Queensland's Spanish castle

With the Queensland Art Gallery's exhibition Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado opening next door it seems like a good time to have a look at Queensland's very own Spanish castle and the man whose vision and hard work brought it into being in the North Queensland rainforest.

'Paronella Park' castle at Mena Creek, Queensland, 1948 State Library of Queensland Negative number: 110320

Jose Pedro Enrique Paronella was born in a small village in Catalonia in 1887.  The youngest of six children, he had few prospects in the village and left school early to look for work, first at a nearby small town and then at Pamplona.  Having saved some money Jose decided to take his chances in Australia, arriving in Sydney in 1913 at the age of 26.  After staying in Sydney for only a few days Jose took a coastal steamer and headed for North Queensland where he had heard there was money to be made cutting sugar cane.

On arriving in Queensland Jose decided to try for work in the copper mines near Cloncurry.  There was plenty of work but the blistering heat and poor living conditions led him to give it up after only four months and he returned to the coast.  He found work with the cane cutting gangs.  It was tough work and not without dangers.  There were often accidents and there was risk of diseases.  Jose stuck at it and saved his money.  There were many Spanish and Italian immigrants working in the cane gangs.  These men were hard working and ambitious.  Many had come from large families who scratched out a living from small plots of land.  They were used to working on the land, and the long hard hours of labour.  They were used to high temperatures and soon acclimatised to Queensland conditions.  Jose also proved to have a good head for business.

As soon as he was able he purchased his first plot of land.  This was virgin rainforest thickly overgrown with vines which had to be cleared.  Jose cleared the vines and cut the trees.  The stumps were burned and then left to rot with the most stubborn eventually having to be blown up with dynamite.  Eventually the land was cleared and cultivated and Jose had his first crop of sugar cane.  Once his farm began to make money, Jose sold it and bought a better property.  He improved and sold a dozen properties in the next few years and began to amass a considerable amount of money.  He looked to diversify his investments, buying a tin mining lease, working himself as well as employing other labourers.  He also lent money to other migrants looking to start their own farms.

In 1921 Jose was 34 years old and a wealthy man and applied for naturalisation and became an Australian citizen.  He had a dream.  When he was a small boy his grandmother had told him stories about castles, and when he worked in Pamplona he had seen several for himself.  He wanted to build his own Spanish castle here in the Queensland rainforest.  He would set it in lush gardens and open it up to visitors as a tourist attraction.  First though, he must return to Spain.  Many years ago, before he had left for Pamplona, he had been betrothed to a girl from his native village.  It was time to go home and claim his bride.

There was one small hitch though.  His betrothed had grown tired of waiting and had already married.  Fortunately his former fiance had a younger sister and Jose married her instead.  Margarita was not too sure at first, but Jose was rich and successful and also very handsome.  Jose made good use of his honeymoon, touring Europe and studying buildings and gardens, tourist parks and cinemas, ballrooms and cafes.  Then he took his new wife back to Queensland.

Mena Creek Falls at Paronella Park near Innisfail, 1955 State Library of Queensland Image number: lbp00125

Jose returned to work, buying another cane farm, and searching for the perfect place to build his castle.  He found it at Mena Creek south of Innisfail.  The area had first attracted timber getters to its large stands of red cedar and one of these, Henry Noone, wanted to buy land in the area, so he surveyed the land and lined up interested buyers before taking the scheme to the government who were then happy to make the land available.  Noone bought and developed land on the south side of the creek close to the Mena Creek Falls and the large swimming hole below.  The area was already popular with people coming to swim so Noone built a hotel and planned further development.

This was an area of great natural beauty and with Noone developing the south side of the creek, Jose Paronella turned his attention to the north side.  It was virgin rainforest near the falls, a tangle of tropical trees, vines and creepers with a steep escarpment dropping to the creek level.  Jose had a complete plan in his mind with his castle on the rocky cliff and a cafe and pavilion below.  He persuaded the owner of this land that the corner he wanted was no good for growing sugar cane and the money he would give him for it could be used to develop the rest of the land.  He clinched the sale and was ready to begin work.

First he build a house for the family to live in.  Then worked on sourcing the material for the construction.  The creek provided ample sand for making concrete and he was able to buy discarded rails from the canefields to use as reinforcement.  The first part of the construction was to build a stairway between the two levels.  Then he added ornamental balustrades and concrete picnic tables and seats next to the water and started work on the cafe.  He needed clay for the cement render to coat the surface of the buildings.  He found suitable clay in a hill on the property and decided to build a tunnel while he dug out the clay which would lead to another small creek and waterfall.

Pavillion at Paronella Park, Mena Creek, Innisfail, ca. 1935 State Library of Queensland Negative number: 42062

Jose was remarkably energetic and gathered willing helpers so that the cafe was soon completed along with changing rooms for bathers and a toilet block.  He could then push on with his central building, a Spanish style castle tower.  Building went on with the tower, a ballroom / cinema and a hydro-electric power system built at the base of the falls to provide power.  Jose's dream was taking shape and Paronella Park certainly became popular with the local population.  The park was not initially very profitable as it required constant upkeep the keep out the encroaching jungle and maintain the buildings in good condition.  The Paronellas relied on Jose's other business interests to keep them afloat.

With the outbreak of World War II and particularly the Pacific campaign after Pearl Harbor there was an influx of military personnel into the area including large numbers of Americans.  Paronella Park was ideally located to take advantage of the need for R&R of all these soldiers.  The carpark was soon full of military vehicles.  To the war-weary servicemen the Park with its Spanish Castle and exotic gardens growing out of the rainforest must have been an astonishing sight and the park was busy throughout the war.

Interior of the picture theatre at Paronella Park, Mena Creek, Queensland, ca. 1937 State Library of Queensland Negative number: 178078

After the war there was a boom in interstate tourism and the park continued to prosper but in 1946 disaster struck.  A cyclone brought torrents of rain, not unusual in the wettest part of Australia but this time there was a dangerous development.  Upstream a large pile of cedar logs were awaiting transport near the creek.  The rising flood carried the logs away and they formed a jam against the railway bridge upstream from the park.  Eventually the bridge gave way and the flood of water loaded with huge logs rushed towards the park.  Concrete balustrades and tables were uprooted and the cafe was flooded and ruined.  The flood waters covered the upper gardens, rose to window level in the Hall, sending cedar logs crashing through into the foyer, the kitchen, the ballroom.  One log tore a huge hole in the western wall and a section of the ballroom parquetry floor caved in.

Rebuilding work started but the cafe by the pool had to be abandoned.  The hydro-electric system had to be repaired and the generator was replaced.  The park was closed for six months and it was years before the flood damage was finally repaired.  At the same time Jose was becoming obviously unwell and was diagnosed with stomach cancer.  He died in August 1948.

The Paronella family continued to run the park until it was sold by Jose's grandsons in 1977.  Recently efforts have been made to revive the Park.  The hydro-electric power plant has been restored and efforts have been made to preserve the buildings.  The Park gained National Trust listing in 1997.

Building complex at Paronella Park, Mena Creek, Innisfail, 1940 State Library of Queensland Negative number: 51969

Much of the information in this article comes from a biography of Jose Paronella, The Spanish Dreamer by Dena Leighton.

The library also holds a pamphlet A souvenir of Paronella Park from the 1950s and a recent publication Paronella Park : the dream continues with many recent colour pictures of the Park.

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