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Coolgardie, WA

Historic gold mining town known as the "Mother of the Western Australian goldfields".

There was a time when there were 30,000 people - mostly gold prospectors - living in and around Coolgardie. It was a wild mining boom town with a main street wide enough to turn a camel train and solid buildings that suggested people believed it would thrive for centuries. Today it even announces itself as a "ghost town" (one of the many in the region) although it is clearly a small, relatively prosperous settlement driven by curious tourists and wild optimists who seek and mine the gold in the area. Coolgardie offers a unique opportunity to explore a once-prosperous goldmining town with the main street still lined with imposing nineteenth century buildings - old hotels, clubs, banks and office blocks. At its peak "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" as Western Australian writer Katherine Susannah Prichard described it in her book The Roaring Nineties. Today it is a remnant of a time when it was an exciting, bustling, prosperous town.


Coolgardie is located 555 km east of Perth via the Great Eastern Highway, 425 m above sea level and only 39 km south-west of Kalgoorlie.


Origin of Name

There is considerable debate about the origin of the name Coolgardie. Some sources claim it is a Wangkathaa Aboriginal word, probably more accurately translated as 'Koolgoor-biddie', which means 'the mulga tree in the hollow'. Others argue that it comes from 'golgardi', the name of a local water hole, while others claim that 'golgardi' (changed to Coolgardie by Warden Finnerty who is credited with naming the town) was the First Nations name for the district. Still another interpretation is that from Western Australian novelist, Katherine Susannah Prichard, who claimed 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.' Prior to Warden Finnerty deciding on Coolgardie, it was variously known as Bayley's Find, Fly Flat, the Old Camp and the Old Diggings.


Things to See and Do

Historic Coolgardie
When a place like Coolgardie puts up plaques with detailed descriptions and old photographs all around the town the simplest way to experience the special magic of what it must have been like in "the roaring days" is to park the car and go for a long wander. You could easily spend half a day (or even a day if you spend time in the town's museums) just wandering up and down the main street and heading off to the town cemetery and exploring the side roads. The town's historic importance is rich and dense. Virtually every building on Bayley Street is of historic importance (a total of 23 buildings in the town centre have been listed on the National Estate register) and the signage is so good it offers a unique opportunity to see what a nineteenth century mining boom town was like. The markers, with their old photographs and details of the history of sites which are now no more than a ruin or a vacant block, give a real sense of what the town was like in the 1890s. The Coolgardie Visitors Centre has a visitor's guide and map.

Goldfields Exhibition Museum
Located in 62 Bayley Street in the old Mining Warden's Court Building (1898) the museum offers an excellent introduction to the "roaring days" with an extensive photographic collection as well as both Aboriginal artefacts from the surrounding area and historic memorabillia spread through thirteen rooms on two floors of the impressive building. It also boasts one of the best collections of antique bottles in the country and next to the Museum is a piece of C Y O'Connor's pipe which provided the town with a reliable water supply in 1903. For more information check (08) 9026 6090.

Town Cemetery
Town cemeteries can often offer a unique insight into the life of a town. During the mining boom too many people were buried as a result of disease (there was little or no water and fevers, particularly typhoid fever, were common); accidents while digging for gold; deaths in childbirth because of a lack of doctors; and nurses dying because they contracted the diseases of their patients.
There is a placard outside the town cemetery which offers an insight into what life was like in Coolgardie in the 1890s.

'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 most significant grave in the cemetery is that of Western Australian explorer Ernest Giles (isn't it fascinating the way people in the eastern states know about the explorations of Charles Sturt and Ludwig Leichhardt and know so little about the Forrest brothers and people like Giles) and a marker records that: "One of the most notable graves in this cemetery is that of Ernest Giles, an Englishman whose name is associated with exploration in inland Australia. His outstanding expedition was that in 1875 when he crossed from South Australia to Western Australia making his way from waterhole to waterhole in desert country in the far northeast and returning along a line just south of the Tropic of Capricorn. He was a man who achieved little personal success. His last days were spent in Coolgardie where he worked as a clerk in a Government Office."
There is also the grave of Jack Carin, a fiercely independent man who lived by himself outside Coolgardie from 1940-1971 when, after an accident, he committed suicide. He searched for gold every day of his life and was so loved by the local community that his grave is a symbol of the town: it features a crossed pick and shovel, a billy can and a bucket. Carin was born in Newcastle on Tyne and ended up in the bush outside Coolgardie.

Marvel Bar Hotel
The plaque in front of the Marvel Bar Hotel (1897) explains: "This is all that is left of the Marvel Bar whose reputation was such that it found a place in the memory of nearly every pioneer resident of Coolgardie. The reasons for its popularity were numerous. It supplied good cheap meals. The owners were always prepared to give a free meal to a prospector down on his luck. Everyone was made to feel welcome irrespective of whether he was well dressed or in dirty clothes. The sparkling ginger beer dispensed at the Marvel Bar was a heady drink believed to be associated with the fact that almost next door was a hotel. Later in its existence the Marble Bar was licensed and remained a hotel until 1927." The grandeur of the building is an insight into the expectations, and wealth, of the town at its economic height.

Warden's Court
The Warden's Court is an impressive three storey building (when it was built it was reputed to be the largest building in Western Australia outside Perth) in Bayley Street which now houses the town's museum. It was constructed of local sandstone with granite and stucco detailing.

Coolgardie Pharmacy Museum
Located on Bayley Street in the Old Coolgardie Drill Hall, the Coolgardie Pharmacy Museum holds a remarkable collection of old medicines, advertisements for unusual and exotic patent medicines, and the equipment used by pharmacists long before most pills and potions were mass manufactured and provided in boxes and bottles. It is a reminder of the role pharmacists played in the local community in the nineteenth century. tel: (08) 9021 1966.

Gaol Tree
Located on Hunt Street on the route to Warden Finnerty's Residence is the local Gaol Tree (sometimes called the Prison Tree) which has replica chains attached. Before the local lockup was built prisoners were simply chained to this tree to await trial. There is a suggestion that it was mostly used for Aborigines although there is evidence that white people were also chained to the tree prior to the construction of the local gaol.

Warden Finnerty's House - The Residency
Warden Finnerty's house is located at 2 McKenzie Street. Known as 'The Residence' it was built in 1895 and is a fine example of vernacular Australian architecture created to suit the uniquely difficult conditions of the desert. It was built at a cost of £2800 out of stone which was 45 cm thick. It has 12 ft (3.66 m) ceilings which have been clad in ripple metal. The verandas are wide, the windows are louvered and there is a ventilated roof lantern. The builder was the timber magnate, Robert Bunning, whose name is remembered in the Bunnings Warehouses which he and his brother founded. The house is constructed next to the Aboriginal water hole which, reputedly, the local Wangkathaa people called 'golgardi'.
The building was purchased by the National Trust in 1976 and has since been restored to its original condition and furnished in a 'manner that will reflect the period of Warden Finnerty's occupancy and the prosperity of the times and the tastes of the original occupants'.
John Michael Finnerty played an important role in the history of Coolgardie being the person who named the town and who, while living at Southern Cross, granted the application and lease which became known as 'Bayley's Reward lease No 133' - the mine which operated in Coolgardie for over 70 years and was central to the town's prosperity.
Warden Finnerty's Residence is open for inspection from 11.00 am - 4.00 pm every day. Tel: (08) 9026 6090 before visiting. For more information check out http://www.nationaltrust.org.au/wa/warden-finnertys-residence

Old Coolgardie Railway Station
Located on Woodward Street (one block south of Bayley Street) the Old Coolgardie Railway Station (1896) is an elegant building which has been turned into the Railway Station Museum. Not surprisingly it has an extensive display of railway history including photographs, an old steam locomotive, antique carriages and, of particular interest, an exhibition recalling the famous Modesto Varischetti rescue when, in 1907, heavy rain trapped Varischetti underground for nine days. He was caught in an air lock in the mine and locals worked desperately to remove the water. Varischetti's dramatic rescue captured world attention at the time.

Ben Prior's Open Air Museum
It seems as though mining towns attract eccentricity. In the case of Ben Prior's Open Air Museum, which is located on the corner of Hunt and Bayley Streets, it is an eccentric collection of bits and pieces which reflect Prior's enthusiasms and go some way to indicating the amount of old machinery which must have been dragged across the desert to ease the labour in the area.



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area had been occupied by members of the Wangkathaa First Nations language group.

* The Coolgardie area was first explored by H M Lefroy in 1863 and by C C Hunt  in 1864. Hunt's water holes, which run from the western coast across the southern half of Western Australia, helped make the area accessible to Europeans.

* Gold was discovered at Fly Flat and on 17 September, 1892 by Arthur Wellesly Bayley who, with his partner William Ford, rode into Southern Cross with 554 ounces (16.8 kg) of gold.

* Within hours Bayley's discovery had started  the greatest gold rush in Australian history. Prospectors from China, Afghanistan, New Zealand, the USA and UK flocked to the area. It is important to remember that the discovery coincided with a Depression in Australia.

* By 1896 the railway had reached the town.

* By 1898 Coolgardie was the third largest town in Western Australia (after Perth and Fremantle) with a population of 15,000 (with another 15, 000 living in the area) serviced by three breweries, seven newspapers, and 26 hotels.

* The town was officially named and laid out in 1893. In 1894 it became a municipality.

* In 1895 the Post Office opened.

* In 1896 electricity was connected and a swimming pool was built.

* By 1897 over 700 mining companies had been floated in London.

* In 1902 the State Battery opened to process the gold.

* C Y O'Connor's remarkable water pipeline arrived in 1903.

* 1914 saw many miners leave the goldfields to fight in the Great War. Other miners moved east to Kalgoorlie where the gold was more plentiful and more reliable.

* By 1921 Coolgardie had ceased to be a municipality.

* Since the 1920s the town has been vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of gold. There have been dramatic increases in population during the 1930s and the 1980s but at one time, when the mining companies had departed and the price of gold was low, the population dropped below 200 people.

* The original Bayley's Reward mine ceased operations in 1963.

* Today the main, reliable industry of the town is tourism. The town has a population of around 1,500-2,000.


Visitor Information

Coolgardie Visitor Centre, 62 Bayley Street, Coolgardie, tel: (08) 9080 2111. It is open from 9.00 am - 4.00 pm on weekdays and 10.00 am - 3.00 pm on weekends.


Useful Websites

There is an interesting council website. Check out http://www.coolgardie.wa.gov.au/ and a good historical site - http://www.heritageaustralia.com.au/search.php?state=WA&region=160&view=43

Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

8 suggestions
  • When I lived in Coolgardie I watched the houses being jinkered out of town heading for Koolyanobbing and other such places because Bailey’s was closing. Several of our young teenagers left at the same time. That was 1960 when I was 19! I left the town at the end of that year and moved to Kalgoorlie.

    Colleen O'Grady (Brown)
    • It is the eternal story of mining towns. Once the original reason for creating the town disappears the town simply ups and leaves. Those towns beyond Kalgoorlie – I think particularly of Broken Arrow and Kanowna – are sad reminders of places where once there was so much life and activity. Sad, really.

      Bruce Elder
  • How about mentioning The Bluff to the north of the town, surrounded by empty beer bottles and supposed to have been a pub there. I lived in Coolgardie as a teenager and we often visited The Bluff. Another bluff was where the hospital is and in the late 1950s a small city of tents were located just opposite the railway Station. These were of Italian migrants, the women and children occupying the tents while the men worked on the trans Australia railway line

    Colleen O'Grady (Brown at the time)
    • Thanks for that, Colleen. There is nothing that compares to local knowledge … and nothing better than the local knowledge of childhood and teenage years.

      Bruce Elder
  • Bayelys football team in the 1947 to middle 1957 around about that time as I was a little ticker at the time just wondering about the footballers at that time as my dad played at that time and worked at the Bayelys gold mine .Just wondering how to find this informations. Regards. Ron

    Ron Martain
  • Hello, my name is Kevin Savell and I am researching my family. I recently discovered my maternal grandparents ran a boarding house in Sylvester st, Coolgardie around the 1930’s to 1940’s. I was wondering if you had any information on them. Their name was Herbert and Boronia Disbrey. In fact I had 3 generations of my family living in Sylvester St at on stage.

    Kevin Savell
  • Just for information:
    In the 1940’s as my father was a mining engineer at Bayley’s mine we lived close by.
    I started my education at Coolgardie school!
    Prior to our house being available we stayed some time at the Denver City Hotel.
    My sister was born at Kalgoorlie District Hospital

    Susette Turner
  • Ben Prior’s Museum was the highlight for us. A genuine folly, and truly quirky.

    Lesley McBurney