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 August 21st 2014
Take a road-trip into our local history
As is the case with haunted houses and seances, the mere mention of a ghost town is often enough to pique the interest of even the most cynical amongst us. While the term doesn't necessarily imply that a specific place is haunted (although several are certainly reputed to be), it does conjure up images of mystery and intrigue, and prompt the visitor to imagine what life was like back in the days when hundreds or even thousands of people resided there, and what the chain of events was that led it to become deserted.
In a country like Australia where fortunes have been made and lost on goldfields in remote, inhospitable locations, it's natural that we have our fair share of ghost towns: places where fortune-seekers rapidly descended long ago when gold was discovered and just as quickly deserted when no more could be found, leaving behind haunting remains of their sojourns on the landscape, sometimes just a few mullock heaps and broken shards of pottery, and at others the remnants of a more permanent settlement: crumbling stone buildings, ramshackle hotels and neglected graveyards of long-forgotten loved-ones.
With its rich and turbulent history, many ghost towns can be found in Western Australia. While most are situated in the state's remote eastern goldfields region, others can be found closer to Perth. If you enjoy road-trips and local history, why not leave the city far behind and explore these intriguing places before they totally vanish. Due to the harshness of Western Australian summers, the best time for such a journey is during the cooler months of the year. Late winter and early spring is especially nice, as it's wildflower season and the deserts are alive with colour.
Gwalia Situated 233 kilometres north of Kalgoorlie on the eastern goldfields, Gwalia is quite probably Western Australia's best preserved ghost town. While these days it's largely deserted, way back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during the heady gold-rush days, the town boasted a population of over a thousand people, with busy hotels, businesses, shops, a swimming pool and public tramway. When the mine closed in 1963 the town's population fell to just forty in three weeks, as miners left with their families to seek employment elsewhere.
The old hotel in Gwalia. Image courtesy of Mulgamutt / Wikimedia Commons
Although Gwalia is deserted today, it's managed as the Gwalia Ghost Town and Museum, providing visitors with an insight into a historical period and way of life that has now vanished. Visitors can wander around the old townsite, where the original mine manager's house (designed by Herbert Hoover, a young geologist who was later to become the American president), various other mine buildings and the two-storied State Hotel, still stand, along with an assortment of rustic miners' cottages constructed from iron, wood and hessian. Many of these have been restored and furnished to how they would have looked back in the old days, and are now open to the public.
The Sons of Gwalia goldmine during its heyday. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Other ghost towns on the Eastern Goldfields While Gwalia is definitely the best-preserved of all Western Australia's gold-mining ghost towns, there are also several others that are well worth exploring. A few ghost town tours are run from Kalgoorlie which can be very good if you have limited time or don't feel confident to explore independently.
Situated 38 kilometres north of Kalgoorlie, Broad Arrow boasted a population of 15,000 people at its peak as well as eight hotels, two breweries, hospital, churches, numerous shops, public buildings and a rail connection to Kalgoorlie. Due to the large amount of gold that was being extracted during the late nineteenth century, there was even a stock exchange. However, by the 1920s the town was largely abandoned. These days, just one hotel remains open, although there are evocative ruins all around the old town-site that help visitors capture a glimpse of what the town would have been like once upon a time.
Fifty kilometres west of Broad Arrow, Ora Banda was another old mining settlement that has all but vanished, although the pub is still in business and a few other crumbling buildings remain. Kookynie, about 157 kilometres north of Kalgoorlie, was also once a thriving mining town with a population of around 3,500 in 1907, complete with numerous services including seven brass bands, two soft drink manufacturers, eleven pubs and the first public swimming baths on the goldfields. Modern visitors can appreciate what remains by reading the interpretative signs around the site, as they wander around.
Other ghost towns within a few hundred kilometres of Kalgoorlie include Niagara Dam, Goongarrie, Kanowna, Lawlers, Widgiemooltha, and Kunanalling, although there are definitely more as well. While small towns like Coolgardie, Menzies and Leonora are still definitely alive and kicking, a wander through their historic streets can also reveal many relics from the old mining days. For more information including contacts for ghost town tours, go to the Kalgoorlie Tourism website, or call any of the following visitors centres during business hours: Kalgoorlie (08 9021 1966), Coolgardie (08 9026 6090) or Kambalda (08 9080 2115).
Big Bell A more recent gold mining ghost town is Big Bell, situated near Cue, on the Great Northern Highway, about 620 kilometres north of Perth. Established in 1936, it was the home of the Big Bell Gold Mine which was in operation until 2003, although not a lot is left any more, apart from the ruins of the large hotel and a few other relics from the past.
Ruins of the Big Bell Hotel. Image courtesy of Calistemon / Wikimedia Commons
If you're visiting the area, the old mining towns of Mount Magnet, Cue and Meekatharra are also well worth checking out, although they're certainly not ghost towns.
Situated approximately 25 kilometres south of Geraldton on the Brand Highway, the tiny deserted village of Central Greenough is one of the most picturesque and intact ghost-towns in Western Australia. First settled in the 1860s as a service centre for the local farming community, the town was once the heart of a bustling community with churches, convent, school, stores, a jail and other public buildings.
Grey's Store at Central Greenough. Image courtesy of Central Greenough Cafe and Visitors Centre
Now managed by the National Trust, Central Greenough is a popular port of call for passing travellers on the nearby Brand Highway, as well as school groups, local history enthusiasts and even ghost hunters. Apart from the fascinating history connected to the site, there is always plenty to see and do these days in Central Greenough, with markets, functions, celebrations and other events held here on a regular basis.
Surrounded to the east by the rugged and arid Pilbara countryside, and to the west by the vast Indian Ocean, Cossack has always been isolated, situated far from the Swan River Colony's major population centres, over a thousand kilometres to the south. The town was first established in 1863 and known as Tien Tsin Harbour, although its name was changed in 1872, after a visit by Governor Weld who was travelling on the HMS Cossack.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
One of Western Australia's earliest pearling settlements, it was also the first port to be established in the north-west. Like other pearling centres in the far north of Australia, many of the divers were from Asia and the town's stores included a couple of Chinese stores, a Japanese store and a Turkish bath. Despite the isolation, harsh climate and constant threat of cyclones during the wet season, the town survived and prospered until the early 1900s when the port began to silt up and by the 1950s it was totally abandoned.
Old general store - Cossack. Image courtesy of Five Years / Wikimedia Commons
These days the main buildings that visitors can see are several old bluestone structures including the town's original courthouse which houses an interesting assortment of artefacts and photos from the early days. To learn more about Cossack, check out this article from the Sydney Morning Herald.
Also in the Pilbara region, the settlement of Old Onslow was established in 1885, near the mouth of the Ashburton River. However, like Cossack, the isolated port experienced many difficulties such as repeated cyclones, flooding and silting. In the 1920s the town was relocated to nearby Beadon Point, which was renamed Onslow.
Old Onslow ruins. Image courtesy of Calistemon / Wikimedia Commons
Today little remains of the abandoned town, but it's still an interesting spot to visit. The remaining buildings are largely in ruins and include a jail, courthouse, police station and police quarters. To learn more about Old Onslow and how to get there, phone the Onslow Visitors Centre on 08 9184 6644 or email them at [email protected].
Old Hall's Creek
Another ghost town that provides an insight into the isolation and austerity of early outback life is Old Hall's Creek, situated in the Kimberley region of the far north. Located approximately fourteen kilometres from the present township of Hall's Creek, it was the site of Western Australia's first goldrush and at its peak boasted a post office, hospital, police station, stores and hotel. During the late 1940s and early 50s the town was gradually relocated, due to an ongoing lack of water and a rerouting of the highway between Derby and Kununurra. These days is simply an evocative assortment of crumbling mud brick ruins, some street signs and an old graveyard, surrounded by the rugged and breathtakingly beautiful Kimberley landscape.
If you're planning a trip up north and would like to learn more about Old Hall's Creek, phone the local visitors' centre on 08 9168 6262 or email [email protected].
Still remote, although much closer to Perth, the Wheatbelt region covers a vast area, extending from near Geraldton, in the north, down to the south coast. The bread-basket of Western Australia, the towns here are classic rural hamlets that serve as commercial and social centres for the surrounding farming properties. However, while many continue to flourish, others are struggling, due to the challenges of climatic conditions and economic issues. Some are practically deserted, with just a few stalwart residents remaining.
The old deserted shops of Kununoppin are a photographer's dream
A drive through the Wheatbelt is a fascinating experience, and many of these towns appear almost as though time hasn't progressed beyond the early twentieth century, with classic (albeit empty) old hotels, historic shop fronts and abandoned houses. While most aren't totally deserted, they still have a delightful otherworldly feel to them that's very similar to the ambiance of a genuine ghost town. While several towns like this exist along the Great Eastern Highway, the best examples are usually 'off the beaten track', along smaller roads. To see what I mean, check out the row of old deserted shops at Kununoppin, between Nungarin and Trayning (on the Nungarin - Wyalkatchem Road) that appear as though they've been time-warped from the 1920s, or the seemingly abandoned town of Walgoolan, between Merredin and Bodallin on the Great Eastern Highway.
Great article! I visited some ghost towns in America's west from the gold rush era - they look quite similar. There is something so intriguing about these places that have been deserted for years, but still look like someone could come home at any moment.