Queensland Places - Burketown - 1887 Cyclone

One of the worst cyclones to strike the Cape York region occurred at Burketown on 5 March 1887.  The cyclone struck with limited warning and remains one of the worst recorded in Queensland.  It lasted about twelve hours, during which Burketown and the surrounding area sustained major damage as well as loss of life.

At the height of the cyclone, the main rain gauge was destroyed, which resulted in the total rainfall not being recorded.  However, as an indication of the cyclone’s severity, it was later estimated that the sea rose to around five and a half metres above the level of the highest spring tide.  This caused major flooding, both in the town of Burketown itself as well as along the course of the Albert River.  The cyclone’s associated winds commenced around 11 am and continued with increasing severity for the next twelve hours, with devastating impact on buildings and other infrastructure.

Burketown itself suffered very severe damage.  Amongst the many affected buildings, Kelly’s Hotel was completely destroyed and Raff and Grahame’s store was unroofed with its stock being lost.  Other buildings, including the Post and Telegraph Office were also unroofed or sustained serious damage.  The business of Aplin and Brown was reported to have incurred damages totalling up to £20,000.  The situation was similar in the surrounding areas with heavy stock losses sustained as well as the damage or loss of many vessels, either sunk at sea or at their moorings.  The telegraph line was also cut, causing major disruption for communication.

In addition to these major property and livestock losses, seven Burketown residents were killed.  The 1887 Burketown cyclone was widely reported both in Queensland as well as elsewhere in Australia.  In the period following the actual cyclone, severe thunderstorms continued for several days, significantly hampering the town’s recovery efforts.  One of the major impacts of this cyclone was to significantly slow Burketown’s progress for some time to come.

Burketown, 1866

This image shows an early view of Burketown.  This sketch dates from 1866 and is attributed to Frederick Garling who was a member of Frederick Walker’s expedition, undertaken to mark a route from Cardwell through to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Brian Randall - Queensland Places Coordinator, State Library of Queensland.

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