The Workers Who Inspired "Three Rivers Hotel'

By Archer Hamilton

During a ‘wet-day’ in the early 1970s, a grader operator in a Thiess Brothers construction camp near Greenvale, far-north Queensland wrote and performed a song for his drunken workmates.

In the years that followed, this song became an Australian country institution – covered by both Slim Dusty and John Williamson and immortalising the now defunct Greenvale line.

The man who penned it was also a country music great, Stan Coster – another icon of Australia’s old bush and the lesser-known songwriter for Slim Dusty. The song’s name was ‘Three Rivers Hotel’ and was a tribute to the many characters that were involved in building the Greenvale railway line north-west of Townsville.

From Townsville to Greenvale we’re building a line
Through the ranges and gorges to the great nickel mine
The long days are dusty and hotter than hell
And that’s why we all worship Three Rivers Hotel

One of the Greenvale tunnels as it stands today
There is a Three Rivers Hotel in the town of Greenvale, which is still operational and serves as a small tourist attraction in the area. Named in tribute to both Stan Coster and Slim Dusty, this creates some confusion as to what came first – the pub or the song… or the three local rivers – Burdekin, Star and Clark.

However, historic rail enthusiasts and Greenvale locals clarify that Stan Coster wrote the song about the demountable mess hall on a near-by construction campsite nicknamed by workers well before the current Greenvale hotel took on the name.

It’s Thiess Brothers camp on the banks of the Star
Where men from all nations and walks of life are
And it’s funny to listen to the stories they tell
Every night ’round the bar in Three Rivers Hotel

The lyrics mention the camp on the banks of the Star River, a fair distance from the actual town of Greenvale and one of six construction camps that were built up over the course of the Greenvale line.

In late 1974, the ‘Three Rivers’ region of North Queensland experienced a lengthy wet season – this saw a lot of downtime for the workers.

Stuck in the camps, the men had nothing better to do than spend the days drinking in the camp “boozer” or “mess hall” – a basic demountable building with an outdoor covered seating area.

WATCH: Slim Dusty performing ‘Three Rivers Hotel’

As the story goes, during one of these wet days, water started to flood the building’s makeshift beer garden, and as a result the workers dug up trenches to channel it away. The trenches joined up roughly similar to the local rivers in town. So the mess hall was aptly nicknamed “The Three Rivers Hotel” after their improvised drainage system.

One of the railway workers that day was Stan Coster, who wrote the song in the bar and performed it for the workers that evening. The humour in the song’s lyrics does a great job of capturing the atmosphere of the time, as Coster uses each verse to make fun of different identities from within the camp.

There’s Wesley the barman and young Irish Joe
Serving the booze and collecting the dough
What a stir they would cause if they ever should tell
All the secrets they’ve learned in Three Rivers Hotel

Of course, as a middle-aged grader operator for the Thiess Brothers in the early 70s, Coster could not resist having a shot at the bosses as well.

And if you listen to the bosses when the night’s gettin’ late
On the progress they’ re makin’ the best in the state
They’ d finish this line and this maint’ nance as well
If they worked like they bragged in Three Rivers Hotel

Sadly, the railway line that is sung about has since become defunct and, like the original mess hall, is no longer operational. The track was pulled up after the nickel mine was emptied out, leaving no more than a series of tunnels and an overgrown skeleton of what used to be.

With the passing of both Stan Coster and Slim Dusty – the story is kept alive through Stan’s Daughter Tracy and many other tribute acts.

When this job is finished we’ ll pack up and go
To another construction still chasing big dough
But wherever I wander my memory will dwell
On those happy days in Three Rivers Hotel

From Working Life website

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