Arrivals & Departures A day in Coolgardie

Mist lies in low ground as viewed east from Warden Finnerty's House, Coolgardie, Western Australia
Photo of Andy Tyndall

A quick scratch of the surface and there is plenty to be found now and in Coolgardie's past.

There are three reasons to stop at the Coolgardie Visitor Centre: first, the Centre is a prime source of up to date information on the condition of the roads on the Golden Quest Trail. I am setting off on the Trail the next day because Coolgardie is a perfect starting point.

The second reason is there is an intriguing pharmacy museum, the beautiful, internationally renowned Waghorn bottle collection, an intriguing display about the rescue of trapped miner Modesto Varischetti, as well as artefacts and photographs from the town’s heyday.

A third reason to stop is if you are lucky you might meet Vic Dale. He knows everything there is to know about Coolgardie. 

Had I not been with Vic I would never have discovered the school - still teaching Coolgardie kids - built by the Bunning brothers in 1894. And yes: there’s a certain popular WA-based hardware store named after them.

Vic tells me about the town's past characters and the politics of Coolgardie’s heyday, when the clamour from the Goldfields, heavily populated by native eastern-staters, threatened to form its own separate colony. A reluctant State premier was forced to call a referendum on Federation and the Goldfields vote ensured WA joined the rest of the States.

I learned about Coolgardie’s reign as capital of the would-be colony, Aurelia, and its decline once Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s Golden Mile proved to be so rich and enduring. 

Many of Coolgardie’s buildings succumbed to a fine Goldfields’ tradition and were recycled and moved. Merredin’s majestic Cummings Theatre and the Tavern at Westonia were both originally located in Coolgardie in its glory days.

The school, railway station, old hospital, morgue, and a few teetering shacks from that time are dotted around the town. They are all worth a visit, if only to admire the style of the solid buildings and fortitude of those early residents. 

Former railway station, Coolgardie

The sights and sites are best located with help from the Golden Quest Trail Guidebook, App or Visitor Centre, itself located in one of the magnificent buildings peppering the main street.

Vic guided me to the still waters of the incongruous Coola Carbi gnamma hole - from which Coolgardie took its name - and recounted how it was enlarged, courtesy of explosives, to retain more water for the burgeoning township, named at that spot by the first warden Finnerty.

Warden Finnerty was ordered from Southern Cross to live in Coolgardie. His Bunning-built house, originally the administrative seat of the Goldfields, commands a sweeping view from the hill above the gnamma hole. 

It is now a National Trust property, open to the public for a nominal admission charge. Historic and ghost tours are also offered, admission otherwise is self-guided. Do consider a guided tour in order to hear details about the redoubtable Finnerty.

Just out of town lies the graveyard, the last resting place of hundreds who died of illnesses and infections which rushed through the community. It was said, at one point that half the town was burying the other half. 

History’s sieve filters out wonderful stories in graveyards: Finnerty’s wife, Bertha lies there, as does the body of Italian cyclist, 23 year old Leo Beretta killed when the forks on his bike collapsed during an international race held in the town in 1900. 

We all but stumbled upon the grave of redoubtable explorer Ernest Giles who, in numerous major expeditions, crossed to the Swan River Colony from the then Darwin-Adelaide Telegraph line, discovered The Olgas, Victoria and Gibson deserts, and mapped out large areas of the inhospitable interior. Pneumonia also took him, his exploring days over, working as a clerk, living with his nephew in Coolgardie.

I returned to Finnerty’s house in the dawn to witness, to the east, where the Superpit’s spoil heap hunkers down on the horizon, a golden mist hovering over invisible lakes, weaving among the eucalypts and gimlets. 

That scene, soon burned away by the day, was the first of many not normally associated with the Goldfields. Let’s face it: most of us associate the area with big money, big mines, big machines, high vis-clad workers and skimpies.

Coolgardie and the subsequent journey around the Trail shows a very different side to the Goldfields. 

In the first few kilometres out of Coolgardie we pass a small lake. An enterprising humorist had placed imaginative art of a Loch Ness monster, a fisherman in a dinghy, a shark and a flamingo. 

A little later we passed the ruins of Kunanalling and all the time we are making our way through the bronze trunked gimlets of the Great Western Woodlands, now growing strong after their virtual eradication to fuel the gold rush. 

The humour, the ruined dreams, the resilience: I was realising the pulsing themes which has kept the Goldfields alive for so long in such adversity.

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