Town History

​Coolgardie - Culture and History

November 17, 2008

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'It swarmed with diggers and speculators when the teams arrived. Auctioneers bawled from their rostrums set up in the open. Goods were sold before they left the camels' backs', is the way Katherine Susannah Prichard described the town in The Roaring Nineties.

The Coolgardie area was first explored by H M Lefroy in 1863 and by C C Hunt (1864) whose waterholes run all the way from the western coast across the southern half of Western Australia. It was as a result of Hunt's efforts that the area became accessible to Europeans.

Gold was discovered in the area by Arthur Wellesly Bayley who, with his partner William Ford, rode into Southern Cross with 554 ounces (16.8 kg) of gold which he had found at Fly Flat in 1892. It is worth noting that in the early days Coolgardie was variously known as Bayley's Find, Fly Flat, the Old Camp and the Old Diggings.

The actual meaning of the name 'Coolgardie' has caused a great deal of confusion. Some sources suggest that it comes from the Aboriginal words 'Koolgoor-biddie' meaning 'the mulga tree in the hollow' while others have suggested that 'golgardi' was a name given to a prominent water hole, while still others claim that 'golgardi' (changed to Coolgardie by Warden Finnerty) was the Aboriginal name for the district. In her book The Roaring Nineties Katherine Susannah Prichard insists that 'Cookardie, the blacks called the rocky pool at the end of the low ridge. The first prospectors didn't care what the blacks called it. Coolgardie was near enough for them.'

Such was the excitement at Bayley's discovery that it prompted the greatest gold rush in Australian history. Camels and horses were hired or men simply walked the rough 192 km bush track from Southern Cross. Given the climate and the harshness of the conditions it is not surprising that someone penned the lines:

Damn Coolgardie! Damn the track!

Damn it there and damn it back!

Damn the country! Damn the weather!

Damn the goldfields altogether!

The development of the town was typical goldfields hysteria. By 1896 the railway had arrived and by 1898 it was the third largest town in Western Australia (after Perth and Fremantle) with a population of 15 000 (with another 10 000 in the area) serviced by three breweries, seven newspapers, and 26 hotels.

The town was laid out and named in 1893 and it became a municipality the following year. The Post Office opened in 1895 and the following year electricity and a swimming pool enhanced the hard life of the miners. By 1897 the level of enthusiasm about the potential of the region was such that over 700 mining companies had been floated in London. The water pipeline arrived in 1903 and a year earlier the town had seen the construction of the State Battery.

By World War I the town was in decline. People had moved to Kalgoorlie where the gold was more plentiful and more reliable. By 1921 Coolgardie had ceased to be a municipality. It had brief periods of revitalisation when the price of gold improved. There was a flurry of activity during the Depression and in the 1980s, when the price of gold soared, a number of small operations started up. The title of 'ghost town', while no longer true, was nearly a reality when the population of this grand town dropped to less than 200.