WANowandThen.com

 


WITTENOOM

 

HEMA Map reference 78/F5

 

22 14' 17" S 118 19' 52" E

 

 

 

 

 

 

Statistics

 

Km from Perth

949

Population

262

Rainfall

246mm (124.6)

Max Temp

29C (46.9)

Min Temp

14.2C (-2.2)

Autogas

 

Telecentre

 

 

Caravan Parks

 

Auski

 

08 9176 6988

 

Services

 

Nothing available

 

Attractions

 

Gorge.

 

Swimming hole

Stunning scenery

Abandoned houses

 

Buildings now demolished

General store

Fire brigade

Hospital

Morgue

Houses

(C) Caroline Brocx

(C) Caroline Brocx

Old buses in Yampire Gorge

(C) Caroline Brocx

Mt. Herbert. Historic photos : A truck carting blue asbestos.

(C) gladysclancy

The town as it once was

Hotel

Race course

Description

 

One of the most beautiful and tragic areas in the state. The gorges are among the most striking and haunting you will find anywhere.

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 Wittenoom again.

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
Cossack and Point Samson. 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 exposure.

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 ultimately die.

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 CSR and 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.

Personal observations:

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.


Almost every building seen in the video we took in 1995 has now been demolished and very little of the old town remains.

 

I was so moved by this place, the beauty and the tragedy that I wrote about it myself as follows:

 

Wittenoom

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

 

(C) 1995

 

Check out more ballads at http://www.wanowandthen.com/Ballads/index.html