We heard about the ruins of a Spanish Castle in North Queensland from some other travellers and were immediately intrigued.
But how do I describe this place and the magic of its history?
The short story is….. (this may be the longest short story you ever read)
Jose Paronella was born in Spain in 1887. From childhood he had a dream to own his own Spanish Castle. As he got older his dream was to incorporate pleasure grounds, ballroom, restaurant, theatre, tennis courts, boating on a lake, and lots more. He wanted to entice people to come from all over the world to visit his beautiful castle and gardens.
In 1913 he came to Australia, worked hard for eleven years making his fortune starting out as a cane cutter, then a cook, then buying run down sugar cane farms, doing them up and selling them at a profit.
He found the perfect land for his castle and pleasure grounds in North Queensland. Thirteen acres of rainforest beside Mena Creek falls.
He returned to Spain for a bride and honeymooned all over Europe gathering ideas for the castle and pleasure grounds.
Once back in Australia (about 1929) he began building ‘Paronella Park’. Most of the work he did himself, clearing the thick vegitation and using local sand and rock for contruction of buildings.
Firstly he wanted to build a cottage for himself, his wife and their new baby to live in. But to get the materials, sand and clay, up the steep cliff from the creek he first had to build stairs , 47 stairs, which is called the ‘Grand Staircase’. Markers on the steps indicate flood levels over the years.
Then the cottage was built. It is now a museum. Tombstones recently donated by the Paronella family sit outside the cottage as a tribute to the poeple who worked so hard to make a dream come true. (but they are actually buried in the Innesfail cemetery)
Then the Castle began, which for what ever reason, they never lived in. Perhaps because the view from the cottage was so majestic with the castle on one side and the waterfall the other. Instead it was used as a gallery.
The castle consistes of three levels. The top floor, with an external staircase, exhibited Jose’s collection of exotic souvenirs from around the world, the closest many people in the district ever came to seeing the outside world.
The second floor showcased his wife’s collection of dolls, coins, pistols, and other interesting things.
The ground floor was a kitchen and cafe which his wife, Margarita, ran.
The Grand Ball Room at the back with its large stage area, held many dances and theatre productions as well as motion pictures which he ran every Saturday night. Much closer for the locals than driving to Innisfail some 20k away. Their daughter Teresa’s wedding was held there too.
A picnic area was created beside the creek which was and still is popular for swimming and boating. (we were given pellets to feed the fish and turtles, a creepy experience due to the numbers of fish and turtles)
Around 300 of the 500 planter boxes Jose made are still through out the property today.
Paronella Park was becoming well known in the area and to visitors all over Australia and overseas. Business was booming.
At the bottom the Grand Staircase, near the picnic area, Jose built refreshment rooms and change rooms for those who had been swimming. His wife, Margarita, made gelato and other exotic treats never seen by the locals before.
Behind the refreshment rooms came a water Lilly pond with a croquet lawn next to it and tennis courts behind (our tour guides grandmother use to play tennis there in the 1930s)
Behind the tennis court he built a toilet block with a roof top terrace for spectators to watch the tennis.
He used clay from a hill on his property to stucco the outside of the buildings, all done by hand. The imprints of Jose’s fingers are still seen today on the walls of every building.
While digging out the clay from the side of a hill, he was surprised to break through the other side where he found another, smaller, water fall. He named it after his daughter, Teresa Falls.
He soon realised visitors were walking hand in hand through the tunnel sneaking a kiss in the darkness, so he called it the ‘Tunnel of Love’ and built elaborate, romantic entrances on either side. It is now closed but is home to a colony of micro bats.
In 1933 Jose installed the first hydro electric power station in Queensland on his property and lit up the water fall, his castle, a the whole park. The hydro electric system is housed on the side of the waterfall, he installed it then built the building around it. Can you see in the photo below where the people in red and blue are standing? thats the door to the room. The stairs are crazy steep and narrow.
The park was badly damaged by various floods and cyclones over the years.
Jose died in 1948 of a heart attack, aged 60 years, leaving his wife and two children to run the business.
The property was eventually run by his son Joe and his family. They added a small caravan park to encourage tourist to stay over. (included in our entrace fee was one nights stay at the caravan park, they now have cabins also)
Joe passed away in 1972 from a heart attack, he was 39 years old. His wife and children continued to run the park until 1977 when it was sold. The new owners kept running the business but when fire swept through the castle and Grand Ballroom in 1979, they took the insurance money, closed the gate and left the park to fall into ruin and be consumed by rainforest. In 1986 Cyclone Winifred hit the park causing great damage.
In 1988, as part of a Bicentennial project, the local shire built a suspension bridge over the waterfall, as the road bridge is quite narrow and dangerous for pedestrians. One end is on parkland, the other is near the entrance to Paronella Park.
In 1993, 15 years after the gates were closed, the current owners, Mark and Judy Evans, while looking for a new business venture, stumbled upon the then overgrown and ruined park, fell in love with it, and bought it for $400k. It is now heritage listed and being restored to it’s former glory, keeping Jose’s dream alive.
There is still a lot of work to be done, but the paths have been cleared, bridges repaired, a new coffee shop built and the gardens reopened.
Permission to restore the theatre/ball room has just been granted. Jose’s story was written into a play by Philip Witts some years ago, “The Impossible Dream” which ran for about a year in Cairns in 2010/2011. Perhaps the next time it shows will be in on the stage in the Grand Ball room, Paronella Park.
There is a lot more to Jose’s story than this. I have just started reading his biography and it’s captivating. If you’re interested to find out more go to http://www.paronellapark.com.au . On this link you can also hear the current owns on ABC Radio’s ‘Conversations’ program talking about how they found Paronella Park, just follow the link on the front page that has the ABC icon.
This is a link to video of the 2009 flood
A remarkable place with a remarkable story, truely inspiring.
Helen and Tim