Leonora and Gwalia ghost towns

Chris Whitelaw — 30 May 2019
In the trenches

In the Northern Goldfields of Western Australia, 830km north-east of Perth, stand the twin towns of Leonora and Gwalia. Both were established in the late-1890s, only 4km apart, with a common heritage in gold mining, but today they are very different places. 

Leonora is the largest town north of Kalgoorlie, serving as the transport and commercial hub for the area's mining and pastoral industries. In stark contrast, Gwalia is a ghost town, eerily frozen in time, exactly as it was on the day it was abandoned when its raison d’etre, the Sons of Gwalia gold mine, closed abruptly in 1963. The deserted streets that once bustled with a 1200-strong population now stand in mute testimony to a vanished era of wealth and prosperity.

These ‘Golden Twins’ are situated on the western edge of Australia’s largest desert, the Great Victoria — a vast, sparsely populated region of 424,500 square kilometres covered by ochre-red dune, grasslands, gibber plains and salt lakes, stretching from the goldfields of Western Australia to the Gawler Ranges in South Australia. The region receives little rain — a meagre 200-250mm a year — and this is irregular and unreliable. Temperatures are extreme, with summer daytimes reaching into the scorching 40s and winter nights below freezing.  

Much of the Goldfields region is vegetated by open eucalypt woodlands and mulga shrub scattered over plains of resilient spinifex. When it rains in the spring, the desert bursts into bloom with swathes of wildflowers that appear seemingly overnight, transforming the red landscape into a sea of yellow, white and mauve. Highly desert-adapted fauna lives here, including a large number of reptiles across more than 100 recorded species. 

From Leonora, sealed roads radiate through all points of the compass to Kalgoorlie-Boulder, 235km in the south, Mt Magnet, 300km to the west, and the isolated outback communities of Laverton, 100km to the east, and Wiluna, 300km to the north, where the Goldfields Highway ends at the threshold of the Canning Stock Route.

For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, the area around Leonora was inhabited by the Wangkathaa Aboriginal people, who comprised eight tribal groups sharing a common language. They lived by traditional means and customs in family groups scattered across the harsh, arid environment. Belying a reputation as the "most fierce, wild and untamable" of all Indigenous people in Western Australia, the Wangkathaa revealed the vital water sources and precious minerals of their country to European explorers and prospectors. 

As mining and pastoral settlement pushed into their land, the Aboriginal people were forced to draw closer to the European camps and settlements of the new arrivals. Some became a part of town life, engaged in white households, or worked on pastoral stations and in local mines.

Today, more than a quarter of Leonora’s population are of Indigenous descent, whose native title interests are represented by the Goldfields Aboriginal Land and Sea Council Corporation. 

The Gwalia Museum holds a small collection of Indigenous boomerangs and spears which, together with photographs, provide a glimpse into Aboriginal culture in the Leonora-Gwalia area. 

The first European to explore the Leonora district was John Forrest in 1869, during an unsuccessful search for signs of Ludwig Leichhardt's expedition that had disappeared 20 years earlier. Forrest's party made camp near a distinctive conical hill, which he named Mount Leonora after a female relative.

GOLDEN OPPORTUNITIES

In May 1896, gold was discovered near the base of Mount Leonora by prospectors Carlson, White and Glendinning, who named their claim 'Sons of Gwalia' in honour of Thomas and Ernest Tobias, their Welsh financiers. (Gwalia is an ancient name for Wales.) The new find was only one of a number of reefs opened up in the Mount Leonora district in that year, but it was to prove the most successful. The prospectors later sold their claim to G.W. Hall for £5000, who recouped his entire investment in the first month. 

In January 1898, the Sons of Gwalia Ltd was launched on the London Stock Exchange, raising £300,000 capital for a large-scale development. As well as holding the controlling financial interest, the London-based engineering firm of Bewick, Moreing & Co were engaged as managing consultants and appointed a 23-year old geologist and mining engineer as general manager at the mine. His name was Herbert Hoover, who later became the 31st President of the United States of America (1929-1933). 

Hoover’s stay was brief, only six months, but during that time he instituted many radical measures to improve production efficiency and reduce operating costs. 

One of these was to employ contract labour from a pool of European migrants willing to work for lower wages, bringing him into conflict with the Miners’ Union which had already organised a number of strikes on the WA goldfields in a bid for better pay and conditions.

Hoover also designed and oversaw the construction of the Manager’s Residence and other office buildings on Staff Hill overlooking the mine operations, as well as a timber incline headframe, the largest in Australia and one of very few 19th Century timber headframes of any size still in existence world-wide. Hoover returned to Gwalia in 1902 as a partner in Bewick Moreing and manager of all of their interests in Western Australia, which included 20 mines accounting for almost 37 per cent of the gold produced in WA and employing nearly 20 per cent of the state’s miners.

As the Sons of Gwalia mine developed, workers settled nearby, some building rustic shanties of timber and corrugated iron, while most single men continued to live in a cluster of campsites known as the 'Gwalia Block'. The town of Gwalia was born and within a decade boasted a general store and co-operative, several churches, a school, a hall and recreation facilities that included the state's first public swimming pool and the first state-owned hotel (the State Hotel, 1903). 

Although lagging somewhat behind Gwalia in population, the town of Leonora also developed quickly around the turn of the century, “in every respect a credit to the municipality” with council chambers, kerosene lamp street lighting, formed gravel footpaths and kerbing, seven hotels, two banks, a telegraph office and many shops and businesses. As the towns’ populations burgeoned at their peaks of around 1100, a steam tramway was built to connect them, the first of its kind in WA, and later electrified by a generating station that also provided power to the mines.

FORTUNE AND FLOURISH 

Over the next few decades the fortunes of the Sons of Gwalia mine and the surrounding community rose and fell. Soaring production was brought to a standstill for three years after a fire destroyed half the mine in 1921. Almost the entire workforce (about 400 men) were laid off, producing a downturn that reduced the combined populations of both towns by half. When the mine reopened, new migrants from Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia swelled the population, businesses reopened and the towns flourished once again.

The mine undertook major redevelopment but did not become profitable again until the gold price rose in the early 1930s. World War II bought labour shortages, exacerbated by the internment in 1940 of the Italian nationals amongst the workforce. Production fell sharply along with the price of gold. By the early 1960s, the mine’s lode structures were taxing existing techniques and profitability. After a run of annual losses, accumulating debts in excess of £366,000, and a pessimistic geological survey, Bewick & Moreing announced that it would close the Sons of Gwalia Mine on 31 December 1963. Four days before that deadline, a serious accident damaged the headframe causing operations to cease immediately. The mine was finished and Gwalia’s population disappeared almost overnight. 

During its 66 years of operation up to that time, the Sons of Gwalia Mine was the largest Western Australian gold mine outside Kalgoorlie, and the deepest of its kind in Australia (at 1080m), producing 2.644 million ounces (82.24 tonnes) of gold amounting in value to A$4.55 billion at present day prices. 

Spurred by a tremendous rise in gold prices, the Sons of Gwalia Mine was reopened in 1983 by a new company as an open-cut superpit, combined with underground mining using more modern and efficient extraction methods, which produced 2.4 million ounces of gold. 

When Sons of Gwalia NL went into receivership in 2005, its assets and operations were purchased by St Barbara Ltd, which continues to mine the Gwalia lode to depths in excess of 1600m. Since 2008, the mine has yielded more than 100,000 ounces of gold with an estimated 1.9 million ounces in reserve.

Today, the Gwalia Ghost Town is one of the most fascinating places in the Northern Goldfields, offering a unique three-dimensional experience of the region’s rich mining history — a life-sized diorama of rustic miners’ cottages of corrugated iron and hessian, weatherboard shops with faded signs and peeling paintwork, and the once-grand State Hotel now a lonely pub with no beer. Visitors can explore dozens of these well-preserved buildings and, with the aid of a map from the museum (also available as a smartphone app), learn about their history and gain a special insight into the town’s early mining community.

On the hill overlooking the Gwalia settlement are the newly-renovated Mine Manager’s House (now Hoover House B&B), the Assay Office (now the museum shop and archives), the Mine Office (housing the Museum Collection), and many fascinating large-scale exhibits including the headframe, steam winder room, three steam engines and the first passenger tram that connected the twin towns. The museum displays a huge collection of objects, artifacts, documents and photographs showcasing the life and times of the mine and the people who worked there, recognising the contribution of the migrant community, and paying tribute to the resilience and ingenuity of the pioneers of this remote mining town. 

A short walk from the museum takes visitors to an impressive lookout for a panoramic view over the current open-cut mining operation. There is so much to see and do that a couple of hours should be allowed to cover the museum precinct and explore the historic townsite.

OLD WORLD CHARM

Leonora was much less affected than Gwalia by the mine’s closure in 1963, remaining a pastoral hub and home to the Shire of Leonora's administration. With its picturesque main street and historic buildings, Leonora combines an authentic, rustic charm with modern facilities and services for a shire of around 1500 people. 

A well-equipped, purpose-built recreation centre in the CBD is the go-to venue for a range of fitness and sporting pursuits, with two air-conditioned squash courts, a gymnasium and an indoor basketball court, which doubles for indoor cricket, volleyball and badminton. It also houses a modern aquatic centre, including a 25m lap pool, as well as outdoor tennis and netball courts and a grassed oval. The town also boasts a challenging 18-hole golf course, a new lawn bowls club, and a gun club with some of the finest shooting facilities in Australia. 

For lovers of the ‘Sport of Kings’, the Leonora Racing Club hosts three meetings each year culminating in the Leonora Cup in October. Annual events include a clay target shooting competition and the popular Golden Gift Carnival, Australia’s richest mile running race combined with a weekend of entertainment. (In 2019, the Leonora Golden Gift WA Day Long Weekend falls on 1-3 June.) 

Travellers are well catered for at the Leonora Caravan Park, a friendly oasis in the centre of town, featuring powered caravan sites, communal BBQ area and camp kitchen, outdoor fireplace, self-contained cabins, budget single rooms with ensuite and laundry facilities. 

The park is a popular base for prospectors who return each year looking for gold and sharing their stories around the campfire at the end of the day. It is also an ideal base for families exploring the famous Golden Quest Discovery Trail and the Gwalia Ghost Town. Accommodation is available at two hotels with dining and a motel, and yu can get fuel and supplies at two roadhouses/service stations (with cafes), a supermarket, butcher, pharmacy, newsagent, and liquor and general hardware stores.

GWALIA AT WAR

At the outbreak of The Great War in August 1914, the clarion call to arms went out through the British Empire and was heard in the remote twin towns of Leonora and Gwalia, deep in the Northern Goldfields. Western Australians strongly supported Australia’s involvement in the war and over the next four years, 19 per cent (32,231) of the state’s male population enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, the highest percentage of any state.

As soon as war was declared, enlistment notices appeared in the Leonora Miner and were answered by many local men who were recruited into the 11th Battalion, one of the earliest raised in the war and the first in WA. 

The residents of Leonora and Gwalia threw their support behind the recruits, with sporting clubs and lodges farewelling them as they left for the training camp at Blackboy Hill, east of Perth. 

The newly-formed Leonora-Gwalia Patriotic Fund began raising money for the Red Cross, Trench Comforts Fund and the Belgian Relief Fund, and to help provide parcels for the soldiers in the trenches and hospitals. The Sons of Gwalia mine workers also donated part of their wages to the Patriotic Fund throughout the war. Concerts, fancy dress balls, film evenings and socials became an important part of the town’s social activity, while the Leonora Jockey Club held Patriotic Meetings to assist the Wounded Soldiers’ Fund with races such as the Dardanelles Dash, the Allied Handicap and the Gallipoli Gift.

THE REGION’S BRAVEST

At least 85 employees of the Sons of Gwalia mine served in the First World War and more than a quarter never came home. Metallurgists, engineers, clerks, electricians, turners, miners, pipe layers and labourers — aged between 18 and 46 — fought, and died, on battlefields from Gallipoli to the Western Front. They all served bravely, some of them conspicuously so, earning mentions in despatches, promotions in rank and the highest awards for gallantry. Roy Retchford was among the first ashore at Gallipoli and later saw some of the bloodiest fighting on the Western Front, being twice mentioned in despatches and awarded the Military Cross. 

He was killed in action in June 1918 and is buried in Borre British Cemetery near Hazebrouck, France.

Some of the Gwalia men were recruited into the Australian Mining Corps, turning their mining expertise from the getting of gold to the gaining of ground. Raised in late 1915, the Corps’ tunnelling companies carried out operations beneath the trenches and enemy lines of the Western Front. Their most critical operation occurred on 7 June 1917 at Messines Ridge when a 14.5km section of the German front line was blown sky high, launching the Third Battle of Ypres. In a letter to a friend in Leonora, Sapper Bob Clinton later wrote: “At 3.10am our company blew its two mines. At the same second 18 other mines also exploded along the front…First, (it was) like an earthquake, followed by flying debris; then a vast sheet of flame lasting for about three-quarters of a minute; then volumes of black smoke.”

Welcome Home Committees were formed in Gwalia and Leonora, and returning soldiers were hailed as heroes at civic receptions and private parties that featured music recitals, patriotic toasts and the national anthem. A Repatriation Committee was also set up and the local branch of the Returned Soldiers Association was led by returned Gwalia mine clerk Douglas Cuthbertson.

THEIR LASTING LEGACY

The streets of Leonora were almost deserted late on the night of 11 November 1918 when the news that Germany had signed the Armistice was posted outside the Leonora Post Office. “As if by magic”, reported the Leonora Miner on 16 November, “the whole town was alive with a joyous stream of the populace, many of the male population being in their night attire”. The spontaneous celebration filled the main street, fireworks starred the sky and bells peeled from churches and Leonora Fire Station. Young people marched the streets blowing whistles and beating kerosene tins, then commandeered the Federal Theatre and danced until after daybreak. The next day was declared a holiday, with a children's sports meeting, a street march and free entertainment at the Glideway rink and Federal.

Leonora and Gwalia celebrated the end of the war, but behind the public gaiety hung the long, quiet grief borne by those whose sons, husbands and mates never returned. Over 6000 Western Australians were killed and 15,900 wounded, a staggering casualty rate of over 68 per cent of enlistees. While many returning combatants were able to successfully resume civilian life, others were often physically or mentally incapacitated, reliant on their families for support and assistance with daily needs. In the post-War years, over 7 per cent of WA's population was in receipt of repatriation benefits. Many died prematurely from the effects of the war.

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ghosttowns WA travel destination gold mining

Photographer

Chris Whitelaw