Review – Janice Cooper, Crossing the Divide: a history of the Alpha and Jericho Districts, Barcaldine Regional Council, 2013.

By Thom Blake

Crossing the Divide is a history of the area in central Queensland formerly encompassed by the Jericho Shire Council. Janice Cooper, a PHA member, was commissioned by the Barcaldine Regional Council to research and write this history. The Council should be well pleased with the result as Cooper has done an admirable job. She was well qualified and suited of the task having grown up in the region and is an experienced historian.

It is an excellent advertisement of the work that members of PHA undertake and what PHA members can offer and achieve.

Most local government areas throughout Queensland, past and present, have published histories – but the quality varies greatly. In terms of thoroughness of research and the use of primary sources, this must rate as one of the best. The text is supported by an abundance of photographs, maps and tables – and a most comprehensive index. I sometimes find reading local histories frustrating because of the lack of maps identifying places and key features, and a decent index. Not in this case.

Crossing the Divide covers four main themes: the pastoral industry, social and community life, transport and local government.

The pastoral industry was, and is, the economic backbone of the district. Although sheep were grazed by the first pastoralists, cattle became predominant. Crossing the Divide examines the development of the pastoral industry in depth and it is evident that Cooper has an intimate understanding of the industry. The challenges faced by the industry are discussed in some detail including drought, floods, disease and pests, the impact of mechanisation, fluctuating prices for commodities, and changes in land tenure policies.

Transport, in particular the railway, has been a critical factor in shaping the development of the Alpha and Jericho districts. Both were established as terminus towns in the 1880s during the construction of the central railway from Rockhampton. Unlike other terminus settlements such as Pine Hill and Bogantungan which enjoyed brief prosperity until the line was extended further west, Alpha and Jericho prospered as a result of the railway. A locomotive depot was established at Alpha which meant a small permanent workforce was based in the town. Jericho’s local economy was boosted when a branch line was built to Blackall and beyond in 1912. While the central railway line flourished, so did Alpha and Jericho. With the decline in rail usage in the past twenty years, both towns have experienced a steady decline in the population.

Crossing the Divide provides an extensive overview of the development of social and community life in the Alpha and Jericho districts. The account emphasises the critical role of local residents have played in establishing and maintaining hospitals, churches, bush nursing centres, sporting clubs, and community organisations such as branches of the Country Women’s Association. Their efforts were often with little outside assistance and engendered a strong sense of local identity which continues to the present. But this history does not present a nostalgic view of the past and addresses the real problems of the long term population decline and the impact on the district with the consequent loss of a range of services.

The fourth theme of Crossing the Divide explores the role of local government. The Jericho Shire Council was formed in 1916 by redrawing the boundaries of five local authorities in the central west. While the new council was able to more adequately address local concerns, the existing divisions between Alpha and Jericho were not entirely overcome. The rivalry between the two towns was ever present in the council administration. Nevertheless, the Jericho Shire Council played a vital role in not only developing the ‘standard’ services such as roads, water and electricity, but also a range of community facilities such as sporting fields, swimming pools, and even a drive-in picture theatre.

Crossing the Divide is a very readable and engaging account of two central Queensland communities. Even though the primary audience will be past and present residents, it should also appeal to any interested in Queensland history. It provides an invaluable case study of how small rural towns were established and then developed into thriving communities, and then how faced the challenge of a declining population and loss of services and amenities.