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  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

Herbert Hoover & Sons of Gwalia mine, Western Australia

On 21 December 1963 the Sons of Gwalia mine closed and the 1500 residents of Gwalia left town for ever. Trains were dispatched from Kalgoorlie 230kms (143 miles) south, and people took only what they could carry, leaving the place a virtual ghost town.

Most of the workers were immigrants from Italy and Yugoslavia, searching for a better way of life. Many living in simple cottages made up of corrugated iron, timber from the surrounding bushland, and hessian bags. One resourceful resident used a variety of old bed frames to make a fence around his backyard.

These buildings have been restored and wandering through the town, it seems as though the people just left yesterday. It is quite an eerie but peaceful feeling.

The State Hotel that would have been a booming business now sits empty and slowly fading away.

Being in and seeing the town gives you an appreciation of how difficult it was for these pioneers. Many didn’t speak the language and were far from home and the civilization they were accustomed to.

The 31st president of the United States, Herbert Hoover, was the mine manager here for a time, and in 1898 he commissioned a house to be built on a hill overlooking the Gwalia settlement and the mine, and to be used as the home for himself and his wife. Costing six hundred pounds, it was six times the cost of an average house. This is a stark contract to the housing for the workers. With a large dining area, wide hallways and large bedrooms, the house has since been home to many of the mine managers. In 1972 when the museum opened, the house became open to the public. Since 2004 it has operated as Hoover House Bed and Breakfast, and visitors to the museum can wander through the home.

The house is decorated as it would have been in the President’s time, early 1900s. The front bedroom has pictures of Herbert Hoover decorating the wall above the mantle.

Its cool wide verandahs and comfortable seating invite you to sit and enjoy the view, while partaking in refreshments. A popular choice is a Devonshire tea. This usually involves a cup of tea, fresh warm scones, jam and cream. A delicious combination of textures and flavours.

Gwalia is a Welsh poetic term for Wales. The Sons of Gwalia mine was started in 1896. By 1911 the towns of Gwalia and Leonora had a combined population of over 3000, most of them working at the mine. The Gwalia museum is a treasure trove of over 2000 everyday items, 2000 photographs and a variety of mining equipment. Well-spaced out information boards describe past residents’ memories of growing up and working in the town. The video presentation is well worth watching, as it shows the same people describing living in the town. Hearing their voices and seeing them connects you in a way that just reading about them does not. Looking at their treasures, you can imagine the people who listened to this Piani Automatici made in 1899 and played in the Commercial Hotel, Leonora. It is wonderful to see these items on display, still bringing enjoyment.

The museum houses the Leonora hearse built in 1880. Originally a horse drawn buggy it is sometimes still used for local funerals. The Kalgoorlie men’s shed restored the hearse in 2016. By 1903 a tram service connected the nearby town of Leonora, one of the first in Western Australia.

Outside you can see the towering headframe made from Oregon timber. 20 metres high with a lifting capacity of 13t, it can be seen from anywhere in Gwalia. “The headframe and winder built in 1899, transferred men, horses, ore and mining equipment between the surface and the underground levels. Everything was moved in and out of the mine in small skips. Skips could carry 12 men crammed tightly together on a ladder-like set of stairs” – from information plaque near the header.

The mine has been open cut since the 1980s and is big, really big! Look carefully at the trucks in the picture and you can get an idea of the size of this hole.

It is well worth a trip to Gwalia, and possibly a stay in the bed and breakfast there. The museum was well set out and told tales, not just of mining, but the lives of the miners and their families.

Happy Travels!

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