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The main street of Broken Hill

Broken Hill (including Mootwingee National Park)
Major outback centre of New South Wales and famous mining town.
Broken Hill is located on the Barrier Range in the far west of NSW, just 48 km east of the South Australian border. 1160 km west of Sydney via the Great Western, Mitchell and Barrier Highways and 304 m above sea-level it had a population in 1991 of 23 263.

'The Silver City', as it is sometimes called, is and always has been inextricably associated with the silver, lead and zinc mining. Many of the streets are named after metals, minerals and compounds, or after mine managers, leading citizens and civic leaders. The town is also the centre of the 16-million hectare West Darling pastoral industry which has 1.75 million wool-producing merino sheep, protected by a 600-km dog-proof fence.

One of the most striking aspects of the town, apart from the number of pubs, is the remarkable aridity of the region.

Drive out to the start of the Mundi Mundi Plain, north-west of the town, and marvel at the fact that you are in New South Wales and the desert around you doesn't fundamentally change until you reach the coast of Western Australia. Broken Hill is literally an oasis in the desert, a place of green parks and gardens. It can get very hot in summer but it is rare for the daily maximum to exceed 38° C for more than 8 or 9 days a year.


The earliest known human inhabitants of the area are said to be the Willyama Aborigines, although, with no permanent water supply in the area their presence was only intermittent. With the arrival of Europeans they were decimated by disease and forcibly driven from the lands. More recently the Paarkinji people have moved up from the lower Darling.

The first Europeans to see the Barrier Range were Charles Sturt and party in 1844. Sturt was trying to determine the existence of an inland sea. Sturt referred to a 'broken hill' in his diary. He also named the Barrier Range as a result of the difficulties it presented to his progress. Sturt described the land as some of the most barren and desolate he had seen.

During their trek of 1860-61 Burke and Wills passed through the area. They formed a base camp at Menindee to the south-east and stopped at Mootwingie to the north-east.

Pastoralists, who had followed in the wake of Sturt in the 1850s, moved further west in the 1860s. Much local land was taken up in 1864. Goods were shipped up the Darling via river steamer and then hauled overland by bullock teams.

Mount Gipps station was taken up around 1863. By 1867 there were gold prospectors in the area. However, it wasn't until 1883, after the discovery of silver in the area, that Charles Rasp, a watchful boundary rider at the Mt Gipps station, discovered what he thought were tin deposits at the 'broken hill'. The samples he took contained silver chloride and he claimed 16 hectares.

A syndicate of seven was set up with the object of purchasing the surrounding land to prevent a rush from other miners. In January 1885 they hit a rich vein of silver in what turned out to be one of the world's largest known silver-lead-zinc lodes. They made vast fortunes, although two members of the syndicate were unfortunate enough to sell their shares for a pittance before the scale of the find was apparent.


View over Broken Hill from the top of Chloride Street - the mine can be seen behind the town

The ore body was a continuous arch 7 km long and 220 m wide. Later that year they decided to form and float shares in The Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP), now Australia's largest company.

A stone chimney and plaque in Proprietary Square, by the skimp dump, marks the spot of the hut which was built at the foot of the hill for the use of the first miners. It was later used as a BHP works office.

As the effective founder of BHP, one of Australia's most important companies, Rasp is a significant figure in Australian history. However, according to his biographer, he was not at all the simple lucky man he appeared. 'Rasp' was in fact born in Saxony as Hieronymous Salvator Lopez von Pereira. His grandfather was of the Portuguese aristocracy. His father became private secretary to a German prince, moved to Saxony, married a German woman and died while being pursued by the financier Rothschild. Both men sought to obscure their identity by changing the family name. 'Jerome', as Rasp was then known, received an education in economics in the Baltic States. He later joined the army and, for complicated reasons, decided to abandon the army and head for Australia while fighting in the Franco-Prussian War.

Soon after mining commenced the township was surveyed. Randolph Bedford wrote that 'Argent St was a huge dust heap, filled with hotels and flimsy offices and saloons. A two chain wide road knee deep in dust, and crowded with men from all the earth, selling at tremendous prices shares in alleged mines'.

Broken Hill was declared a municipality as early as 1888 and a city in 1907.

The geographic isolation of the town was originally an added expense to the mine's transport costs. The South Australian government extended their line to the border but the NSW government refused to join it to the two nearby towns so the locals formed the Silverton Tramway Company and, in 1888, built a line to the South Australian border. It soon became the most prosperous private railway in Australia. A line from Sydney arrived in 1927. The two tracks were of different gauges and a transcontinental line from Sydney to Perth was not opened until 1970.

Smelting was initially carried out on the site from 1886 but was transferred to Port Pirie, South Australia, when its smelter came into operation in 1898. At first there was no known way to extract the zinc from the ore in a cost-effective manner. It was Herbert Hoover, later president of the United States, who first succeeded in this endeavour when he formed the Zinc Corporation in 1905.

Working, housing and living conditions at Broken Hill were appalling in the early days as the population soared from virtually nil in 1886 to 20 000 in 1891. Dysentery and diseases like typhoid were a problem due to the unsanitary conditions and lead poisoning was rife. 360 men were killed in the mines between 1894 and 1913, with many more dying subsequently of lung disease. BHP employees even had to pay the company four shillings out of their first pay for the shovel they were to use.

Not surprisingly industrial unrest emerged and Broken Hill developed a strong trade union movement which pressed for improvements. Industrial disputes were particularly common in the 1890s. A strike in 1892 to protest the usage of scab labour saw union leaders imprisoned. Unrest peaked again from 1909-1921 with the 'Big Strike' occurring in 1920.

The Barrier Industrial Council, an affiliation of eighteen unions, was formed in 1923. The amalgamation proved highly successful in resolving disputes with the Mining Managers' Association through arbitration. Both working conditions and industrial relations greatly improved. The trades hall (built 1898-1905) was the first building in Australia owned by unions. Its original foundation stone was laid in 1891 by Sir Henry Parkes but strike action swallowed all available funds and building did not commence until 1898, by which time the original stone was gone. In the same year The Barrier Daily Truth became a rare example of a newspaper wholly owned and controlled by unionists.

Broken Hill became the first town in the state to get a motorised mail service (1911), although initial confidence was not high. A horse-drawn vehicle followed the truck from Menindee in case it broke down.

On New Year's Day, 1915, Broken Hill became the site of the only outbreak of war hostilities on Australian soil. It began when a trainload of picnickers passed an ice-cream cart flying the Turkish flag at the eastern fringe of the town. Two men fired at the picnickers killing three people and wounding another six - a boy, a girl, three women and an old man. The two gunmen were locals of Turkish origin. They moved on to a cottage where they murdered the occupant and then were confronted by a party of police, soldiers and rifle-club members. After a lengthy battle the men were killed. Today there is a railway truck to mark the spot of the initial encounter (listed on the town's heritage trail) and a replica ice-cream cart at White Rocks, at the northern end of the town, where the shootout occurred.

Dust storms plagued Broken Hill in the early days. Today the encroaching sand is kept at bay by a protective reserve which completely surrounds the town, established in 1936-37 at the suggestion of local naturalist Albert Morris.

Water supply, always a problem in the past, was resolved in 1952 when a 109-km pipeline was built to channel water to Broken Hill from the Menindee Lakes.

BHP ceased work at Broken Hill in 1940. Today Pasminco is the only remaining operator, formed through a merger of companies in 1988. The ore is now mined, extracted, brought to the surface and treated to separate the valuable minerals from the waste rock. The resulting concentrates are still being smelted at Port Pirie.


Famous Residents
Broken Hill and district has also been the birthplace or home of a number of historical figures. Australian soprano June Gough was born at Broken Hill in 1929, taking the stage name June Bronhill in honour of her birthplace. Noted artist Pro Hart was born here the year before and has remained in the town.

In an earlier era two sons of Charles Dickens were associated with local sheep stations: Alfred managed Corona to the north from 1869-72 and Edward managed Mt Murchison station (see entry on Wilcannia) .

C.J. Dennis lived and worked here just after the turn of the century, subsequently writing 'A Ballad of the Barrier'. Kenneth Cook is thought to have used it as the model for his inland city of Bundanyabba in the novel Wake in Fright (1961). The film was shot at nearby Silverton.

Things to see:   

Historic Buildings
The visitor's centre has a map and pamphlet to accompany a signposted heritage walking tour which takes in the many outstanding heritage buildings which have been listed by the National Trust. A book is also for sale ($8.50) which outlines an expanded version of the walking tour and includes an even more extensive driving tour called The Silver Trail which is an informative account of the relevant sites and their relationship to the town's history.

Most of the notable buildings are in Argent St. At the corner with Chloride St is the red-brick Post Office (1890-92), designed by James Barnet, with its massive turret capped by a decorative mansard roof and enveloped by a footpath verandah and corner balcony. Next door is the town's architectural highlight, the extraordinarily ornate Town Hall (1890-91). Next to it is the modest Police station (1890). It replaced an earlier tin shed in which the prisoners were chained to the flooring joists, although if a female prisoner was present they were chained to the station fence outside!

Next door is the Federation-style Technical College (1900-01) with its large, arched windows and ornamented entrance. Built to meet the needs of the mining industry it now also houses a museum. Adjacent is the dignified and unpretentious Courthouse (1889), again designed by James Barnet. In the grounds is a sculptured bronze war memorial made by noted artist Charles Webb who died one week before its unveiling in 1925.


Looking down the main street from the balcony of the Palace Hotel

There are also a number of historic hotels. The most impressive of these is the large, three-storey Palace Hotel (1889) with its lengthy verandahs and elaborate cast-iron balustrades. It was used in the movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Other notable buildings include the highly ornate facade, stained-glass windows and geometrically patterned ceiling of the Trades Hall (1898-1905), Mt St Joseph's Convent of Mercy (1891), the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Cathedral (1903) and the impressive interior of the Gothic revival Wesley Church (1888), all in Sulphide St.


Trades Hall

The old sandstone railway station, at the corner of Blende and Bromide Streets, diagonally opposite the Tourist Information Centre, was built by the Silverton Tramway Company to replace the original iron and timber station (1888). The building is largely unaltered and has an attractive interior. Closed in 1970 it is now the Railway, Mineral and Train Museum, open 10.00 - 3.00 daily, with a display of old locomotives, railway machinery and a large mineral collection. There is a separate hospital museum.

Broken Hill is also the site of Australia's first mosque. It was erected in 1891 by a small group of Muslim camel drivers from Afghanistan and India. The location is the site of a former camel camp. Importation of the animals had commenced in 1840 and the first Afghan camel driver, Dost Mahomet, accompanied Burke and Wills in 1860. He is buried near Menindee (see entry on Menindee). Now restored it is located at the corner of Buck and William Sts and is available for inspections on Sundays at 2.30, tel: (08) 8088 6060.


Parks, Museums and Galleries
Sturt Park is an attractive place to stop for lunch. The reserve features The Titanic Memorial, in memory of the bandsmen of the Titanic who kept playing in the hope of maintaining calm while the ship went down in 1912. The broken column is not an unrepaired accident but an ancient Greek symbol of being cut down in youth.

Riddiford Arboretum in Galena St between Pell and Mercury Sts features Broken Hill's (and South Australia's) floral emblem, the stunning Sturt's Desert Pea. It was named after Charles Sturt who gathered specimens around present-day Broken Hill in 1844.

The Albert Kersten Geocentre, located in the old Bond Store building (1893) on the corner of Crystal and Bromide Sts, has displays on the geological history of the earth, the history of the town and its mines, a large mineral collection, treasure maps and treasure trails for the children and souvenirs. It is open from 1-5 daily.

White's Mineral Art and Mining Museum is located at 1 Allendale St, west of town off Silverton Rd. It features a walk-in mining stope (an excavation site), collages made of crushed minerals depicting mining equipment, local historical buildings and landscapes, and the legend of Sturt's desert pea. There is also a mining video, guided tours, salvaged machinery, scaled models of mine structures and displays of mineral specimens, jewellery, dolls, opals and pottery. It is open 9-6 daily, tel: (08) 8087 2878.

The Conservation Centre in Crystal St is a museum of antiquated machinery run by volunteers. It is only open on Sunday afternoons, tel: (08) 8087 4559.

Broken Hill has also become an important regional art centre. It is home to the so-called 'Brushmen of the Bush', a group consisting of Pro Hart, Eric Minchin, Hugh Schulz, John W. Pickup and Jack Absalom. Although diverse of style they are all self-taught and are all noted for their distinctly Australian subject matter and the inspiration they draw from the town and its surrounds.

There are numerous galleries in town featuring local, national and international works. A complete list can be found at the visitor's centre or in the telephone book. The City Art Gallery, in the civic centre at the corner of Blende and Chloride Sts, is the second oldest art gallery in Australia after the State Gallery of NSW in Sydney. It started in 1904 when George McCulloch donated some paintings. The display features traditional, modern and Aboriginal works and includes the 'Silver Tree', commissioned by Charles Rasp. It is open seven days a week (08-8088 5491).


Wilcannia stone sculpture on the edge of the desert

The City Gallery has a pamphlet (also available from the visitor's centre) relating to the Living Desert Art Trail which takes you on a walk through the Living Desert Reserve, located on the northern outskirts of town along Nine Mile Road. Its 2400 hectares contain aboriginal sites, a regeneration reserve, panoramic views, a four-wheel drive track, a permaculture site, a range of flora and fauna and there are currently plans to set up an animal reserve for endangered species. In 1993 twelve international sculptors each worked on a huge Wilcannia sandstone boulder of their own without power tools for 14 hours a day, every day for 8 weeks. The results are still there for all to see. A book about the sculptures is available at the visitors' centre.

16 artists from around the world were also invited to the site to paint the landscape as they saw it from a given position. The results hang in the City Gallery but poles now mark the spots where each artist stood and the pamphlet allows you to compare the painted image with your own perspective from that spot.


Pro Hart's giant ant sculpture in Rotary Park

The Pro Hart Gallery features a collection of Australian and European works and one of the largest pipe organs in Australia. At 108 Wyman St it is open 9-5 weekdays and Sunday afternoons, tel: (08) 8087 2441.

Jack Absalom's Gallery is at 638 Chapple St (08) 8087 5881, Hugh Schulz's can be found at 51 Morgan St (08) 8087 6624, and Eric and Roxanne Minchin's is located at 105 Morgan St (08) 8087 5853.

The largest commercial gallery in town is the Ant Hill Gallery at 24 Bromide St, opposite the visitor's centre (08) 8087 2441. Also worth a look is D'Art De Main Galleries at 233 Rowe St (08) 8087 6308. The latter is situated in a heritage building surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens.


Thankakali Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Centre
Located on the eastern edge of town the Thankakali Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Centre is particularly interesting and worth visiting. It is located in the old South Australian Brewing Company building (which has some huge spaces). The visitor enters and it taken through a series of well-presented art galleries with the lights automatically coming on as the visitor enters each new room. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the gallery is that it does not adhere to the current dot painting orthodoxy. Mercifully there is also no sense of overt commercialism in the gallery. Instead there is a wide variety of styles and artistic forms (didgeridoos, song sticks, linocut prints) on exhibition. All the paintings are for sale and range in price from a few hundred dollars to $3,500. There is also a café and the people who run the gallery are happy to talk to visitors.


In the Area
1. Delprats Underground Tourist Mine
The town's mining history can be experienced first-hand at Delprats Underground Tourist Mine. This 2-hr tour will take you deep inside one of BHP's old mines in a cage with miner's hat and light. The site is five minutes drive from the visitor's centre. Head south on Iodine St and, once across the railway tracks, turn right following the signs. Tours are held at 10.30 am weekdays and at 2 pm on Saturdays (08) 8088 1604. Be sure to arrive 15 minutes before commencement.


2. Day Dream Mine
One of the original mines around Silverton is the Day Dream Mine, which opened in 1882. It is located 33 km to the north-west. Take the Silverton Rd out of town and, after 20 km, watch for the signposted turnoff to the north. The tour takes one hour. You can either make a booking at the visitor's centre or just turn up any time between 10 and 3.30 seven days a week.


3. Royal Flying Doctor Service and School of the Air
The Royal Flying Doctor Service has its headquarters at Broken Hill and is interconnected with the School of the Air. Inspections can be made to see both if you make a booking at the visitor's centre. The former has a film about the service, a museum and a visitor's shop.


4. Joe Keenan's Lookout
There is a fine view of the town and the mine dumps plus information boards on the town's history at Joe Keenan's Lookout in Marks St.


5. Stephen's Creek Reservoir
17 km north-east of town is Stephen's Creek Reservoir. Constructed in 1892 it holds 20 000 megalitres and is an ideal picnic spot. Another such location is the Twin Lakes on the northern side of Wentworth Rd in South Broken Hill.


6. Mootwingee National Park
130 km to the north-east is Mootwingee National Park, located on a rocky, cypress pine and mulga-clad red-sandstone range. Wildlife includes falcons and wedge-tailed eagles, euros, skinks, frogs, snakes, emus, kangaroos and lizards. The insect eating sundew plant can also be found amongst the flora.

There are numerous self-guided walks of varying length and difficulty through shaded gullies, open ridges, dry sandy creek beds, historic Aboriginal and European sites, pleasant rock pools and some truly splendid scenery. Sunsets are particularly impressive. The walks are outlined in pamphlets available at the park's visitor's centre (13 km east off the Tibooburra Road) or through the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) Office, located at 183 Argent St, Broken Hill, tel: (08) 8088 5933.

The park's 5-million-year-old quartzite and sandstone gorges have acted aswater catchments and have provided a reliable source of water. Consequently the reserve contains Aboriginal material dating back some 40 000 years, including paintings, stone arrangements and other artefacts. There are several large rock shelters, one extending for 21 metres x 2.7 metres, which are adorned with a range of artwork both figurative and abstract. Parts of the park were handed back to the traditional owners in 1991.

Mootwingee Historic Site has some particularly impressive rock engravings and ochre stencils (created by blowing mouthfuls of pigment over a hand), together with explication of relevant aspects of Aboriginal mythology. Access to this site is only by guided tour (2.5 hours) on Wednesday and Saturday mornings from April to November at 11 am. Bookings are essential. Phone the NPWS office. There is a small fee associated with this tour which also takes in the Mootwingee Cultural Resource Centre. Alternatively you can follow the self-guided Homestead Creek Track which also takes in significant Aboriginal sites.

A section of the park was originally part of Mootwingee Station and there are remnants from the pastoral era. The Old Coach Road Drive (10 km) takes in the ruins of Rockholes Hotel, Gnalta Lookout and some amazing rock formations. The Thaaklatjika Mingkana Walk includes Wright's Cave, named after William Wright, one-time manager of Kinchega Station, who was hired as part of the Burke and Wills expedition at Menindee because of his knowledge of the local area. He was widely blamed for the tragedy that befell the expedition when he failed to meet the party as arranged at Cooper Creek. The cave contains Aboriginal artwork as well as a blue triangle painted by Wright with his initials inside.

The park is 2 hours drive from Broken Hill on the Silver City Highway to Tibooburra. Bring plenty of fuel, good walking shoes, extra provisions in case rain blocks you in, a hat and some sun screen. Always take water on your walks as it can get very hot indeed. There is bore water only at the Homestead Creek campsite which has basic facilities such as fireplaces, barbecues, toilets and showers.

If you return via Waterbag Station Rd it will take you south to the Barrier Highway which takes you back to Broken Hill. On the way you will pass Little Topar Pub which is a pleasant spot for a stopover.


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Broken Hill