In 1912, Townsville witnessed an event of Biblical proportions when a plague of grasshoppers swarmed over the city, devouring every patch of green in its path.
Grasshoppers fill the air and cover the ground, during a plague in Townsville, April 1912. The building on the left is the School of Arts building in Stanley Street.
Photo: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection
The earliest recorded grasshopper plague in Queensland was in 1884 in the Lower Herbert region, which saw £30,000 worth of sugar cane crops destroyed.
Locust and grasshopper plagues are a common natural occurrence, and develop when seasonal weather conditions are favourable, in particular when good rainfall follows a very dry period.
During 1911 and 1912, grasshoppers in plague proportions descended on north Queensland, affecting Mossman River, Cairns, Tolga and Townsville, before moving on to Springsure, Clermont and other districts in central and western Queensland.
Townsville had received fair warning of the impending infestation, but when swarms of the pests did arrive, residents were still surprised by what they saw.
Contemporary newspapers described the grasshopper plague as a “visitation”, evoking images from the Biblical story of the ten plagues of Egypt.
The Townsville Daily Bulletin described the event as an “invasion”, beginning in North Ward on a Tuesday afternoon and moving into the city area by the following morning.
“From shortly after nine o’clock a perfect cloud of the insects came from the direction of North Ward, flying generally in a southerly direction.”
The newspaper likened the sound the insects made to that of “crackling flames”.
“They began to settle on the green patches and gardens, avoiding the shade, and wherever there was grass, were so thick that they rose in a perfect cloud around every pedestrian and horseman.”
|A horseman rides along Walker Street, Townsville during a grasshopper plague, 1912.|
Photo: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.
“The green grass disappeared before the pest, and bare patches appeared, only the weeds being left untouched.”
When the grasshoppers swarmed over The Strand, they resembled a “thick snowstorm”, and although they avoided the sea, they later negotiated Ross Creek “without hesitation”.
Numbering in the millions, and moving at an estimated speed of at least six miles per hour, the grasshoppers were capable of devouring their own body weight in food in just 24 hours, and reports of the destruction of lawns and gardens were received from many areas.
“Whilst the green spots were the most favoured, the bare stretches of Flinders Street were invaded all day, especially at the lower end, and all day the insects were rising in clouds before every vehicle. Towards night the bulk of the pests had disappeared, but at night wingless insects were a great pest in the houses, and wherever there were lights.”
Not confined to flight, one northern correspondent even described seeing grasshoppers that swam across rivers.
“The hoppers are taking to the water like mixed bathers in the surf. They (the insects) have been seen in squadrons and platoons swimming across the little Mossman River and the Herbert at Alligator Point, near Goondi.”
As well as wreaking havoc on crops and other vegetation, grasshopper plagues could cause other problems too, with the potential to disrupt rail transportation when the crushed insects caused loss of traction on the railway lines.
Of the 1912 grasshopper plague, residents of 20 years’ standing could not recall having witnessed a swarm of grasshoppers on such a scale before in Townsville, but it would not be the last plague they saw.