Gwalia: the Goldfields Ghost Town, Western Australia
Stepping through the crooked doorframe you could be forgiven for thinking you’re intruding. A pot sits on the cast iron stove, but the water has long ago evaporated. A storybook sits open at the wooden table, but its pages are dusty and faded. There are clothes sprawled across an ironing board, but the fabric is torn. As the floorboards creek beneath your feet and the wind howls through the holes in the corrugated iron walls, you begin to picture what life used to be like in the goldfields ghost town of Gwalia, Western Australia.
When mining first started at the Sons of Gwalia mine in 1876 there was nothing but red dirt and open space. Yet the discovery of gold in this remote and harsh part of Western Australia, 828km east of Perth, enticed nearly 1200 people to seize the golden opportunity and make it their home.
It all began when Carlson, White and Glendinning embarked on a prospecting expedition funded by Coolgardie brothers Thomas and Ernest Tobias. When they struck it lucky and discovered gold in May 1896, they named the site “Sons of Gwalia” in honour of the brothers Welsh heritage: Gwalia is the historic name for the country of Wales. Relieved that their search hadn’t been in vein (actually some of it had – ha, geology jokes) they sold their claim to the ground to George Hall for £5,000. It was a deal they probably later regretted; George made his money back in just one month.
For many the promise of wealth on the mine was worth living in the makeshift cottages, some with only dirt floors, and the town gradually expanded.
The first mine manager at Sons of Gwalia was 23-year-old geologist and mining engineer Herbert Hoover (better known by history as the 31st President of the United States). Among his notable achievements were cutting double time for Sunday work and employing more European migrants, mostly Italians and Yugoslavians, as contract workers for lower wages. The extravagant house that he lived in, Hoover House, is far removed from the small shacks that surround it and still operates today as a bed and breakfast. The veranda boasts a view not of a pristine lake or extensive gardens, but of the open pit gold mine. It’s a geologists heaven.
On the 28th of December 1963 Gwalia became a ghost town almost overnight. The mine was no longer profitable and the population of 1200 people fell to a meagre 40 in less than three weeks. They were Au-ful times (except actually they were not very full of Au… that was the problem).
In it’s lifetime between 1876 and 1963 the mine produced 2.644 million ounces of gold and mined to a depth of 1080 meters, but there was still gold beneath the rusty coloured sand. The mine reopened in the 1980s and using modern mining methods Sons of Gwalia NL extracted almost the same amount of gold as the original mine in a third of the time, to a total of 2.4 million ounces of gold at 5.2 grams per ton.
When Sons of Gwalia NL crashed in 2005 another company, St Barbara Limited, purchased its assets. And so the story of Sons of Gwalia continued… Over 130 years after the initial discovery, St Barbara is still mining underground today.
Getting to Gwalia Ghost Town:
- The Gwalia ghost town is located 233 km north of Kalgoorlie (2.5 hours drive along the Goldfields Highway) or 4km south of Leonora (roughly 10 minutes drive).
- The Gwalia Museum opens from 9am to 4pm daily (every day except Christmas Day). Entry is free but donations are encouraged. You can purchase an audio tour for $2. The cottages and other town buildings are at the bottom of the hill and can be explored whenever you want. Night time is encouraged if you believe in ghosts.
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