The Radio Scene at the End of the Highway: Cooktown Part 2

This is our second topic on the radio scene at Cooktown at the end of the highway in Cape York Peninsula, at the far north of coastal Queensland in Australia.   Unexpectedly, Cooktown was the second largest town in Queensland at the height of the nearby gold rush in the 1880s.  Back then, the state capital Brisbane had a population of 50,000 and Cooktown had a population of 30,000.

Alluvial gold was found in 1872 in the Palmer River about 150 miles directly inland from Cooktown.  During the next 18 years, more than 15 tons of gold was processed.

In 1890, the first section of a railway line running from Cooktown towards the goldfield at Maytown was opened as far as Laura, some 67 miles.  During the following year (1891), a very expensive railway bridge, 536 feet long and 55 feet high, was completed at Laura.

Cooktown to Laura railway line crossing the Normanby River.
Photo: Forgotten Railways, Roads & Places blog.

A test locomotive together with attached rolling stock was driven successfully at full speed across the new bridge, for the one and only occasion.  It is one of the few occasions in the history of railway lines anywhere in the world that a massive and expensive railway bridge has been constructed and never taken into use.  The rest of the line was never completed.

In 1916, an English made luxury Napier motor car was modified at the Railway Workshops in Ipswich (Queensland) for use on the Cooktown Railway Line.  That RM6 Napier motor car was named the Captain Cook, in honor of the English sea captain after whom the town of Cooktown was named.  The railway car was used to carry postal mail, passengers, and railway officials.  In 1961, a roadway replaced the railway line, and the entire railway line was sold for scrap.

Rail motor no. 6 with its two trailers on the Cooktown to Laura Railway, ca. 1922. Photo: State Library of Queensland

Due to its location and isolation, there have been many usages of communication radio in the Cooktown area.  For example, at the R. B. Mine a dozen miles inland from Cooktown, there was a small communication radio station. 

Butcher’s Hill was another active radio location, as a pastoral homestead, a small mining town, and a meat processing location, with another communication station, that one under the callsign 8QHE.  The style of the callsign 8QHE, suggests that it was an outpost for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.  There was another flying doctor outpost station in Cooktown itself; and we might add, there were 29,000 of these small outpost radio stations throughout the Great Outback in Australia during that era.

The Royal Australian Navy installed a signal station at a dwelling in Hope Street, Cooktown, on January 1, 1942, for the purpose of monitoring Japanese tactical communications in Kana Morse Code.  That station was operated by women operators, who were serving in WRANS, the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service.  They communicated by shortwave radio with station VKA in Cairns, 200 miles down the coast.

Back during that war era, the Americans operated four different facilities in Cooktown; two airports, a small hospital, and a regular communication radio station. 

DH.89 Rapide refuelling in North Queensland, circa 1938.
Photo: Geoff Goodall’s Aviation History Site

The first airport was simply a gravel landing strip on the seaward edge of a mangrove swamp near Cooktown that had been prepared by Australian personnel for small DeHavilland Rapide biplanes in 1937.  An aeradio station was installed into a substantial building near the air strip, and it is probable that the registered callsign was VHCK.  The transmitter was a 400 watt AWA model J2876, with capability on one mediumwave and three shortwave channels.

In May 1942, 300 American army personnel arrived at Cooktown, and they guarded the small airport, which was then in use by the air force of both countries, the United States and Australia.  However through overuse, the air strip rapidly deteriorated, so the American personnel then commandeered a Lutheran mission station that was under the care of German born Pastor George Schwarz and they prepared a new air strip some eight miles out from Cooktown.  (Some years earlier mango trees had been planted on that mission property, and that was the introduction of mango trees in Australia.)

An aeradio station was also installed in a new building at the new airport which was licensed under the Australian callsign VZCK.  That airport is these days the Cooktown Civil Aerodrome.

Another American radio station was installed in a substantial two storey building in Helen Street in Cooktown that was previously in use as the St. Mary’s Convent School.  That school was noted for its excellent music curriculum, and one of its early students was the noted Australian soprano Gladys Moncrieff, whose vocal solo “Love Will Find a Way” you heard at the beginning of our program today.

American navy personnel renovated the 55 year old Catholic building in late 1943, and they installed an intercept station, with the shortwave transmitter in the large attic on the roof.  In July 1944, the American commander, Lt. R. S. Katzenberger, informed regional headquarters that the station was ready for operation.  However with the progress of the Pacific war, American personnel were then deploying in the islands to the north, and so the station was no longer needed and it was closed a couple of months later in September (1944).

The former St. Mary’s Convent School building, now the Cooktown Museum.
Photo: Cooktown Museum Facebook page

A quarter century later (1970), that same building was refurbished, and it was re-opened personally by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth as the Cooktown Museum.

This feature was written by Adrian Peterson and originally aired on Adventist World Radio’s “Wavescan” DX program of September 18, 2022

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