The Coolgardie of today is a pleasant inland town, which has retained many aspects of its rich and colourful past.
Today the Shire of Coolgardie has a population of approximately 5,000 people and encompasses an area of 30,400 square kilometres incorporating
four townships namely, Coolgardie, Kambalda, Kambalda West and Widgiemooltha.
The township of Coolgardie is situated 558 kilometres from Perth
and 38 kilometres from Kalgoorlie. The townsites of Kambalda and Kambalda West are situated approximately 640 kilometres from Perth and 50 kilometres
The local industries within the Shire of Coolgardie consist of Gold Mining, Nickel Mining, Pastoral, Tourism, Commercial/Retail and Light Industrial.
There are a number of different suggestions about how the town was named. One says it is a corruption of the Aboriginal words, koolgoor-biddie meaning
'tree by the waterhole', another says it is the Aboriginal name of a local type of tree 'Cholla-Garda', a third says the name was given to the town by
after a nearby gnamma hole called golgardi by the Aborigines, yet another says it was the name of a boy who found water there and finally
one that says the name comes from the native word for the bungarra - a large monitor lizard.
One thing is certain, Warden Finnerty was the person responsible for sending telegram No. 3098 to Perth which read: 'Very rich quartz reef... Gold has
been picked up on the surface four miles square in granite, ironstone and greenstone.' and thus sparked the largest gold rush in the nation's history.
The 'Coolgardie safe' which may have originated here, was a hessian bag covering a box in which food was kept. Dripping water kept the sacking wet and
evaporation helped keep the food inside cool. A tray at the bottom filled with water also kept ants away. The man credited with inventing the Coolgardie
safe is Frank Kemp who came to the Coolgardie area from New South Wales. A descendant of Frank Kemp is Dean Kemp a well known football player for the West
Coolgardie's real attraction today is to give visitors an insight into early pioneering life. The many heritage listed buildings combined with a well
signposted heritage walk around the town make it one of the 'must see' places in the goldfields.
The first Europeans to explore this area were H.M. Lefroy
and C.C. Hunt who were responsible for discovering a series
of waterholes that helped open the inland up to further settlement.
rode into Southern Cross on 17th September 1892 and deposited 554 ounces (almost 16 kilograms !) of gold with the Mining Warden. He and his partner
William Ford had found the gold at Fly Flat 120 miles to the east.
When Bayley and Ford arrived at Fly Flat they discovered a claim had already been pegged with
the number 1888 on a piece of tin attached to one of the posts. It will probably never be known who pegged the claim as two skeletons were found in a nearby gully
where they had been speared by Aborigines.
Within hours of the news leaking out, a frenzied rush to the area now known as Coolgardie had begun and with it one of the greatest movements of people in Australia's
history. Bayley and Ford seem to have been closely followed by three men, one was called Tommy Talbot.
Talbot always claimed that he and his friends discovered the
gold reef that was to become known as Bayley's Reward. Ford is said to have pulled a gun on Talbot who had no choice but to back down. What ever the real story it is
sure that Bayley and Ford were the ones to prosper from the discovery of gold.
Bayley may have found out about the gold from Gilles A. McPherson
who had staggered into Bayley's camp and after being given food and drink told Bayley about a gold
find to the east of Southern Cross. The lack of water in the area had driven McPherson away but Bayley remembered the conversation and some time later he and Ford
set out to look for the gold.
Six months after Bayley's find there were thousands of people living in tents on the Goldfields and Western Australia's population had increased by about 400%.
They arrived by bicycle, dray, horse or carrying their loads on their back, all intent on striking it rich.
Many of those who came seeking fortunes found only hardship, sickness and death as the booming settlement suffered the rigors associated with inadequate housing,
food and medical supplies. Water became more precious and expensive than gold. It was only sheer determination and tenacity of purpose that allowed the survivors
In the early days there was no one of authority on the gold fields and miners had to keep law and order themselves. There were any number of fights and some thefts
but compared to the American 'Wild' West the West Australian gold fields were fairly tame. The miners had a way of administering their own justice that was known
as the 'roll up'. Any miner with a grievance to settle would begin banging on a tin dish until a number of other miners had gathered to hear his complaints.
A jury and Judge would then be selected from the assembled men and the complaint heard. The decision of the Judge regarding punishment was binding and most
serious offenders were quickly driven off the gold fields. 'Roll ups' continued to be used to enforce law and order on the fields until about 1903.
It was not the most hospitable country and the 190km trek from Southern Cross (itself a remote town) must have been a bit too much for the writer of the following lines:
"Damn Coolgardie! Damn the track!
Damn it there and damn it back!
Damn the country! Damn the weather!
Damn the goldfields altogether!"
Businesses sprang up to serve the people that arrived on the gold fields and within a decade Coolgardie, with its population of 16,000, became the third largest town
in Western Australia. Its growth spawned the development of the Goldfields Water Scheme and Eastern Goldfields Railway.
By 1896 there was a post office and 26 hotels (the miners were a thirsty bunch) and even electricity and a swimming pool. Scheme water arrived in 1903 but all this was
not enough when the gold began to run out.
Along with a large number of pubs to cater for thirsty miners there was no lack of reading material. By 1895 Coolgardie had 7 newspapers, Coolgardie Miner, Chronicle,
Golden Age, Mining Review Courier, Mining Review and T'Othersider. Not to be outdone Kalgoorlie had the Western Argus, Kalgoorlie Miner, Sunday sun and at Boulder was
the Boulder Star.
As the surface gold ran out many prospectors left the fields disillusioned and penniless. Others headed inland to Kalgoorlie and later worked for mining companies for as
little as $6.00 per week.
In March 1899 the Coolgardie International Mining and Industrial Exhibition was opened and ran until the 1st of July. The exhibition failed to get support from the other
colonies (apart from South Australia) but it was well supported locally with over 61,000 people attending over the 4 months it operated.
The onset of the Great War and the resulting depression in the price of gold drew many prospectors away from the Goldfields and so began the inevitable decline of Coolgardie.
The original mine at Bayley's Reward continued to produce until 1963. When it finally closed, over half a million ounces of gold had been recovered. Bayley and Ford left
the area a rich men after selling Bayley's Reward for 24,000 pounds and Bayley's South for 40,000 pounds. Bayley didn't long enjoy his wealth as he died at the age of 27.
Ford did much better living until 80. Talbot made a fortune not from gold but from property and died in Perth in 1952.
There is a placard outside the town cemetery which gives today's visitor an insight into the harshness of early time on the goldfields.
"The register of burials in the Coolgardie Cemetery makes sad reading. Of the first 32 burials the name of 15 was unknown. Of the first 61 buried the names of 29 could not be
ascertained. In the rush for gold identities had no place. There are frequent entries in the register of 'male child' and 'female child' and the corresponding entry 'fever'.
The denomination of many was described as 'general'. In many instances the burial service was conducted by the part time undertaker. No one else was present. The bodies were
carried to the cemetery in a spring cart. Between 1894 and 1899 there were 1108 burials. From 1961 to 1966 there were only 43."
The lack of water was not only a problem for washing and drinking as was shown when a fire broke out in October 1895. It practically demolished the entire block bounded by
Lefroy, Bailey, Woodward and Hunt streets. Two years later it happened again and building with stone instead of wood suddenly became fashionable. Not surprisingly a local fire
brigade was established with tanks of salt water put around town and a bucket brigade used to try and stop any fires. Water shortages were so bad in some seasons that the
authorities had to close the road to Coolgardie in order to stop travellers perishing along the way.
Electric lights were installed in June 1896 and piped water arrived in 1903, but by this time Coolgardie was past its heyday and Kalgoorlie was becoming the major centre for the area.
In 1913 the first successful locally built aero plane flew from Coolgardie to Kalgoorlie. With the onset of World War One the following year it was all but forgotten. It was badly damaged when it nose dived.
TALL TALES AND TRUE
The first major mining disaster
In 1897 there was a tragedy at the Mount Charlotte mine when some dynamite caught fire. The practice at the time was to use candles with naked flames and one of
these managed to get into a box of dynamite and set it on fire. The explosives did not go off but the miners fearing an explosion started climbing a nearby shaft
to get away. The fumes from the burning explosives drifted up around the men as they climbed and although they all reached the surface alive, six of them would
die in the next few hours from the fumes they had inhaled. Only one of the men exposed to the fumes survived but a miner who was not exposed and was working at a
lower level suffered no ill effects. The truth is if the men had simply moved away from the fumes instead of panicking they would all have lived to tell the tale.
Pearl Divers in the Goldfields.
On March 19th 1907 a large downpour of rain flooded an underground mine (Westralian Extension at Bonnievale) seven miles north of Coolgardie. All but one of the
miners made it to safety but Modesto Varischetti
had been trapped in an air pocket and had no way out.
It was known that Modesto had been working on level 10 and this level was by now completely flooded. His only chance would have been if he had made it to a rise
that was being made between level 10 and level 9. To see if he had made it to this rise all the debris had to be cleared from level 9 and the water level had to be lowered.
Rescuers had established he was alive by tapping on a rock wall directly above where Modesto would be if he had survived and they heard tapping in response.
Tunneling to get him out, or pumping out the water would have taken too long and Varischetti would have died before he could be reached. The mine inspector
Joshua Crabbe had an inspired idea. He was familiar with pearl diving in the North West and made enquiries about getting divers to rescue the trapped man
Two divers (Curtis
and Thomas Hearn
) were found holidaying in Perth and as luck would have it they had their gear with them. A special train was organised
to get them to the goldfields (taking 13 hours and 10 minutes to arrive) setting a new speed record which was to last for the next 50 years.
By the time the divers had arrived Varischetti had been trapped for 3 days. The divers had no knowledge of the flooded mine and during the first attempt to
reach Modesto, Curtis became entangled and was lucky to survive.
Modesto, thinking he would never escape wrote several notes for those on the surface and in one of these he said:
'Dear Maringoni Guiseppi, I cannot tell you or make you understand how it happened. There is no man that can form an idea of what speed the water was
rising at from the time I first noticed it. The water was rising so quickly that in a minute the drive was full, and I made up my mind absolutely that
God wanted me in the other world and that he was tired of me. I was prepared to accept death. I wish to tell you to be quick, that I feel as if my bones
are dying. Dear mates have pity on myself. I send you my greetings, farewell. I am your miserable friend, farewell. Modesto Varischetti.'
Two miners who had worked as divers (Frank Hughes
and a man named Fox) were located and they set to work trying to reach the air pocket. Because of the
difficulties of negotiating a submerged mine to total darkness the divers had to make 5 attempts before actually reaching the stranded man. Fox had
injured his leg so Hearne agreed to assist Hughes with the rescue.
Luckily a rock drill had been rigged in the rise and was able to still supply compressed air so Modesto would not suffocate.
There was still no way of getting him out but at least he could now be supplied with food, water and light. It took 9 days before pumps drained enough
water for Varischetti to be rescued and Frank Hughes (the diver who had been down 5 times in one day) was awarded a gold medal for his efforts.
Today gold is still being recovered near this and other sites around Coolgardie by more efficient open pit mining and modern chemical recovery methods.
In 2007 a re-enactment was held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of this amazing rescue. Michelle Roberts MLA. delivered a diving helmet to the
driver of The Varischetti Rescue Special Commemorative Prospector Service on 23 March 2007. Descendants of the main participants in the rescue were
invited to the commemorative event and all passengers on the Prospector train to Kalgoorlie during the week-long celebration were issued with a
The Chamber of Minerals and Energy's 2007 Surface Mine Emergency
Response Competition was used as a way to re-enact the rescue with divers swimming in the local pool that was covered to provide more realistic
conditions. The divers had to find a ladder, ascend it into a modified shipping container and then rescue 'Varischetti' by returning with him through
the covered pool. A number of other events were held around the town during the celebrations. You can read more about this event in this
Mine Safe publication.
Fear of Finnerty
Magistrate and mining Warden
was almost a legend on the goldfields. He was known as hard but fair and was widely respected by the miners.
One one occasion after two men were arrested and there was no where to put them, Finnerty confined them to a tent. Such was their respect for Finnerty
(and probably their fear of the consequences if they disobeyed) that they would not leave the tent even though it was a hot day. The day got progressively
hotter, and the two men got thirstier and thirstier so they hatched a plan to get some beer without leaving the tent.
When Finnerty checked on the men later in the day he found them both roaring drunk and on enquiring into how they got into that condition without
breaking their word to him, Finnerty discovered that they had pulled the tent pegs and walked to the pub under the tent. Rumour has it that he was so
amused and impressed with their ingenuity that he let them both go.
Almost a duel
The only fatal duel in the state's history was fought at Fremantle but another duel almost took place at Fly Flat near Coolgardie in the gold rush days.
The trouble was between two Americans. Bill Adams had fought on the Union side during the American Civil War and "General" Bennett had fought for the south.
There was bad blood between the two men and eventually a challenge to settle their differences with a duel was made and accepted.
They met at Fly Flat the following day and a large crowd had gathered to watch proceedings. Unknown to the participants, the seconds had only loaded the
pistols with blanks. The two men stood back to back and began to step out the allotted 20 paces. Adams turned to find that the "General" was till going,
walking off into the bush. Adams fired his pistol into the air and everyone appeared satisfied by the result. It was said afterwards that there were far
more casualties during the ensuing celebrations than during the duel.
From 1894 a number of different operators set up message services between the goldfield towns based on the humble bicycle. The riders were known as the
'specials' and companies issued their own stamps for items being sent.
This meant that the 'specials' came into competition with the official postal service and a number of threats of legal action saw the small businesses close down.
Some of the riders covered extraordinary distances. Walter Hamblin rode 320 kilometres from Coolgardie to Lake Darlot and then 960 kilometres in 7 days from
Coolgardie to Cue. One of the riders, C.H. Bamlet, was even chased by a large pack of dingoes and had to ride for his very life.
Located in the Kangaroo Hills area south west of Coolgardie was a mine site that was first called Golden Hole. (The name later changed to Londonderry.)
Prospectors discovered gold and began excavating a hole that was about a metre deep by two metres long. From that hole they extracted 8,000 ounces of gold.
A number of companies wanted to buy the prospectors out but a condition of sale was that the hole not be blasted to determine if there was any more gold deeper in the ground.
Eventually Lord Fingall consented to this condition and purchased the claim. Soon after work began it became apparent why the prospectors had made this condition,
there was virtually no gold deeper down.
Share prices in the mine collapsed and the mine closed down. Many years later suspicions arose that the prospectors had driven a shaft under the hole, found there
was no more gold and then back filled the tunnel and built their camp over the tunnel entrance.
Railway station, Open air museum, The residency, Goldfields exhibition, Bottle and curio museum, Marble Bar Hotel, Ernest Giles grave, Warden's Court,
Gaol Tree, Finnerty's House, State Battery, Tommy Talbot Park, Victoria Rock, Rowles lagoon, Kununalling.
Government Buildings, Bayley St. from 1898, Old post office 1895, Old Primary School 1897, RSL building (former Marble Bar Hotel) 1888, Ghost Inn hostel
(former Railway hotel)1898, Moran's store 1895, Denver City hotel 1898, YHA hostel 1899, St. Marys 1902, St. Anthony's convent 1898, Masonic hall 1895,
Warden Finnerty's residence 1895, Old railway station 1896, State battery 1902.