Just over an hour north of Menzies is Gwalia which is essentially a ghost town. The Sons of Gwalia gold mine, closed in 1963. Just four kilometres north is the town of Leonora, which remains the centre for the area’s mining and pastoral industries.
Underground mining at the Sons of Gwalia began in 1897, and continued until 1963. During this time it produced 2.644 million ounces (82.24 tonnes) of gold down to a depth of 1,080 metres (3,543ft) via an incline shaft. Sons of Gwalia grew to become the largest Western Australian gold mine outside Kalgoorlie, and the deepest of its kind in Australia. The 2.644 million ounces recovered (1897–1963) amounts in value to US$4.34 billion (A$4.55 billion) at August 2012 prices.
Shaped from repurposed old timber and corrugated iron sheets, the town of Gwalia sprang up from the red dirt surrounding the goldmine like wildflowers after the rain. Home to 1200 people – including future-US president Herbert Hoover – its patchwork streets were soon filled with shops, houses, a school, church and a community centre, along with the impressive Gwalia State Hotel, a stylish brick building that was the place to be seen on an evening or a weekend.
From the website it is written – “On the 6th December 1963 the Directors’ met to discuss the mine’s losses and discouraging geological reports. The decision is made to close the mine on 31st December, however the Mine closes three days early. Extra trains were arranged to manage the exodus of people leaving their homes and belongings. Gwalia’s population dropped from 1,200 to 40 in less than three weeks.”
A historical preservation effort began in 1971 to restore and preserve the town’s remaining homes and buildings, as well as the mine’s original structures (headframe and winder building).
As written on the website of gwalia.org.au, “The Gwalia experience is three-dimensional: step inside the quaint cottages built of corrugated iron, timber and whitewashed hessian and imagine a miner’s wife cooking dinner on the cast iron range, while her husband toils far underground to support his family and their children recite their lessons in the State school. Look through the windows of Mazza’s Store, where the shopper could buy everything from two pounds of flour for the day’s baking to a length of fabric to make a frock for a dance at the State Hotel – or wander through Patroni’s Guest Home next door, for decades a home from home for single men employed at the Sons of Gwalia Mine.”
The buildings have been faithfully restored and have a number of information boards explaining their usage and history. As you enter each one, you literally feel a ghostly presence of those who lived and worked there. In one house there is an upright piano and as you look at it, you think you can see the keys actually move, and hear the melancholy sounds of an old hymn being played. It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
MAZZA’S STORE – “Mazza’s Store was a ‘one-stop shop which supplied all household basics, plus a range of imported items sought by the migrant community. All goods arrived by rail and whenever the train arrived- either six in the morning or at midnight – the store would open to process mail and pack and sell the fresh produce.”
The first mine manager was a young American mining engineer named Herbert Hoover, who later became the 31st President of the United States. The mine manager’s house Hoover designed and which bears his name stands on the summit of “Staff Hill” in the Museum Complex. The Gwalia Museum’s extensive collection of objects, documents and photographs which sketch the history of the mine and showcase the diverse cultures and commercial and domestic life that created Gwalia’s enduring legacy is actually housed in the old mine administration buildings. Next to them is Australia’s only surviving timber incline headframe.
At the top of the hill you come to Hoover House which is now a bed and breakfast and function centre. It is open to the public and there is a lovely little Cafe where we indulged in a yummy afternoon tea. The house sits in beautifully manicured lawns and gardens and overlooks the open pit of the modern working gold mine.
We highly recommend allowing a couple of days to explore this townsite and museum. It is fascinating and full of so much history.