Buildings now demolished
Old buses in Yampire Gorge
Mt. Herbert. Historic photos : A truck carting blue
The town as it once was
of the most beautiful and tragic areas in the state. The
gorges are among the most striking and haunting you will
The town serviced asbestos mines which led to the deaths of
many of the town’s inhabitants. The dust created by the mining
operations led to the development of specific and deadly cancers
which have claimed the lives of many people who worked in the
town. The company responsible for the mine knew the effects of
blue asbestos dust, but did little to protect the workers or
their families. Instead of paying compensation to the sufferers,
long court battles ensured that most died before any settlement
could be reached.
The dangers of asbestos dust were known at least as early as
1900. The first diagnosed case of mesothelioma in Australia
was in 1960. The worker had been employed by CSR at
Wittenoom. Dr. Jim McNaulty, who made the diagnosis, warned
CSR of the danger but they ignored him.
If you visit the area stay well away from the tailing heaps,
which are clearly visible near the mining sites.
The town is still maintained by a few die-hards – no pun
intended – but most of the old buildings have been removed.
It was named after
Sir Edward Horne Wittenoom
** (1854 -1936)
a politician (Minister for Mines). Strange that
politicians are now so determined to destroy the town.
** Another source quotes Frank Wittenoom as the source of
the name. (Our research indicates that E.H. and F. Wittenoom
were in fact brothers.) Frank was said to be a partner of Lang
Hancock who initially developed the site before selling out to
CSR in 1943. (We haven’t managed to confirm this and as Frank
Wittenoom died in 1939 we think it may be unlikely.)
Frank Wittenoom (1855-1939) originally owned Mulga Downs and
sold it to George Hancock. This may be the source of the
Wittenoom – Hancock partnership. George Hancock was Lang
Hancock’s father. To muddy the water even further Frank’s
correct name was Frederick Francis Burdett Wittenoom.
The town was gazetted in 1950 and in 1951 it changed to
Wittenoom Gorge. In 1974 it went back to being just
The asbestos mine was in operation from 1943 to 1966, and
despite the health risks associated with asbestos dust, it
only closed for economic reasons. Over 150,000 tonnes of
asbestos were shipped out from
Of the 20,000 people who lived and worked in Wittenoom over
1,000 have already died from asbestos related diseases.
Projections suggest that 25% of those who worked there will
die directly as a result of exposure to asbestos dust.
It may seem very strange to us now - knowing what we do
about the dangers of asbestos - but asbestos tailings were
mixed with the red soil in gardens, schools and roads to
break up the monotony of the red earth. Many children played
in the tailings and a great many were to die as a result of
The asbestos disaster that occurred at Wittenoom rates
alongside other major industrial catastrophes such as
Chernobyl and Bhopal in the number of people that will
Not for a moment trying to negate or belittle the terrible
effects that the blue asbestos had on workers in Wittenoom, it
has to be admitted that there are some very spurious figures
quoted about the number of people who will die. One report
stated that by 2020 (that’s 54 years AFTER the mine closed) 3000
of Wittenoom’s workers will have died. Assuming for a moment
that most workers were at least 20 years old when they were
there, the number of 3000 dead by 2020 would be hardly
surprising in any town.
The truth about
Wittenoom (a short film)
If you go to the Pilbara and you don't go to Wittenoom and
Karijini you haven't seen anything. This is an ABSOLUTE must
see area, you will never see anything like it anywhere else.
I still get chills down my spine thinking about the first
time I saw it in 1995. Sadly since then many of the old
buildings including the pub, fire station, hospital and many
houses have been removed. Wittenoom Gorge is getting harder
to negotiate as the road is not being maintained. You will
need a high clearance vehicle to get to the end of the gorge
as of 2004.
Yampire Gorge is now totally blocked and you can no longer
get through to Karijini this way.
Is there still a risk of disease from asbestos at Wittenoom?
Possibly, but for short visits the risk is VERY slight. In
our opinion the beauty of the area is well worth any slight
risk that may still exist.
One odd piece of information: We have read that a young Rolf
Harris worked in Wittenoom before embarking on a more
successful career in entertainment.
Walking through the old abandoned houses, looking as the
bits and pieces left behind, seeing little stone pathways with
rock edges put in by the people who are now long gone, left me
with a great sense of melancholy. Fragments of people’s lives,
echoes of a tragedy that never should have happened. I find it a
very strange place because of the beauty and because of the
deaths of so many people who worked and lived there. The fact
that the government is ‘hell bent’ on erasing the town from the
map and pretending that it never existed, fills me with disgust.
The town should have been left as it was, as a memorial to those
whose lives were needlessly taken by greedy uncaring business.
The power station in Wittenoom was closed down and the town
has been de-gazetted by the W.A. government. This was done
so that access to the town could gradually be choked off.
There will probably come a time when the town and nearby
gorge are inaccessible. The government is so scared of
litigation over asbestos in the area that access to this
wonderful area will be lost to the public. What a shame then
that when the dangers were first discovered the government
of the day sat on its hands and did nothing.
every building seen in the video we took in 1995 has now
been demolished and very little of the old town remains.
was so moved by this place, the beauty and the tragedy that
I wrote about it myself as follows:
A melancholy little town
half dead and half alive
Polluted by a deadly waste
it struggles to survive
A mining town where workers came
from here and overseas
They never knew their lives were touched
by fatal lung disease
They toiled beneath a clear blue sky
through rains and through the heat
A town in deadly paradise
asbestos on their feet
Much later when the men grew sick
and then began to die
The company denied their claims
but knew it was a lie
In court they dragged the cases out
until the bitter end
and wives now widows went without
their lovers and their friends
The deadly dust lies everywhere
but some still struggle on
The pub is standing empty now
the petrol station gone
The miners ghosts are wandering
the silent lonely town
Their spirits haunt the empty streets
that they had once walked down
Check out more ballads at