How a gravestone clue about a flowering bush led to a family reunion in Almaden

A woman who died more than a century ago has brought a family and a tiny far north Queensland town together.

Georgetown resident Nellie Ryan was passing through Almaden in 1904 after visiting doctors in Townsville due to an ongoing lung condition.

The 25-year-old died suddenly from a lung disease called phthisis at a local hotel on March 29 of that year.

It is said the entire town turned out for her funeral.

The gravestone erected reads: “Though from us you have flown but in our memory, you never forgotten shall be, while your grave marks the spot near that white blossomed tree”.

History in the making
Fast forward to 2020, father and daughter Don and Marion Lawie, from Babinda, were travelling on the Savannahlander train when it stopped in Almaden for the night.

Almaden is about 171 kilometres south-west of Cairns and, according to the 2016 census, has a population of just 71.

The pub, caravan park, and train station are the only businesses still operating in the tiny town. It’s also where the sealed section of the Burke Developmental Road ends.

The pair noticed Nellie Ryan’s grave during a stroll around the town.

“We had a look at the cemetery, and we saw a gravestone that said something about never being forgotten while the grave marks the spot near the white blossom tree,” Ms Lawie says.

“Dad and I looked at each other and wondered where is the tree?”

The Lawies made a commitment that evening to do something about Nellie Ryan’s grave and the mysterious white blossom tree.

“There were no white blossom trees, so we felt like she had been forgotten and we wanted her to be remembered, as she passed away miles from home,” Ms Lawie says.

“The whole town turned out for her funeral and paid for a headstone without even really knowing her.”

After travelling to Mount Surprise, they discovered the mysterious white-flowering tree.

The native bauhinia (Lysiphyllum hookeri) was once widespread west of the Tablelands but many trees had been cleared by pastoralists.

Tree planting memorial
Last Wednesday, the Lawies joined residents, tourism operators, and descendants of the Ryan family to plant four Lysiphyllum hookeri trees in Nellie’s honour at the cemetery, caravan park, railway station, and outside the local pub.

“The trees are for Nellie, who we believe is an ambassador of people who care for other people and for outback hospitality,” Ms Lawie says.

While researching information about Nellie Ryan, the Lawies found distant relatives still living in far north Queensland.

And while Nellie didn’t have any children, the descendants of her nieces and nephews made the trip to Almaden to witness the tree plantings.

Local historian Dell Childs discovered she was related to Nellie Ryan soon after the Lawies put a call out for relatives.

“I knew I had Ryan relatives from the Tablelands, and it wasn’t until I saw on social media that Don and Marion were looking for Ryan relatives that I put my hand up,” Ms Childs says.

“Nellie is the sister of my great-grandmother and after doing a bit of research we found out quite a bit of information.

“Nellie was born on the Darling Downs, but then the family moved around, starting in Normanton and then Georgetown and, at the age of 10, she lost her own mother, who died during childbirth.”

Family reunion
Ms Childs says it had been a wonderful journey learning about Ryan and meeting some of her distant relatives.

“While she didn’t marry or have children, she did have five brothers and sisters and we believe that there are now a few hundred descendants from the Ryan family and seven of them are here today,” she says.

“This is such a great story and I thank Don and his family for following it through. They are not related to Nellie in any way, but I thank them, and I am so proud to be associated with the tree plantings.”