By HARRY CLARKE
WHEN accused murderer Darryl “Blinky” Young allegedly shot and killed three of his neighbours at the front gate of Shannonvale Station in August this year, it wasn’t the first triple casualty nor shocking deaths to occur on the historic Queensland property south of Bowen.
Shannonvale, a 20,000 acre cattle block spanning the Clarke Range wilderness inland from the Whitsundays, has a haunted past involving “range wars”, the death of an infant, suicide, and two pregnant women becoming widowed by an accident down an old mine shaft left over from the frontier days of the Normanby gold rush.
Folklore from those ranges recalls a massacre of Aboriginals in the adjoining Don River valley, carried out by early settlers who subsequently nicknamed the area Conquest Point.
William “Wild Bill” Walpole, one of Shannonvale’s past owners, told another story of a troubled gold prospector who literally dug his own grave before stepping into the hole, lighting a stick of dynamite and putting the explosive in his mouth.
“They wouldn’t have buried him there though, would they?” someone asked Wild Bill as the pair stood at the old Normanby cemetery in July 1995.
“I don’t know,” Bill replied. “Dug his own grave anyway… blew his head off.”
In 1905 a man by the name of Horace Rogers had to be chained to a tree for days outside a Normanby gold field hotel while the publican rode on horseback to the coast to call police. Rogers had shot a man dead during a tense and drunken game of cards.
“You think you know rough country, but you probably haven’t seen rough country until you’ve been to a place like this and had a look,” said Norma Shannon, whose ancestors were the miners who first settled Shannonvale as a grazing freehold property in the early 1900s.
Norma, now aged 60, was three months in the womb when her father, Tom Shannon, her uncle Glen Shannon and their mate Alec Lennig were gassed to death in a gold fossicking expedition gone horribly wrong on Shannonvale in 1961.
In the type of darkness only seen 90ft underground, the trio was overwhelmed by petrol fumes as they tried pumping groundwater from the rocky base of an abandoned gold mine just after Christmas that year.
At the time both of the Shannon brothers had pregnant wives back at home on their nearby property, Roma Peak.
Norma Shannon was born to her widowed mother, Betty Shannon, in June of 1962.
Today she lives on a secluded and stunning property at Grasstree Beach, near Sarina, with a hundred head of healthy Droughtmaster cattle and a dozen bay stock horses.
Norma’s retired from a long and rewarding career as a secondary school teacher.
Her life in the greater Whitsunday region has been filled with the riches of family and adventure, but she’s always faced the sad reality that her father was gone before she ever had the chance to know him.
The sad reality is the same for Norma’s cousin, 60-year-old Glen Shannon Jnr, whose father Glen Snr was killed in the same gold mine tragedy while his mother was pregnant with him.
“I always got told the stories about how big and strong they were and how they had no fear – rough and tough blokes,” Norma said.
“I remember as a kid, walking down the street in Proserpine, men would walk up to me and say ‘you must be Tommy Shannon’s little girl’.
“Everybody around town knew the history and I was always being reminded of it, but I just had absolutely no knowledge of Dad and my uncle at all.”
According to historian Colin Hooper, the first person to strike gold at Normanby was Sam “Long Jim” Savage, a stockman from nearby Havala Station who was “looking for scrubbers (wild cattle) when he found both alluvial and reef gold” in the rugged Clarke Range in September 1872.
By 1891 more than 300 prospectors and their families had rushed the town of Normanby, which was named after the Marquis of Normanby, wife of Queensland Governor George Phipps.
Hotels, stores, butcher shops, blacksmiths, a school, a post office, a saddlery and a cordial factory thrived at various stages over roughly 40 years, but ongoing periods of poor yield and the lure of exciting new prospects in Queensland’s deeper north meant the Normanby gold rush never became a fully fledged gold boom.
Historian V.B. Jones explained another factor which plagued the gold field was that prospectors kept getting beaten by underground water.
“The influx of water proved too much for the means then in vogue for dealing with it,” Jones wrote.
By the 1920s Normanby became a ghost town as more financially stable cattle grazing took over.
The Shannon family began running Brahmans over the area and also owned Roma Peak, a property 30km to the north, which is characterised by a striking rocky mountain visible from parts of the Clarke Range.
It was January 2nd 1962 when Bill Shannon, who’d by then inherited Shannonvale Station and owned the property with his brothers Tom and Glen, received a distressed telephone call from his sister-in-law, Betty.
Betty was concerned that her husband, Tom, had not returned when he said he would from a gold digging expedition on Shannonvale with his brother Glen and their mate Alec Lennig. They’d been due home two days earlier but there was still no sign of them.
Lennig, a friend of all three Shannon brothers, had acquired a prospecting claim over the historic “Marquis” mine which remained on Shannonvale from the Normanby gold rush.
Bill Shannon later told a coronial inquest that his younger brothers “had no interest in that mine whatsoever” but “were determined to help Lennig. They were very friendly with him”.
“I believe they went to the mine only for assisting him,” Bill Shannon said.
Despite the distressed phone call, Bill didn’t share the same level of concern for his brothers as Betty did. It wasn’t uncommon for visits up the range to Shannonvale to last longer than expected.
But the following day he saddled up a horse at the homestead on Roma Peak station and rode the five hours south to Shannonvale. He knew the trio had planned to camp at a hut not far from the Marquis mine.
“I wasn’t event worried until I got there,” Bill told his niece, Norma Shannon, during a visit back to the property decades later.
“When I got there the swags were still up on the bunk, corn beef was half cooked and the water was all slimy. I knew then they were dead.”
At a coronial inquest months later, Bill Shannon described seeing flies and smelling the foul odour of decay as he approached the opening of the Marquis mine. Harrowing confirmation that his two younger brothers and their friend had perished down the deep black hole.
Traumatised, Bill let his horse go and drove a Jeep, which the gold prospecting trio had used to travel to the scene of their demise, back to Roma Peak to share the awful news that they weren’t coming home.
“Mum would have heard the Jeep coming down the driveway at Roma Peak and thought ‘oh thank God for that, Dad and Glen are finally back’. But they weren’t. It was just Bill,” Norma Shannon told the Caller.
“She never spoke much at all about the accident, even when I was in my 20s and I started getting curious and researching it all.
“All she ever really said was ‘they didn’t all have to die'”.
Today, the original inquest papers documenting the deaths of Tom Shannon, Glen Shannon and Alec Lennig are stored in the depths of the sprawling Queensland State Archives facility at Runcorn in Brisbane’s south.
A large stack of now brittle paperwork details the little known tragedy that occurred in a remote mountain range just shy of 61 years ago.
The documents include statements from several members of a dozen-man party tasked to venture up to the Marquis mine on Shannonvale and carefully recover the three decomposing bodies.
It took the team six days, considerable planning, and numerous trips back and forth from Bowen and Proserpine to assemble the equipment required to eventually bring Lennig and the Shannon brothers back to the surface.
Samuel Hughes, a professional scuba diver trained by the Commonwealth Marines, descended down the Marquis mine in a bosun’s chair and rigged the three bodies into an apparatus that would finally pull them out, one by one, on the afternoon of January 9th 1962.
Had the recovery attempt failed, plans were afoot to fill the mine shaft in, creating a permanent tomb for the three doomed gold diggers.
The coroner found that Tom Shannon, Glen Shannon and Alec Lennig died of “carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of inhaling the fumes from a petrol driven engine in the shaft of the Marquis mine” on or about December 28th 1961.
It’s believed Glen Shannon and Alec Lennig entered the mine shaft first, carrying with them a motorised water pump which they’d use to remove groundwater which sat about 4ft deep on the floor of the mine.
Experts said they would have perished within minutes of starting the engine.
Back on ground level Tom Shannon sensed trouble and climbed down to the pair’s aid, only to be quickly overwhelmed by the toxic fumes himself.
Evidence at the coronial inquest showed that before they ventured to the Marquis mine, the trio had been made well aware of the danger which ultimately killed them.
“They were warned,” Norma said.
Cyril Hughes, who in 1961 was the owner of a welding business in Proserpine, recounted how Alec Lennig visited his shop in preparation for his upcoming expedition to Shannonvale.
“I’d known Alec Lennig for years. He had, at different times, discussed the mine. He had told me about different parts of the mine and how he hoped to make money out of it,” Hughes told the inquest.
“He said there were several feet of water and loose stone at the bottom. He mentioned that he was going to pump water out. He came to the shop one day with his Jeep and left his engine there and came back with a pump.
“He asked me to rig up the engine and pump on a frame. After I got most of it finished he said he was going to use it down the mine. I said to him you can’t run an engine down a mine or in a closed room.
“He said we’d be running the engine for only about a quarter of an hour at most… it would only take a short time to get the water out… the gases made wouldn’t affect you.
“He was so sure about it I just let it go. I just said it was risky using it at all down there unless they had an exhaust to the top. Other people in the shop gave him similar information.”
“No gyms in those days, Harry,” Norma Shannon quipped as she retrieved an old black and white picture of her father, Tom – shirtless, barefoot and built like a brick outhouse as he steadied a nervous foal at the Shannonvale homestead, sometime before December 1961.
Aside from a few fading family photos and vague recollections from members of the generation before her, Norma has had little to remember the father she never met.
In July 1995 she made sure to see and hear first hand about the tragic accident which claimed his life, by convincing her uncle, Bill Shannon, to take her to Shannonvale and walk her through the scene of his death.
Wild Bill Walpole, who’d purchased the property in the mid 1960s, was their chaperone.
“Uncle Bill always swore he would never go back after he found the boys dead, but eventually he went back with me and showed me around,” Norma said.
“He didn’t want to, but I was asking him so many questions about Dad and I think I nearly drove him nuts. His wife gave me a bit of a hard time about convincing him to go up there but I think it was actually good for him.
“It’s probably a bit unethical, but I actually secretly tape recorded everything he said and transcribed it. If he knew I was recording he never would have spoken about it. It didn’t feel right, doing it, but how else do you get the history?”
Over the years Norma has compiled a large stack of documents which chronicle her family’s history.
The three Shannon brothers also had an elder sister, Patrea Rose Shannon, who’d died suddenly of heart disease at the age of two on Shannonvale in October 1924.
Patrea’s grave remains on the property and was another of the sites Norma and Bill visited during their visit in 1995. A rose bush was planted during her burial, and Norma took a sprig which lives on today in her garden at Grasstree Beach.
More recently, tragedy struck again for the Shannon family.
Twenty-five years ago Norma’s brother, Robert Shannon, was killed on a property at Middlemount. He was out on a motorbike checking water troughs when he was struck by a coal train. Robert was 40-years-old.
“We don’t do things by halves in this family,” Norma said.
“She’s a pretty depressing family history. If you’re a Shannon, you either get done early or you live forever.”
Sixty years on the from tragic accident in the Marquis gold mine which killed Tom Shannon, Glen Shannon and Alec Lennig, a second triple fatality occurred on Shannonvale Station.
The shooting deaths of Merv Schwarz, Maree Schwarz and Graham Tighe at the front gate of Shannonvale, allegedly at the hands of the property’s current owner, Darryl Young, is believed to be the result of a decades-long dispute between neighbours over boundary fences and cleanskin cattle.
Mr Young is charged with three counts of murder and one count of attempted murder relating to Mr Tighe’s brother, Ross. He is in custody. His next court appearance is scheduled for early next year.
For Norma Shannon the tragedy harks back to a turbulent and tragic history on the property named after her family.
“There’s been the range wars, I call it, going on for years and years,” she said.
“They were always fighting over cattle and whose were whose, and trying to steal other people’s. You always heard the stories of people being caught on other people’s blocks.
“When I heard someone had been shot I couldn’t believe it. But then it all unfolded and it turned out three people had been shot. It’s just horrific. But I suppose I wasn’t totally surprised that it came to that, given the history.
“Growing up, Wild Bill would tell us so many stories from up there and you’d think ‘I’d love to go up and live there. It sounds like so much fun. They all got along and had so much fun.’
“But Shannonvale also has a pretty wild history. It’s shocking to think that it turned out like this.”