the tram and railway were abandoned by 1926. 

Foundations and ruins of buildings and residences were all that remained, but the Bakers knew it was important to protect as much as possible.

Wendy and Gary Baker pushed for the protection of the abandoned Wee McGregor tram and rail line. (ABC Rural: Alexandra Treloar)

"A lot of mines around this part of the world were glorified camp sites, but this place was a town," Mr Baker said. 

"There was an exploration drilling happening only about 100 metres away from the [rail] tunnel, so we immediately thought that this needs to get protection right now because it's one-of-a-kind." 

The former copper mining town of Ballara sits between Mt Isa and Cloncurry in north-west Queensland, but doesn't appear on traditional maps.  (Supplied: Mapcarta)

Heritage decision takes 10 minutes 

After years of research and investigation by Queensland's Department of Environment and Science, Mr Baker made a presentation to the Queensland Heritage Committee in 2019.

The application was to protect the site — which includes the 40-kilometre rail line, rail tunnel, a short branch tramway and the remains of Ballara and Hightville — from being disturbed. 

The committee reached its decision to list the site after only 10 minutes. 

Malbon River Bridge on the working train line.  (Supplied: Gary Baker)

Mr Baker said he was amazed by the speedy outcome.

"I asked how long it takes for a decision to be made and was told about two to three months," he said.

The house of a mine manager at Ballara circa 1912. (Supplied: Gary Baker)

According to the committee, the site "is important in demonstrating the major role of copper mining in the Queensland economy in the early 20th century, and the importance of railways to the economic viability of remote mines".

Queensland Heritage Council deputy chair George Seymour said the tram and rail complex and what remained of Ballara and Hightville were representative of the "very temporary nature" of many mining towns.

"What's been left behind is important in revealing to us vital information about the construction and operation of remote mining infrastructure and the people who lived and worked in these far-flung mining operations," Mr Seymour said.

The former town of Ballara was part of the Wee MacGregor tram and rail complex. (Supplied: Queensland Heritage Register)

The Bakers hope their work to preserve the site will be appreciated for generations to come. 

"You see other mines in the district where you used to be able to go to and the history is gone because the sites have been so disturbed," Mrs Baker said. 

"[The old mines] are really good examples of how the pioneer miners worked and we didn't want to see that here." 

Wendy and Gary Baker have spent 20 years protecting the area's mining heritage. (ABC Rural: Alexandra Treloar)
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