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Notes on the Geography of Australia: Broken Hill

Birth of a boomtown: surveyed in 1886, Broken Hill had 21,000 people five years later. The sheriff that year took a census, and the town newspaper reported the results: "The number of houses in Broken Hill is 2623, and there are also 461 tents, with 30 houses and 71 tents in the district immediately surrounding, which gives a total of 4185 domiciles." (See the Barrier Miner for 14 February 1891.) Ten years later the population had grown to 30,000, making Broken Hill the second city of New South Wales, even though the town is 700 miles west of Sydney and hugs the state's western border. The population held fairly level until the 1930s but went into decline with the closing of the BHP, or Broken Hill Proprietary, mine. Since then, the population has slipped to about 18,000. A couple of mines continue to operate, but the town depends heavily on tourists. A Heritage Advisor was appointed in 1986, and a program of architectural restoration began in 2001. In 2015 Broken Hill became the first city to be put on Australia's National Heritage Register. Some 300,000 visitors come annually.

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Here's the perfect, although unlikely, first glimpse of Broken Hill. We're standing atop the Block 10 Lookout, site of an ore concentrator built in 1903 for the Block 10 Mine, which was over yonder in what is now a huge pile of tailings. The mine sent its ore here on the cableway anchored on your left. The tailings, the work of many mines besides the Block 10, lie atop the Line of Lode, a four-mile-long strip which has been picked over since the 1880s, originally by the lion called BHP and nowadays by the lesser carnivores, chiefly CBH (Central Broken Hill) and Perilya, the first Japanese and the second Chinese. That's globalization for you, though it must be admitted that the original BHP magnates left town as soon as they could and settled in Melbourne or the UK.

Anecdote: A mining engineer later recalled George McCulloch, the brains behind the birth of BHP. Before that birth, McCulloch had been the manager of the Mount Gipps sheep station, whose territory included what would be recognized as the Line of Lode. In the early days, he would look after visitors "with plenty of boiled or roast mutton and a few potatoes, all washed down with tea... McCulloch was manager for his uncle and took his uncle's interests seriously. He would not spend an unnecessary penny either on himself or the station staff. It was not meanness, but a dour Scots determination to carry out his duties in the most efficient possible manner. He himself was kind and generous. It was a far cry from Mount Gipps in the 'eighties to the mansion in Queen's Gate, Kensington, London, where I met him again years later. The Proprietary had made him a millionaire, and he lived amid his collection of art, attended by a retinue of servants. Then one ate off silver and not its poor relation." (Broken Hill to Mount Isa: The Mining Odyssey of W.H. Corbould, p. 40.)

McCullough's life would have been different if it weren't for Charlie Rasp, a Mount Gipps boundary rider. In 1883, and contrary to McCullough's wishes, Rasp staked a claim to 297 acres in a narrow band along what he called the Broken Hill. He confessed what he had done, and McCullough forgave him: with five other employees, McCullough formed the Syndicate of Seven. The men thought they had a tin mine, but in 1885 silver was discovered and their property was reorganized as the Broken Hill Proprietary. (See Fifty Years of Industry and Enterprise: 19885 to 1935, Special Issue of the B.H.P Review, June 1935; also, Leonard Samuel Curtis, ed., The History of Broken Hill..., 1908.)

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Here's the view from the top of the tailings pile back over the main part of the city. It's surveyed in a grid oriented not to the cardinal points and not to the railway but to the Line of Lode, now the tailings pile. The pile sits on the site of the broken hill that has been almost entirely eradicated.

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Australia has mines that welcome tourists and offer spectacular views--Kalgoorlie's Superpit comes to mind--but Broken Hill in that department is a disappointment, because if you climb to the top of the tailings pile you can't see much. Here we peek over one of the ubiquitous fences. Somebody seems to be sifting through the tailings: lions to hyenas to vultures to insects.

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The BHP began with local smelting of ores dug underground, which among other things denuded the surrounding country and left it prey to ferocious dust storms. With increasing production from ore produced in in open pit, the company shifted to concentrating ores on site--here's the surviving foundation of the mill finished in 1897--and then shipping the concentrates by rail at first to the coast for export but by 1915 for refining on the coast at Port Pirie, almost 300 miles away.

The technical development of the mine relied heavily of American expertise. Two years after the creation of the company, for example, the board of directors sent one of its members--W.R. Wilson, the only director with a mining background--to the U.S. Wilson visited the Comstock Lode of Nevada and hired as general manager at Broken Hill W.H. Patton, who had been the manager of the Consolidated Virginia Silver Mining Company. Wilson also visited Colorado and its Pueblo Smelting and Refining Works and headhunted H.H. Schlapp to take charge of the B.H.P. smelter. The conversion of the mine from underground operations to an open pit took place under Patton's successor, John Howell, a Canadian who had come to California in 1849 as a teenager.

The body of ore, by the way, is shaped like a bow set string down, so BHP naturally worked the shallowest part, at the center of the Line of Lode. That section was worked out by 1940, and BHP moved on to greener pastures elsewhere in Australia and the wider world. The deeper ends of the bow, both and north, have been sporadically worked since then. Those operations, tapping deeper veins, are underground mines.

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Why fence an old fireplace?

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Who says hard-boiled businessmen don't have their sentimental side?

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Bits of old BHP housing survive.

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We've moved half a mile north, far enough that the ore here is too deep for a surface mine. Result: the Junction Mine and the Browne Shaft, along with the mine manager's house, complete with verandah. The Junction Mine began operation in 1886 and before closing in 1923 produced silver ore worth a million pounds sterling. Now abandoned, the mine was restarted in the 1940s and didn't finally close until 1972.

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Here's the headframe on the Browne Shaft, built in the 1880s but modified by the mine's later owners. You have to admire the miners who went to work by dropping 450 meters then heading to the working face at the end of a four-kilometer tunnel.

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How often did the 12-bells signal sound?

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The hoist itself.

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Water tanks near the headframe stand on the only surviving bit of the rock that Charlie Rasp saw and recognized as "gossan," a rock found around or near an ore body. "Mullock" was the derisive term used by the Silverton miners for the same rock before they learned what it signified. Rasp, a German immigrant working on a sheep station, reckoned he knew better.

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We've moved another half mile up the lode and to its north end and the plainspoken North Mine, which began in 1885 and continues to flicker on and off in the hands of Perilya, which acquired it in 2002. The concentration mill was added in 1939.

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Here's Perilya's active South Mine, four miles away. Ore comes from working faces three miles deep, and though it comes up by hoist, the men go to work by driving on tunnels that drop through switchback after switchback. Think I'll pass.

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Like so many mines, this one has had previous lives and began in 1936 as New Broken Hill Consolidated. In 2012 it produced 130,000 tons of zinc and lead in concentrate. The only other miner in the neighborhood, apart from secondary recovery operations, is CBH Resources, which operates what it calls the Rasp Mine and annually produces about 65,000 tons of metal in concentrate.

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Here, atop the tailings pile, is the Miners' Memorial, a monument to those who died in the mines.

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The chilling list is arranged chronologically.

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We're back on the Block 10 Lookout, with a view from approximately the north end of the Line of Lode, at the left, to the central part, atop which you can see the Miners' Memorial and a glass-walled coffee shop and lookout. Alas, the lookout looks out over the town, not the mine, where, admittedly, there's no grand pit to see. At the upper left you can see the tower of the post office in brick and, to its right, the town hall.

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Here they are, government buildings in the style of other New South Wales government buildings of the time. We're at the corner of Argent and Chloride streets. Straight ahead is the corner with Sulphide; a block behind the camera is the corner with Oxide.

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The post office, from 1892, was designed by Colonial Architect James Barnett. The clock, with dials cast in Broken Hill, was added in 1902. The building is faithful to the mining camp esthetic in one way: its roof is made of corrugated iron sheets.

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Here's the town hall. Impressive?

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It was more impressive before most of the building was demolished in 1974. At least the facade was kept--and restored in 1976.

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Here's the building that replaced it. Console yourself with the busts of the Syndicate of Seven, the men behind the BHP. Three dropped out in premature discouragement and perhaps spent the rest of their lives trying not to rue that day.

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Adjoining the town hall, a technical college opened in 1901 with 374 students. It wasn't all STEM subjects: the organizer of the Syndicate of Seven was George McCulloch, who eventually retired and returned to the UK. From his Queens Gate mansion he endowed an Art Gallery established in this building in 1904. What were his tastes? Now you're over my head.

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We've stepped back along Argent Street to see a mix of buildings. Some have caught the heritage wave and some are still caught in the 1950s.

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The Royal hotel, from 1890, lost its verandah for a while but got a new one in 2002. The ground floor was converted to shops in the 1940s, but apparently the rents aren't enough to satisfy the owner.

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The Kidman building was built in 1888 for a saddler but within a few years was owned by the Kidman Brothers and has been occupied by a butcher ever since.

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The building on the right was originally Walter Sully's Emporium, opened in 1889 and extended to the left in 1894. Sully sold heavy machinery for mines, but the business continued as a conventional hardware shop until 1985, when it fell vacant and was vandalized. The city council bought the building in 1998 and in 2004 made it an art gallery.

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The Palace Hotel, also on Argent Street, opened in 1899 and has kept its verandah, cast in Adelaide. The owner was the local temperance union, which opened the hotel as a coffee house. Brave women! Three years later they sold it, and the hotel was licensed for alcohol. In 1919 the mine manager's association bought the place and converted it to a returned soldiers home. In 1946, South Australia Brewing bought the place and reopened it as a hotel. It still operates as one.

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More intimate accommodation: the Duke of Cornwall Inn from the late 1880s was one of the first masonry buildings in town. A disastrous fire destroyed its predecessor, and the city responded by prohibiting wood.

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Urban core hotels have continued to be built, including this Moderne design from 1941, replacing an earlier hotel on the site from 1889.

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Ready for a surprise? It's not a bank, not a court, not law offices, not a club for mine owners. It's the Trades Hall, opened in 1898 with a second floor added in 1904. The owner was the Amalgamated Miners Association, and this was their headquarters when they went on strike in 1909 and again in 1919, progressively reducing the work week to 45 hours, then 35. The building was restored in 1988.

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You can guess all day long, but even if you guess, correctly, that the letters mean Amalgamated Miners Association, you'll never guess that this was their band hall. Back then--1914--working men made their own music.

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We're back on Argent Street to look at the mine owners or, more precisely, at the Exchange Arcade where mining shares were bought and sold. The verandah was installed in 1989, and the ground floor has been modified. In 2018 the building was for sale for A$980,000.

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Here's the ground floor now, cut up into ten mostly vacant shops or offices.

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Out back, there's an alley, Argent Lane. The downtown blocks have such alleys; the residential parts of town generally don't.

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Here's the Silverton Tramway station on Sulphide Street. It's a museum now, because the line was abandoned after 1970, when a standard gauge connection was made on a different alignment from Sydney through to Adelaide.

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Welcome to the first air-conditioned train in the British Empire: it's the Silver City Comet, which linked Broken Hill to Parkes, about two-thirds of the way to Sydney. The train operated from 1937 to 1989.

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Between 1902 and 1926 Broken Hill had streetcars, remarkably pulled by small steam locomotives. Perhaps it wasn't the brightest idea, and certainly the system was never profitable. Still, the manager got to live here, in one of the town's handsomest houses, built in 1902.

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His rivals for domestic splendor was usually mine managers. Here's the home, from 1903, of the Central Mine Manager. Tenures could be long: Manager James Hebbard called this place home from 1940 to 1984. The building was almost demolished before being rescued by heritage-minded residents, and it's now part of St. Anne's Nursing Home, operated by Southern Cross Care.

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It's hard to find a home in town, even at the high end, that doesn't have a sheetmetal roof.

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Alas, no windows in the tower. Bet you didn't think that palms grew here. Is that a baptismal font? Maybe. We're at the corner of Iodide and Williams, the high-rent neighborhood.

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The Towers, built about 1890, was Nurse Robertson's private hospital but is now a private home.

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If clothes make the man, then maybe fences and gates make the house. We're on Blende, a block off Argent.

This is as good a time as any to mention that housing in Broken Hill is cheap, relative to the national average. Median monthly mortgage payments in 2016 were A$953, compared to the national median of A$1,755. It's no great bargain for most residents, however, because wages are below the national average. As of 2016, the median weekly household income was A$968. The national average was A$1,438.

See quickstats.censusdata.abs.gov.au

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Tract housing, Broken Hill-style. Like tract housing everywhere, the homes have been modified over the years and are no longer absolutely identical. We're on Sulphide Street.

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Australia has lots of row houses, but Broken Hill doesn't. Here are some, from 1890, on Oxide Street.

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We've jumped over to South Broken Hill, which lies on the other side of the Line of Lode. This is Patton Street. Apparently, the surveyors felt that land wasn't in short supply.

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They were right. The roof is a modified skillion, with add-ons that continue the sloping line.

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You could probably keep adding on indefinitely, if you didn't mind digging a bit.

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Here's South Broken Hill's South Baptist Church, desanctified in 1974 and now an unusual B&B.

The local newspaper recorded a speaker at the dedication of the building in 1911: "The laying of the keel of a super-Drednought was a matter of national importance, but the laying of a foundation-stone of a church was of far more importance to the welfare of the people than the building of a whole fleet of battleships."

Further: "The new building would have a garden roof, similar to those in vogue in America, where the worshippers could, during the summer months, attend to their devotions... and to prevent anyone falling from the roof during the period of summer worship a substantial parapet would enclose the roof top.

See Barrier Miner, June 15, 1911, p. 3.

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The garden seems to have vanished, it it ever existed, but the parapet seems to survive.

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Cornerstone of the church. At its dedication, a speaker lamented that "if there is a city in Australia where Satan's seat is, that city is Broken Hill."

See The Mercury, Hobart, 20 Sep 1911, p. 6.

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On the secular side, here's the Burke Ward Public School, established in 1895 and still in business. The school opened in rooms rented from the Wesleyans but "the "present commodious building was opened by the Chief Inspector of Schools" in 1899. In 1902, about 500 students were enrolled.

See The Barrier Miner, 18 December 1902, p. 2.

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Good thing there isn't a lot of rain; it would be hard to teach a class under that roof.

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Broken Hill has a "commodious" cemetery, too.

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The fanciest memorial may be for Percival Brookfield, 1875-1921. Brookfield was a socialist, a leader in the anti-conscription campaign, and was regularly fined for various infractions, including cursing the British Empire. A leader in the miners' strikes of 1916 and 1920, he intervened in an assassination at Riverton Station and was shot to death.

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A memorial for a miner who fell down the shaft of the Silver Ring Mine in 1889.

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Observers.


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