Out of the great Kimberley goldrush of 1886 came stories of hard men in a hostile land. Some grew into legends, entering folklore, larger than life in their own lifetimes but now almost completely forgotten. Men like those of the Ragged Thirteen, Paddy the Flat, Tom Hood, Frank Hann, Billy O’Donnell, William Carr-Boyd and Russian Jack. Women also, Mother Dead Finish and the Mountain Maid. Of all these none has seen the legend eclipse the man as much as the story of Russian Jack. A legend in his own lifetime, the strongest man on the goldfields, Wheelbarrow Jack.
The first great gold rush of Western Australia drew men from thousands of miles to the Kimberley. A few hardy overlanders made it through with packhorses from the Territory and further east or from the south via Newcastle Waters. Most, however, landed by ship at two previously non-existent ports, Wyndham and Derby.
From these distant and uninviting landings the diggers headed south or east through desolate, uninhabited and trackless country to their goal, Halls Creek. At the time of the rush it was an area rather than an organised settlement and consisted of police tents and a hastily erected bough shed sly groggery, with the diggers scattered over a wide area.
Men died from thirst, disease or native attack, and were buried where the fell. Horses, especially those from New Zealand, died by the score, and their bones and the wreckage of the drays together with the lonely graves marked the new track as tragic milestones.
Along the track from Derby, Russian Jack set out with his ungainly wheelbarrow loaded with provisions. In a particularly difficult section about thirty miles from Halls Creek he found a sick and worn out prospector. Succoured, he was placed with his swag on Russian Jack’s barrow and carried to safety.
By this act Russian Jack endeared himself to a generation of men and ensured himself an unlooked-for fame and immortality that has become the epitome on the concept of mateship in Australia.
From the back cover of the book:
Russian Jack by Peter J. Bridge
Hesperian Press, Carlisle, WA, 2002.
Available from Hesperian Press