Tag Archives: australian history

Walhalla – An Australian Gold Mining Town

7 Jun

For the first time in what seems like forever, we were able to go away for the weekend and explore a new part of Victoria that neither of us had been to before. Woohoo! I’m a bit delayed in writing about it, but better late than never!

We spent the first day of our long weekend at Walhalla, which was once a major gold mining town, but is now largely abandoned. Only 16 people currently live there. However, the town is set up as a holiday destination, with plenty of accommodation from bed and breakfasts to campgrounds.

We didn’t stay overnight, but we did spend a very pleasant afternoon there. Being a Friday and non-peak season, many of the shops were closed and there were very few people around the town.

The highlight of our visit was the tour of the gold mine. Walhalla isn’t like crappy, rip-off Sovereign Hill with all its tourist traps and fakery. Walhalla is the real deal. It’s not a living history museum. It’s a genuine ghost town. And for that reason, I think it is a far better place to visit than Sovereign Hill, not to mention a better value for money.

The Long Tunnel Extension

The Long Tunnel Extension

It took the miners several years, but they finally intercepted a gold containing reef.

It took the miners several years, but they finally intercepted a gold containing reef.

That over there would be the teeny rest area where the miners could eat their lunch.

That over there would be the teeny rest area where the miners could eat their lunch.

Our guide, Sue, had all kinds of stories about people getting killed in the mines and how long it took to dig the mine. Here she was explaining that they had cleared all the trees within 30km of the town to provide fuel for the boilers.

Our guide, Sue, had all kinds of stories about people getting killed in the mines and how long it took to dig the mine. Here she was explaining that they had cleared all the trees within 30km of the town to provide fuel for the boilers.

A neat cross section map of the mine. If you worked at a level about halfway down, it might take you over an hour to reach your post.

A neat cross section map of the mine. If you worked at a level about halfway down, it might take you over an hour to reach your post.

Some interesting factoids from the mining tour:

Ned Stringer, a former convict, was the first to register a gold claim in the area, but he died from tuberculosis before he could return to Stringer’s Creek to profit from his find. However, his find generated over 50 years of intense mining activity.

A boy could start work in the mines at age 16. If he made it to the ripe old age of 24 without being killed, he was considered lucky. If he made it to age 30, they pulled him out to do topside work.

If a miner was killed on the job, the other miners would pool their days wages (£3.10 a day, which was a lot of money back then, especially compared to the national average wage of 50 schillings a day) and give the money to the widow. The widow could use the money for a funeral (there are a lot of very big headstones in the town cemetery- probably not cheap!) or use it to leave town and set up a new life somewhere else. She might stay if she had a son old enough to send into the mines or if she could remarry.

The quartz reef in the mine yielded over 42 tons of gold by 1900. The entire Walhalla goldfield produced 70 tons of gold

The gold found in Walhalla largely funded the building of Collins Street in Melbourne.

The last death in the mines was in 1986 when a company wanted to try to reopen the mine. A man was killed when a section of rock collapsed on him and it took 6 months and $3 million to recover his body. After that, plans to reopen the mine were abandoned.

After the mine tour, we explored the town a bit. One of the coffee shops was open and we had a snack there and I got some postcards in the post office.

The Walhalla Fire Station is actually built over the creek, due to lack of flat ground in the area. The original station burned down in a bush fire, ironically.

The Walhalla Fire Station is actually built over the creek, due to lack of flat ground in the area. The original station burned down in a bush fire, ironically.

Stringer's Creek. Supposedly contaminated with arsenic. I did notice that there were signs warning that the tap water was not suitable for drinking.

Stringer’s Creek. Supposedly contaminated with arsenic. I did notice that there were signs warning that the tap water was not suitable for drinking.

A pretty crimson rosella, doing bird things.

A pretty crimson rosella, doing bird things.

Not sure what kind of parrot this is, but there was a lot of very colourful, noisy bird life around.

Not sure what kind of parrot this is, but there was a lot of very colourful, noisy bird life around.

Peaceful. So nice to be away from the city!

Peaceful. So nice to be away from the city!

This is the former bank vault. The rest of the bank was moved to Moe and the vault was left behind. Naturally, the bank closed when the mines closed.

This is the former bank vault. The rest of the bank was moved to Moe and the vault was left behind. Naturally, the bank closed when the mines closed.

I also wanted to see the cemetery. I don’t know why, but I always like seeing old cemeteries. They do run a ghost tour of the town on weekends, but as we weren’t staying the night, we figured we’d just go visit the ghosts ourselves before leaving.

The cemetery is set on a very steep hillside and doesn’t seem to be very well maintained. The footing is pretty treacherous and we both tripped and slipped a few times.

Many of the headstones are made of wood and the names have worn away long ago. Others are crumbling stone. But a few seem to be cared for on a regular basis and some old graves have had the headstones replaced with new ones in recent years. I always wonder about the forgotten, neglected graves- who those people were, what happened to their families. I suppose it’s not very nice to be lying cold and forgotten in the ground where no one remembers that you ever existed and I always spend a bit of extra time at the forgotten graves, in case no one else does.

Most of the graves are from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s. The rest are from the 1980s, probably from when people were drawn back to the town by the prospect of the mines reopening. Some graves contain entire families, including several where none of the children lived to see adulthood and many with teenaged boys who likely died in the mines. It’s quite sad to think of all the families that lost their sons, husbands, and fathers to the mines, all so that other people could get rich.

I have always found cemeteries to be hauntingly beautiful and the cool, autumn day, with the sun already dipping below the tree line, made the cemetery a very peaceful place to be. I suppose if you have to die and be buried, there are much worse places to seek eternal rest than in a quiet, abandoned mountain town.

The path up to the cemetery is lined with all the prehistoric looking plants that are so common in Australia. I love them and half expect to see a dinosaur crossing the path in front of us.

The path up to the cemetery is lined with all the prehistoric looking plants that are so common in Australia. I love them and half expect to see a dinosaur crossing the path in front of us.

This kookaburra didn't seem to mind at all that his constant laughter was disturbing the peace!

This kookaburra didn’t seem to mind at all that his constant laughter was disturbing the peace!

This lonely grave was tucked away into a far corner of the cemetery and was completely inaccessible, due to all the overgrown flora.

This lonely grave was tucked away into a far corner of the cemetery and was completely inaccessible, due to all the overgrown flora.

As you can see, the ground is very steep. There are lots of roots and prickly things just waiting to snare an unwary visitor.

As you can see, the ground is very steep. There are lots of roots and prickly things just waiting to snare an unwary visitor.

We left Walhalla after our visit to the cemetery, as everything was closing up and we still had to make our way to Bairnsdale for the night. On the drive down the mountain, we saw numerous lyrebirds running around, which I have never seen before in the wild. If you’ve never seen one and want to, this is apparently the area to go to!

I definitely recommend Walhalla for anyone interested in gold mining history or anyone who just wants to get away from the city and go somewhere peaceful for a while (like us). There is a lot more to do during peak season and on the weekends, but going on a Friday and being some of the few people there was really nice and relaxing. It’s a place I’d love to go back to.

http://www.visitwalhalla.com/

Good night, LaTrobe Valley!

Good night, LaTrobe Valley!

Sovereign Hill

16 Apr

Sovereign Hill

On Saturday, H and I took another weekend away. Our first stop was Sovereign Hill in Ballarat, a gold rush era living history museum and a very popular tourist attraction.

I’ve been to living history museums before and have always found them interesting. Sadly, Sovereign Hill was a huge disappointment. This is the first touristy thing I’ve done in Australia that I don’t really have anything good to say about it, other than the fact that the weather was great.

Some of the few items for sale that are actually made on site.

It’s $45 per person to get in, which is pretty expensive, in my opinion. At that price, you would expect not to have to pay extra for the attractions inside, but that wasn’t the case.

Sovereign Hill is a huge tourist trap. It’s filled with shops selling mostly Chinese made crap. Some things are actually made there by craftsmen, like the brass goods, but most of it isn’t.

Other than the shops, there isn’t much to do. If you’re a kid, panning for gold in a muddy creek might be exciting and fun- and the kids we saw doing it seemed to be having a good time- but not so much if you’re an adult.

Panning for gold seems to be the most popular activity by far.

There are two mine tours. One is a free twelve minute self-guided tour and they send you down in groups of 15. A recorded voice guides you along through the “mine” (it isn’t a real mine and never was) and the highlight of the trip underground is a short holographic video projection of a miner striking gold.

The second costs $7.50 per person and goes through yet another fake mine (even the rocks are fake!). There are three tours to choose from, but the only one that still had seats available was the Secret Chamber tour, which is about two Chinese brothers who found and then lost a fortune in the gold mines.

On this tour, you take a minute long train ride in total darkness down into the fake mine. The guide shows you a mine shaft with a lift and talks about how dangerous it was and how they often had young boys working down there in terrible conditions. Around the corner they show you a fake “lunch room” for the miners, which you can’t really see because there are 30 other people in front of you trying to peer in.

The highlight of the tour is the “secret chamber” of course. The chamber is carved out of fake rocks and you stand and watch as a short video about the Chinese brothers is projected onto the fake rocks. It was perhaps one of the most uninspiring, boredom inducing “stories” I’ve ever heard. And that’s it. Then you exit the fake mine on the train you came in on. For $7.50, you don’t get much. In America, you could see a feature length film in a movie theatre for that price. (Not in Australia, though. The going rate here is between $20-$25 for a movie ticket.)

The lone musketeer

The paid gold mine tour is one of the things they highly recommend if you have only two or three hours to spend there, as we did. I can’t imagine what you would do for more than two or three hours, though, without going completely broke. We spent the entire hour before our paid tour time wandering around killing time.

The have demonstrations throughout the day, but the crowd of people makes it hard to see anything unless you are first in line. H wanted to see the musket firing, which he thought might be neat, but again, it was pretty lame. One guy in a period costume takes his sweet time loading a musket and explaining to the children how a musket is loaded and making all kinds of silly child friendly jokes along the way. Then he fires the musket once and that’s it. Pretty anti-climactic.

The gold pouring

Probably the neatest thing we saw was the gold pour. We were first in line for the last demonstration of the day, so we got a good seat up front. The demonstrator explains how gold is purified and the process of pouring gold. He did actually pour a gold bar and cooled it and let a few people hold it. To me, it was neat because it’s the kind of demonstration you aren’t likely to see at too many other places. You can see blacksmiths and candlemakers and the like at any period themed festival or event, but the making of gold is probably pretty unique to Sovereign Hill.

But as I said, on the whole, the place was very disappointing. When I have been to living history museums in the past, they have been largely educational and entertaining, filled with costumed actors who make the town feel alive. I think that is an important element of recreating an historical town like that.

The totally empty Chinese miners’ camp

There were very few costumed actors when we were there. The only places we saw them were in the shops trying to sell things or giving the demonstrations. There weren’t very many walking around and of the ones we did see, none of them were playing the part of miners. There is a section where they have a Chinese camp set up and instead of actors, they just have recorded voices coming out of the tents. Why couldn’t they have Chinese actors in mining gear there? In fact, the lack of actors available to tell their stories of what it was like to live back then is, in my opinion, the biggest negative about Sovereign Hill.

They also have a lot of machinery and stuff that is just sitting there, non-operational, and it rather detracts from the feel of the place. It makes it feel more like an abandoned ghost town than a bustling mining town.

I’m glad I went there before having any children because otherwise I might have made the mistake of taking my kids and paying a small fortune for them to have an educational experience that doesn’t exist. I could foresee a day of hearing “Mommy, will you buy me this?” from bored, whiny children.

Now, admission to Sovereign Hill also includes admission to the Gold Museum. I imagine there are some authentic items there and it is probably a lot more informative. We didn’t go because we didn’t have enough time and we were pretty burned out on the whole thing. I’m not a big museum person, myself. Since I didn’t go, I can’t say how kid friendly it might be or how interesting it is.

Another “must do” if you only have a few hours, for $5 per person. Funny how all the “must do” activities are all the ones that cost extra.

I was told by our bed and breakfast hosts that they do a sound and light show twice a night where they re-enact the Eureka Stockade, complete with burning buildings and the like. I might have liked that a bit better. We considered going, but it was an additional $55 per person and no one at Sovereign Hill had really been able to explain to us what it was or why it was worth seeing, so we opted not to go. Since my knowledge of Australian history is quite spotty, I would likely have gotten more out of seeing a reenactment than just wandering around a fake gold rush town. If it hadn’t been so expensive and we hadn’t already been feeling ripped off, we probably would have gone.

Instead, we went on a ghost tour of Ballarat (post forthcoming).