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Notes on the Geography of Australia: Kalgoorlie

We'll go 350 miles ENE of Perth. Too nautical for ye? Fair enough: we'll call it an even 350 miles from Perth to the biggest open-pit mine in Australia and maybe one of the half-dozen richest gold fields in the world. A boom town in 1900, it's still ticking along.

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It's called a headframe, and it normally stands over a mine shaft. Today it's parked at the Kalgoorlie museum. Fresh paint can be deceptive, because this particular headframe was moved to Kalgoorlie in 1948 from the Big Bell mine near Cue, 300 miles to the northwest. Once in Kalgoorlie, at the Ivanhoe Mine, it hoisted and lowered men and stuff until 1975.

See the Hard Rock Miner's Handbook (online) for more information about headframes than any sane person, short of a mining engineer, could possibly want.

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There's an elevator to the top, from which we get a view east over the museum (a damned good one), then over the Mt. Charlotte mine, with the only operating headframe in town, and, in the distance, Kalgoorlie's waste-rock dumps, which grow forever and make splendid landing sites for extra terrestrials.

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And here's the view toward town, centered on Hannah Street, named for Patrick or Paddy Hannah, one of the three men who found gold here in 1893. A decade later he (and the other surviving discoverer) were awarded pensions by the state government of Western Australia.

The town had 2,000 people by 1898 and 7,000 by 1903. In 2015 it had, with suburbs, 33,000. Not a ghost town. How did the pioneers build a town in the middle of nowhere? The recipe begins with a railroad, which arrived in 1896.

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Another problem was water. With ten inches of precipitation annually, the pioneers had to get clever.

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For a few years, water was delivered by rail in tank cars. Then a famous pipeline was built from near Perth. It delivered six million gallons daily, about ten Olympic pool's worth. The pipeline has been modernized over the years; here it is today, about 20 miles west of town.

The trees deserve more attention than they often get, because they're part of the largest surviving Mediterranean forest on earth. A lot of them (and that's an understatement) have over the years been sawn into mine timbers or steam-engine fuel.

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A load of pipe arrives for the original line. The job required 60,000 pipe segments, each 8.5 meters long.

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Here's a bit of the original pipe, replaced but saved. It doesn't look like modern pipe; instead, it's two flat sheets bent into half-circles than pressed on both edges into H-bars sealed with lead.

The pipe not only ran 560 kilometers, it rose 457 meters, which meant that it also had eight pumping stations along its route. The project while under construction came under such abuse in the mocking press that its designer, Western Australia's engineer-in-chief, famously and tragically rode his horse into the sea and blew his brains out. Shortly, the pipeline opened and made life a lot easier in Kalgoorlie.

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A photo of the pipe's opening; it's posted at Kalgoorlie's end-of-the-line hilltop reservoir.

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The Mount Charlotte Reservoir is plank-roofed.

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The view back to town from the hilltop takes in a bit of forest, the museum headframe, and the brick buildings along Hannah Street.

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The street is wide enough for camel-trains to make U-turns; too bad that an engineer had to spoil the expanse with light poles in the median.

There aren't a lot of trees, but there's occasional shade from the sidewalk overhangs.

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The city's icon is probably this, the Public Building that opened in 1900 and served as a post and telegraph office, a court of justice, and then--essential in a mining town--a Mining Warden's court to settle conflicts over mining claims. A year later, the clock was set in place.

Architect: John Harry Grainger of the Western Australia Public Works Department. The building is in tip-top shape thanks to renovations in 2013.

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Here's the town hall, funded locally and with difficulty.

Extract from the West Australia Mining, Building, and Engineering Journal, 6 July 1907: "The collapse of the endeavours of the Kalgoorlie Council to obtain the building of a town hall and municipal offices from either a first, second or third prize designs, has induced some members to turn their attentions to another scheme for the erection of a substantial edifice at the corner of Hannah and Wilson streets."

A month later (31 July): "A number of the residents of Kalgoorlie do not appear to want the hall built..."

Despite the opposition, the town hall opened in 1908. Not as grand as some might have liked, it sat 1,150 people and was good enough for Nellie Melba and Percy Grainger. It still accommodates the mayor's chambers and is used for town council meetings. Could the pink be original? Unfortunately, old photos don't answer that question.

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The "city markets" opened in 1901. A press account: "The building is a fine and capacious one, being constructed of brick, and its appearance is imposing. On the street front there are four large shops, divided by an arched roadway leading to the market place, where ample provision exists for vendors to display their wares."

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The interior courtyard was once presumably a busy place; now it's the entrance to a supermarket (Cole's/Kmart) that nearly all shoppers enter and leave from the rear, where there's a parking lot.

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Mayor Smith's politics wouldn't fly today. "These markets," the press reported him saying, "were only one feature in the program of municipal socialism that the Municipality of Kalgoorlie has been pursuing for some time. They had gone in more for socialistic action in Kalgoorlie than in any other municipality in W.A. For himself he believed in the application of the principles of socialism wherever they could be reasonably applied." Smith was referring to the fact that the building belonged to the city council, which had bought out squatters formerly on the site and which now leased space to tenants. He himself went on, in what must be judged a distinctly lateral move, to be Director of Agriculture and Mines in Papua (New Guinea).

See the Kalgoorlie Miner, 4 April 1901.

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With a renovation in the 1980s, the market's end gables disappeared, along with the floating pediments on the awnings and the exposed brick on the central columns.

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The Mechanic's Institute boasted an upstairs lending library. In 1912 the library had 9,013 books and 10,000 visitors to its reference section. The Institute's 18th annual report called the library "the most important branch of the institute, from an educational standpoint, although it is by no means the best revenue-producing section." It continued: "During the past year a total of 822 books were placed in the library. These additions included the best and most up-to-date fiction, and many useful education works."

See the Kalgoorlie Miner, 2 August 1912.

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There were probably a lot more visitors here than at the library, though admission was apparently tightly restricted to bona fide miners. An early photo of the club shows exposed-brick walls and roll-up screens for additional shade.

See Martyn and Audrey Webb's Golden Destiny, 1993, p. 427. At over a thousand pages, this book is about the size and weight of an unabridged dictionary.

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The town's most spectacular buildings were (and are) its hotels, many of which survive and have been renovated to restore features lost in early "improvements." Here's one of the first two hotels in town. The Exchange was built in 1900 by the partners who had just completed building 150 miles of railway track extending to Kalgoorlie from Southern Cross, on the way from Perth. Two years later, Australia's first governor-general would open the town's 21-mile streetcar system; at this key intersection, two lines intersected. (The governor's perfect given name was John Hope, though he labored under too many titles for any man to bear.) The Webbs lament that the hotel's old balconies have been enclosed to create more interior space, but they're writing circa 1990. Since then, the balconies have been restored.

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Here's the even grander York Hotel, from 1901. The architect was Danial T. Edmunds, who here worked in Kimberley until 1912 and who also designed the City Markets. The town newspaper appreciated his work on this hotel: "... the architect was given something like fair scope as regards the money available for the building, and the end result is a structure that externally and internally marks the advent of a new epoch in hotel-building, as against the primitive goldfields method of making bars the first and chief consideration" (Kalgoorlie Miner, 23 February 1901). The Webbs says that the silver cupolas and verandah have been removed. Since they wrote, those things have been restored.

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I bet you drive by and don't even think that there once was something behind the screen. Indeed there was: the massive Oriental Hotel, of which only photos survive. The place itself was demolished in 1972, not a good period for heritage protection.

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The Federal stood opposite a prominent tram station. The hotel survives, the station does not.

It may be that these hotels made as much money from booze as from rooms. The Webbs write, "If mines were the sources of the miner's wages, the hotels were the sinks into which a lot of it was poured" (p. 543).

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Hazard a guess: this hotel was named from Tasmania's Mount Lyell mine, which in turn presumably took its name from Charles L.

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A simpler survivor, with gray granite and trim in the so-called Federation Filigree Style.

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Although sometimes and partly a hotel, this was mostly Cohn's office building, built in 1899 on the site of a hotel destroyed by fire. Cohn himself was magistrate of nearby Coolgardie, but apparently had fingers in other pies.

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In 1904, R.D. McKenzie opened this hardware and furnishings store. We're kitty-corner from the Exchange Hotel, so streetcar lines crossed in the foregound and made McKenzie's store highly accessible. He had earlier been elected mayor of Kalgoorlie and was later president of the town's chamber of commerce. The business continued for a dozen years after his death in 1928 and became a pharmacy sometime around 1970. The Webbs say that there once may have been a water tank on the corner turret but that it was obscured by a neon sign advertising "The Big Store."

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Lots of old store fronts survive. The words above the muscular steer read: Moher and Smith Butchers, Wholesale & Retail.

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Percy Armstrong was a champion cyclist who opened a store selling Rapid bicycles, an established brand. He wasn't narrow-minded: in 1895 he introduced Kalgoorlie's first motorcycle.

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For a better sense of trades in pioneer Kalgoorlie, come to the British Arms Hotel, now part of the town's museum but a hotel from 1899 to 1924, then a boarding house until 1963. It stood opposite the Hannah Street streetcar station, long gone.

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The building is about as narrow as can be, but we're after something upstairs.

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Here it is, a parade banner made for the local tailor's union. If you feel a little tug of nostalgia, it might be because the progress made by unions was not as permanent as the union members probably thought.

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The Goldfields Baker's Union had 105 members in 1906 but only 62 by 1911; the local was subsequently absorbed into a state-wide organization. The 8-8-8 logo, common at the time, represented one of the union's basic demands: an eight-hour day, complemented by eight of sleep and eight of other activities. It fits nicely with Mayor Smith's appreciation of socialism.

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Here's one last view from the headframe: the view is north toward an active mine.

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This map from 1903 shows 260 mining claims on which there were 100 headframes operating on 49 mines. Together there were 3,000 kilometers of tunnels and shafts along what became known as the Golden Mile. The mines abut both Kalgoorlie and Boulder, its smaller, southern sibling. The tram lines run not only through the towns but through the mine area. As in so many other places (Nevada's Virginia City, South Africa's Kimberley), Kalgoorlie's mines were eventually consolidated from many underground workings to a single open pit. It began in the 1980s, when Alan Bond, for a time Australia's financial wunderkind, tried his hand at packaging the Golden Mile, but he didn't quite succeed. In 1989 a partnership between Australia's Normandy Mining and Homestake Mines of the U.S. did the trick. The Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines was created to operate what began as the Big Pit but morphed to the Superpit. It's still very much in operation, though ownership now is shared by two North American gold miners, Newmont and Barrick.

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Here she be, or at least a bit of it. It's slim pickings: 15 million tons of rock are hauled off annually, from which 28 tons of gold are extracted. Translation: seven trucks, each carrying 225 tons of rock, yield enough gold to form a golf-ball-sized lump.

The drivers make 18 trips up and down during their 12-hour shifts; the shovel operators down below load 150 trucks during theirs. It takes four shovel bites to fill each truck.

Maybe the drivers have a radio to stay awake?

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Trucks at the superpit weigh 166 tons and have 2,300 horsepower enginers.

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The claims map showed Kalgoorlie's southern neighbor, Boulder, also hard against the Golden Mile. Here's Boulder's town hall, its untrimmed backstage attic over on the right.

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Hotels, of course: this one is from 1900.

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Another.

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A third, the Recreation Hotel. A recent decision by the Western Australia Director of Liquor Licencing casts light on life in a mining town. The hotel owner has asked for permission to sell on Sunday mornings. What do you think? Approved or denied? The decision states that the owner seeks a "facility which will allow shift workers, due to the hours they work, to consume alcohol with or without a breakfast on Sunday mornings." Seems sensible? So concluded the director, who allowed the hotel to sell from 7 to 10 Sunday mornings except on Good Friday, Christmas, and Anzac Day.

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As the date over the door says, the Palace Theater opened in 1937. Blame TV or Netflix, but now it's a skating rink chartered for birthday parties.

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You can see Kalgoorlie in the center and Boulder just beneath it. We're heading southwest 20 miles to Coolgardie, a mining boomtown a few years older than Kalgoorlie but now reduced almost to ghost-town status. The map shows "woodlines," the temporary railways built to access wood for local mines and homes. The operators didn't miss much.

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They were miners themselves, mining the Great Western Woodlands, described as the largest remaining area of intact Mediterranean-climate woodland on Earth. How intact the woodland can be after such ravaging is a question.

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Another main street for camel-train U-turns. This one, 40 meters wide, is Coolgardie's Bayley Street, named for Arthur B who along with a partner discovered gold here in 1892. Bayley retired to the gracious life in Melbourne, only to die at age 31; his mine, Bayley's Reward, stayed in production at least until 1963 and may subsequently have been incorporated into the Greenfields open-pit mine.

The road is part of Australia's Great Eastern Highway, running more or less coast to coast. It's 350 miles straight ahead to Perth; 1,800 behind you to Melbourne. The street's quiet now, but in 1898 there were 26 hotels in town, including 16 on this street. And electric streetlights: the Coolgardie Miner for June 8, 1896, recorded the moment they were turned on. "Mayor MacDonald, manipulating a certain mechanical contrivance, switched on the first arc light of inland Western Australia. In an instance the whole building was illuminated and down in Bayley Street the arc lamps flashed on the vision of the astonished spectators, to whom change in the street from darkness to light was surprising in its suddenness."

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Here's the main intersection in town: straight ahead and off to the right a bit, there's an abandoned railway station. Hard to imagine 15,000 people here, but that was the population in the late 1890s. The town was famous enough that London's Drury Lane Theater run a play, "The Dutchess of Coolgardie."

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The track from Southern Cross to Coolgardie opened in 1896, was extended to Kalgoorlie later that year, and was abandoned after the line was converted to standard gauge in 1968 and simultaneously relocated a mile or so north of town.

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A narrow-gauge engine not going anywhere.

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Fanciest survivor in town: it's the Mining Warden's Court, established to deal with disputes over mining claims. The building was designed by George Temple Poole in what has been described as Freestyle Classical, but it shamelessly copies the architect's own plan for the Royal Mint in Perth.

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The date up top is 1898; the building still houses a court but now mostly houses a museum.

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The main courtroom is part of the museum. The view here is from the gallery.

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The view from the bench oversees a collection of pioneer-vintage bottles.

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From The Western Mail, 12 May 1894: "The immense business of the Warden's Court, where there are still 80 cases of jumping alone to be settled, still takes place in a tent...." It would be a few more years before the courthouse opened.

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The Webbs have a photo (p. 577) of the two-story chamber of mines building, which never got its dome and always looked a bit unfinished. The building's gone.

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Here's the Marvel Bar Hotel, in operation until 1927 and, for some years afterwards housing the local chapter of the Returned Servicemen's League.

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It's stucco over brick, with blind arches in the parapet, an arcaded veranda, and free floating pediments between.

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St. Mary's church.

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Now it's the Christian Aboriginal Parent-Directed School; formerly it was St. Anthony's Convent of Mercy, operated for 75 years by the Sisters of Mercy, who arrived in town in 1902.

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Here's the home of Thomas Finnerty, the first mining warden and, in his spare time, the surveyor of Bayley Street. The louvers and wide verandas helped in the climate; so did putting the kitchen in an out-building.

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The judge himself, walking stick at hand.

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Solid enough to withstand abandonment a good long time.

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A few houses are still occupied.

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And well cared-for.

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Few if any new houses in Coolgardie, but it's a different story back in Kalgoorlie.

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Exclusive, prestigious, ultimate: the realtor's terms of art.

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You could just about roll up the lawn and put it in the garage.

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To satisfy residents of means, you have to keep stuff coming. Most comes by truck.

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As for people, there are daily trains as well as flights.

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And of course there's still mining--and not just the superpit.

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Speaking of danger, there's plenty on display in the local epitaphs.

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For example.

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The plane was caught in a squall and crashed into a headframe near Kalgoorlie, killing four of the five people aboard; the patient who was being transported survived.

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Hard luck.

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We're about 10 miles from Kalgoorlie and out at the cemetery built for Kanowna, a town of which no buildings survive but in which 12,000 people lived in 1900. They left behind this cemetery.

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Here's one of its tombstones. It marks the grave of Sono Sakomoto, known as Osarno. She was one of some 60 Japanese prostitutes working around Kalgoorlie. The Bulletin reports in 1895: "The Japanese women totally eclipse their white competitors. They are particularly clean, modest, sober, exceedingly polite, don't thieve and look upon their calling in a purely commercial sense." Osarno, however, was murdered. She had been living with a Japanese laundryman and had left him to live with someone else. The laundryman killed them both; his own sentence was commuted to 20 years.

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Nothing noteworthy about the Kalgoorlie departure lounge? Your eyes aren't sharp enough. (OK: we'll blame the cameraman.) But see that sign on the stone wall?

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Making amends? Maybe not quite enough: three percent of the local population is Aboriginal, but Aboriginals constitute 70 percent of the residents in the youth detention system and 42 percent of the adult prison population.


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