I'm a freelance writer based in Perth, Western Australia, who enjoys writing about the things I love: travel, nature-based activities, the arts, spirituality and creative, fun activities for children.
Published November 20th 2017
A unique portal into Western Australia’s goldmining history
The Australian outback is a place of great dramatic beauty, and Gwalia, a tiny hamlet that came into being during the great Western Australian goldrushes of the 1890s, is no exception. Now promoted as a 'living ghost town', the village is a conglomeration of ramshackle structures that date back to a time when it was home to a thriving community of miners and their families, and includes rustic cottages, workers' hostels, general store, police lock-up and even a sly grog shop – each furnished simply with makeshift items typical of the era. Wandering around the village, time appears to stand still, and it's not difficult to envision the triumphs and challenges faced by its early residents as they braved geographical isolation and an extremely harsh environment in the hope of striking it rich on one of Australia's most remote goldfields.
When gold was discovered in Western Australia in the mid-1880s, it heralded a series of goldrushes that attracted tens of thousands of fortune-seekers over a period of several decades. Almost overnight, tent settlements and shanty towns sprung up to cater to the needs of prospective miners, and while some of these flourished, many others vanished just as quickly as they had appeared. Although names such as Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie are familiar to most Australians, little remains today of once-thriving goldrush towns such as Broad Arrow, Menzies, Ora Banda and Kookynie.
Similarly, although during the glory days of the late 1890s and early twentieth century, Gwalia boasted a sizeable population, these days only a handful of residents remain in the village, and most of the remaining buildings lie empty, serving as a poignant reminder of days gone by. Gold was first discovered in the vicinity in 1896 by a trio of prospectors who dubbed their claim, 'Sons of Gwalia' (Gwalia being an ancient name for Wales) after Thomas Tobias, a Coolgardie storekeeper of Welsh heritage who had funded their expedition. Following their discovery, the claim was sold to George Hall for just five thousand pounds. After quickly recouping his investment, Hall set about developing the claim with additional capital provided by the London mining engineering firm, Bewick Moreing and Company, who sent a young engineer, Herbert Hoover, to oversee its development. At that time just 23 years of age, Hoover is best known today as the 31st President of the United States.
As 'Sons of Gwalia' developed, its population began to grow and a small shanty town began to develop nearby. By 1910, Gwalia boasted a population of over a thousand people, many who were recent immigrants from Italy and other countries in Europe. As well as the rustic miners' humpies of corrugated iron and hessian cloth that are so typical of goldrush towns, other services such as a hotel, shops, school, tramway and a swimming pool sprung up – all to be abandoned when the town's fortunes eventually slumped. Over the years mining activity fluctuated, but in 1963 Gwalia's death knell eventually sounded when Bewick and Moreing closed the mine. Almost overnight, most of the town's population vanished.
Although goldmining ventures have continued to operate in and around Gwalia during the years following the mine's 1963 closure, the township itself has never revived, and today its empty buildings stand as a poignant reminder of one of Western Australia's most vibrant and historically significant historical eras.
A good starting point for visitors is the Gwalia Museum, situated on a small hill overlooking the village, its large open-cut mine pit, and the arid albeit stunningly beautiful landscape surrounding them. The museum is situated in several buildings, including Hoover House, the original brick home that Herbert Hoover planned, constructed and personally resided in during his stint as the manager of the 'Sons of Gwalia' mine. Built between 1898 and 1899, it's a lovely old place, filled with furniture and other items from Hoover's sojourn in Gwalia, and the tenure of later mine managers. Its solid construction and elegant design serves as a powerful contrast to the humble shacks of the mine workers in the village below – many of which featured walls of hessian and floors made from rammed earth. These days, as well as being a museum, Hoover House also serves as a historic Bed and Breakfast, providing visitors with a unique opportunity to sleep in style at one of Australia's most well-preserved ghost towns.
Hoover House and the other buildings that have been incorporated into Gwalia Museum contain a diverse and special range of artefacts ranging from mining equipment, household bric-a-brac, railway ephemera, items from early schools on the goldfields, memorabilia from local men who enlisted in both world wars, and much more. Plenty of signage, photographs and other documentation accompany the museum's various displays, informing visitors of not only Gwalia's historical background, but also the history and way of life of various other small settlements scattered around the northern goldfields.
Gwalia Museum also houses an impressive selection of historical vehicles, including pastoral machinery, a Midland Woodline Steam Engine (affectionately known to locals as KEN), 1935 International Murrin Murrin Mail Truck, the original 1908 Leonora-Gwalia Electric Tram and even a Chevrolet hearse, dating back to 1927. Another highlight for history lovers – especially those with a keen interest in Australia's goldmining heritage - is the original large wooden head frame (built in 1899) from the 'Sons of Gwalia' mine, one of just a handful that still exist from the era.
Ambling down the hill from the Gwalia Museum, visitors can then take the opportunity to explore the town-site. Described as a 'living ghost town', Gwalia is quite distinct from the many other mining settlements that sprung up during the goldrush years. While the buildings in the majority of these towns have been left to crumble, over the last few decades Gwalia has been (and continues to be) gradually restored by dedicated volunteers from around Australia and beyond. Ramshackle cottages have been given a new lease of life and renovated authentically so as to appear much like they would have when the community was thriving. It was a harsh natural environment, and life was tough, as reflected in the dwellings – most which are little more than humpies.
Not only have volunteers provided the required labour to restore these small huts, but many have also generously donated furnishings and other items to adorn them. Rough-hewn bush furniture, original Metters stoves, old iron bedsteads, ragged lace curtains, vintage posters and much more. The result is stunning. Wandering through the open cottages visitors feel as though they've been transported through a portal in time - giving the impression that their inhabitants have momentarily left their homes, but will soon be back. It's a special and rather haunting atmosphere - one that I've never experienced elsewhere.
In a nutshell, whether you're a solo traveller, grey nomads or a young family enjoying a school holiday road-trip, a visit to historic Gwalia is highly recommended. Situated in Western Australia's remote Northern Goldfields region, a sojourn in the area provides
a unique insight into a historical era and way of life that has now vanished.
Gwalia is situated approximately 240 kilometres north of Kalgoorlie, and just a few minutes' drive from Leonora, the nearest regional centre. To find out more about the village and its history, visit the interesting and very informative Gwalia Ghost Town and Museum website .
Apart from the museum and historic village precinct, there is much to see and do in the area, and a visit of a few days, at least, is highly recommended. Hoover House Bed and Breakfast in Gwalia offers three gorgeous rooms – a perfect treat for roaming history-lovers. In addition, there are various other accommodation options available in nearby Leonora, including traditional hotel rooms, self-contained motel units and camping / cabins at the local caravan park. To find out more, take a look at this page on the Shire of Leonora website.