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Notes on the Geography of Australia: Long Way to Broken Hill

We'll start in Sydney, jump to Adelaide, then head north via Peterborough and Silverton.

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If New York City is the most important place in the United States--and who would dare to dispute the claim?--then Sydney is the most important place in Australia. Here we're looking at just a few of the big boys in the Darling Park Complex: bellying up to the waterfront are the PWC Tower and three triangular towers housing Rabobank, Commonwealth Bank, and Allianz. Everything we need for the good life: banks, insurance, and accountants.

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The men in suits can make a strong argument that without them we couldn't have any fun. That's what we're doing at Darling Harbour on this nice day--not too hot. That's the Pyrmont neighborhood on the other side, with a Sofitel, Novotel, and Ibis hotel--all brands owned by the same French company, Accor. The hotels are lined up to the right of the International Convention Centre. The King Street Wharf is at our feet; directly behind us are the big boys we just noticed, and the city's CBD stands behind them.

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Sydney's nice but too big, especially for anyone heading into central Australia, so we've flown to Adelaide, the capital of South Australia and a city of only one million. We're downtown, with the inspiring Department of the Treasury building on the left--hey, do bean counters deserve better?--and, on the right, what used to be the Government Offices building but which now houses units of several universities, including University College London and Carnegie Mellon.

The building also houses Torrens University, which is part of the Laureate International Universities network. Never heard of it? Bill Clinton made a speech at the opening of this campus, so you know it's good. Robert Torrens, by the way, was a 19th century premier of South Australia and is remembered primarily for the Real Property Act of 1858, which created a comparatively simple method of establishing secure ownership through a government registry. Goodbye, deeds; hello, certificates of title copied from the government registry. Look it up: you'll wonder why the United States is still hung up with deeds and chains of title--until you read about how Australia's lawyers hated the Torrens System for denying them their bread and butter.

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Across the street there's a statue that at first blush looks like another Edward VII, whose portly figure did get around. Instead, it's Charles Kingston, South Australia's premier in the 1890s. Kingston was an opponent of Chinese immigration but, on the other hand, pushed to give women the vote.

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The Australian Dictionary of Biography describes Kingston as "the dominant and outstanding figure in late colonial politics in South Australia." An official of Britain's Colonial Office had a different perspective and called Kingston "the most quarrelsome man alive."

Here he stands in the uniform of a privy councillor. The statue was unveiled in 1916, by which time his enemies had cooled off or passed on.

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He's next to a bland rendering of you-know-who.

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Sydney and Melbourne aren't the only Australian cities with Victorian heaps. Here's Adelaide's Australian Lutheran College. The building opened in 1882 as the North Adelaide Grammar School. Despite its name, this was a private venture conceived by John Whinham, a teacher of many talents.

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If the housing around Wellington Square--one of six in the park-wrapped city--seems an exercise in Victorian domesticity, remember the British connection. In 1837, the city was laid out parks and all by William Light, South Australia's first surveyor general. Light was born in 1786 in what is now Malaysia; his father was the founder of the Penang Colony. Son William was of course sent to England for his education, and served as a naval officer under Wellington. His work in Adelaide was brief--about three years--before he resigned in disgust and ill-health, but the core of the city remains as he intended.

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The city now sprawls far beyond the area covered by Light's plan, and his surrounding parkland is now an inner-city park with an urban core of its own. Here we're about 10 miles north of it and on Wyatt Road in Parafield Gardens, an area built up in the 1950s, partly through private activities and partly through the South Australia Housing Trust. Yes, this home is greener than most; call it an extension of the same British taste for parks that motivated Light a century earlier.

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We're 60 miles north of Adelaide at Riverton. Tracks came this way in 1870, and the last locomotive rumbled past in 1992.

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Before you imagine that Riverton blew away, here's its railway station, now operating as a B&B.

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And here's the Central Hotel, right on the main road through town.

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The Riverton Community Hall opened in 1874. The upper story and wing were later additions.

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Not exactly rustic living in the Outback.

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Here's Riverton's Holy Trinity Anglican Church, with a tower that looks ready to withstand an assault.

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We've come to Saddleworth, eight miles up the road. The town only has 400 people, but here's its Anglican chuch, St. Aidans, from 1894. The tower has been tamed.

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Huts and shacks and tumble-down cabins? Not quite. Victorian proprieties reached farther inland than you might imagine.

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Here's the Manoora Institute, another half-dozen miles up the road. The Institute was funded by concerts and billiard tournaments. It started out small in 1880 but by 1908 had rustled up enough money for this front extension.

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Here it is, in fairly isolated splendor.

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All these towns grew up on the road to a mining camp, Burra, but they also lay south of a famous line just north of the camp. The line--Goyder's Line--marked the approximate boundary between arable land on the south and grazing land on the north. The last train through Riverton, in fact, was hauling grain. That was in 1999, a few years before the last locomotive.

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The trains are gone, but not the farmland.

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Think Aussie farmers are technological laggards?

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I don't.

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Along with the good stuff, they also have dust in common with their Kansas cousins.

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Speaking of dust, here's the 200-mile-plus Morgan Whyalla pipeline, built in 1945 and doubled in 1967. It ignores the sheep and the ruined homestead and brings water from Morgan, on the Murray River, west to the steel mill at Whyalla, on the coast. The mill, now Arrium, was originally a BHP undertaking; the pipeline belongs to South Australian Water.

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And here's Burra, the copper-mining town that ran for about thirty years (1850-80) and which spurred development along the road we've been tracing. The town's population is down from 5,000 in 1851 to about 1,000.

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From 1845 to 1867 the mine was an underground operation worked to a depth of about 600 feet. From 1870 to 1877 it was a very early open-pit mine, though it wasn't very successful. A century later, in 1971 it opened again and the operator increased the depth of the pit from 37 to 100 meters. It's been abandoned again, whence the lake.

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The South Australian Mining Association, which ran the place as a company town, imported miners from Wales and Cornwall and, to a lesser extent, Scotland and Germany. They seem to have read more than we do today. How else explain the Mechanics and Miners Institute? It opened in 1857 and was rebuilt as the Burra Institute in 1874 with a "well stocked library, an instructive museum, educational classes, popular lectures, and agencies in every direction, whereby the mind might be cultivated and the feelings refined." The sign on the door? Well, the Institute became as well the home of the Corporation of the Town of Burra in 1876 and served in that capacity until 1969, when the Corporation was amalgamated with the District Council of Burra Burra.

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Here's the Burra Regional Art Gallery, formerly the Burra Telegraph and Post Office. That church yonder?

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It's St. Joseph's Catholic, 1874.

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The mining company's architecture, nodding to the simplicity and economy of Cornwall, did away with verandahs and trim. To break the monopoly of the company, however, the government created the adjoining town of Redruth in 1847. The two towns were separated by a fence. Gradually, the separation eroded. So did the architectural austerities.

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A room with a view. Bath Street.

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With the mine closed for so many years, you can't help wondering how the town survives as well as it does. Can tourism be enough? Turns out that it doesn't have to be: Burra calls itself the Merino Capital of the World. The logic is that Goyder's Line, roughly the 10-inch isohyet, is just north of town. The natural vegetation shifts from mallee (low-habit eucalypts) to saltbush. Crops vanish, and these guys move in.

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Connoisseurs swear by mutton fed on saltbush.

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Planted, it's about as elegant as cabbages.

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A healthier stand.

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The Waste Lands Alienation Act 1872, which allowed South Australian farmers to buy land on credit, restricted purchases to land south of Goyder's Line. That line had been demarcated in the early 1860s by the newly appointed Surveyor-General, George Goyder. Impatient settlers called him "King of the Lands Department" and insisted, as did their American cousins, that rain would follow the plow. After a series of wet years, the legislature in 1874 repealed the restriction, and farmers moved north of the line. Then came the dry years of the 1880s. Since then, Goyder's Line has enjoyed greater respect.

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I probably don't have to say that this is a roundhouse. It was built about 1920 with 22 bays and is the largest roundhouse in South Australia. That being so, we must be in Peterborough, a major rail junction with a line coming north from Melbourne via Adelaide to join the main line across the continent from Sydney to Perth. The roundhouse is a quiet place now, a museum.

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The whole town is pretty quiet, with its population down from 3,500 to 2,500. H.F. Peters opened a store here in 1878, three years before the railroad arrived. The name of the place was Petersburgh until World War I.

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Here's the Central Hotel, which opened in 1891 and as of 2017 was for sale for A$395,000, plus stock with an estimated value of A$120,000.

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The Capitol Theater, with 1,020 seats, was in business from 1921 to 1976. The seats have been yanked to make way for an antiques store.

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Here's a building with several lives. It began in 1884 as an Institute, which is to say public library and lecture hall. In 1884 it became a college of technical education. In 1894 a new facade was added and the building became the town hall. Eventually a new town hall was built (it's the building on the left), and this one became and remains a private residence.

See the plaque on the lower left?

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Sir John Alexander Cockburn (1850-1929) was a medical doctor born in Scotland, though with a medical degree (and a gold medal) from King's College, London. His radical views rubbed plenty of Australians the wrong way. Attacked in the press as the "Doctor of Fanciful Nations," he was bombarded by one fellow member of parliament (Paddy Glynn) as "the political mystic and interpreter of the democratic spirit as understood by himself, the paper-disciple of Rousseau, the chief South Australian exponent of philosophic equality and scientific methods of social progress...."

See the entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cockburn-sir-john-alexander-5701

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The new town hall was built in 1927 and included a hall seating over 1,100; for a few years it showed movies in competition with the Capitol.

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The fanciest house in town, now a private home but in 1913 the bishop's house. In 1926 a new home for the bishop went up (nothing but the best for our bishop!), and this place became a convent and school for boys and, later, girls.

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We're back on the road north; a modestly sized field of stubble. Stubble of what? Ummm... saltbush?

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We're in Yunta, 50 miles north of Peterborough and by the 1890s a busy town on the Adelaide to Broken Hill railway.

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The liveliest place in town, thanks to truckers who roll in, fill up, and leave A$1500 on the counter. But that's not the station's claim to fame.

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This is: big, cheap, crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside. Puts McDonald's to shame.

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Yunta is also where the Tea Tree road joins the highway. Think emus are rare?

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Not hardly. This one owned the road.

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These two cleared out fast.

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The station at Manna Hill, another 25 miles up the road, opened in 1886, a year before completion of the track to the border with New South Wales. That border was significant, because NSW refused to allow the South Australia railway to cross it. Cockburn became the transfer point for everyone and everything to and from Broken Hill. From Cockburn on, in other words, transport was in the hands of the Silverton Tramway, a phenomenally profitable shortline that lasted until 1970. What was the crane used for? Hmmm...

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From The Melbourne Argus for 22 October 1886: "Here there is a large hotel, capable of accommodating about 50 people. In shearing time the proprietor does a fair trade, shearers and teamsters from the surrounding stations being the principal customers. The country around here possesses a very dreary outlook." So maybe the crane hoisted bales of wool? In the past they ran up to 200 kilograms.

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Not much manna, not much hill, but plenty of stereotypical Outback.

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Another 60 miles up the highway and we arrive in mighty Cockburn, population 25. In 1892 the population was 2,000.

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We've stepped back a few yards. See?

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Cockburn was established in 1886 when trains began running from here to Silverton and Broken Hill. They were called trams because of a legal nicety, but they were real trains, though narrow-gauge. Cars ran through between Adelaide and Broken Hill, albeit with crew and locomotive changes here.

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See? Here's one of the Silverton Tram's locomotives, a narrow-gauge Beyer Peacock 7553, built in 1951 and one of four w-class locomotives acquired by the line. Not exactly what you associate with the word "tram," right? It's now in the Broken Hill museum that used to be the tramway station.

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The museum has a collection of the tramway's cars, too.

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Here's a bit of the old roadbed between Silverton and Broken Hill.

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Now a ghost town, Silverton prospered for a very few years before the exhaustion of its mines and the rise of Broken Hill, about 15 miles away. The men who built the tramway were from Silverton, however, which explains why it wasn't called the Broken Hill Tramway.

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The town of Silverton, surveyed in 1883, had 3,000 residents two years later. Fifteen years later, it had 300, and today it has about 50.

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The ruins of the house of the Anglican minister. Would that be bullnose-brick trim?

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The ore gave out in 1889, but a few buildings are still in good shape. Here's one, the St. Carthage Catholic Church, saved not by the faith but by conversion to a private home.

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Another survivor.

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Most residents moved to Broken Hill, but a few stayed behind.

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There you go: we've just about completed our journey to Broken Hill. Now don't start saying that you want to go back to Sydney this instant. I hate whiners.

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Why, there's civilization out here. Witness this fine array of photo-electric cells.


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