The first major discovery of gold in Western Australia in the 1890s initiated a period of growth and transformation for the struggling colonial state. 

Fortune-seeking prospectors helped establish a significant gold mining industry by 1900. Over a hundred years later, the Western Australian goldfields still produce most of Australia's gold.

1967 photograph of Patrick Hannan's Miner's right for the Yilgarn Goldfield, issued 10th August 1893

Patrick (Paddy) Hannan, along with Irish prospectors Thomas Flanagan and Dan O'Shea, found Australia's richest goldfield, in the location now known as Kalgoorlie.

Panning off, Fly Flat, Coolgardie

Arthur Bayley and William Ford are credited with discovering a gold bearing quartz vein at Fly Flat, later known as Coolgardie.

Coolgardie, 1894. Fly Flat in the foreground

The name Coolgardie can be connected back to the first recorded account of Europeans using Aboriginal place names. A nearby water hole, ‘Kulkadi’, was used by the local people from the Wangkathaa language group to describe the area.

A Dryblower at work in the North West

The invention of the dryblower, which sifted soil for alluvial gold, as opposed to panning for gold with running water, distinguished the prospectors of the Western Australian gold rush from those of Victoria and California.

Vosper addressing diggers

Many of the prospectors mining the Western Australian goldfields came from the eastern colonies and many had radical ideas about republicanism, socialism and unionism. Driven by frustration at the Forrest Government, it is possible that the miners were very influential in the 1900 referendum on Federation.

Jim and Jimmy Larcombe (right) with the Golden Eagle Nugget

Higher costs from the introduction of a Miner's Award (1921) and the closing of smaller mines where gold was more difficult to extract, contributed to a 15% reduction in the number of men employed in gold mines. By the Great Depression of 1929 the gold mining industry was in decline. The discovery of the huge Golden Eagle nugget near Coolgardie in 1931 prompted a rush of over a thousand prospectors to the area where it was found.

In 1900 many large gold mines in Western Australia were controlled by British shareholders who grew wealthy from their investments. From 1895 to 1915 these mines produced gold worth £66 million, roughly 56% of all Western Australian output. 

Gold was mined on a large scale and underground mining became more complex as shafts were sunk to deeper levels until around 1910, when metallurgical problems precipitated a down turn in the industry. Improvements in mining machinery and gold extraction techniques revived the industry for a while, but increased labour and processing costs resulted in many mines closing. By 1925, Sons of Gwalia was the only big gold mine operating outside Kalgoorlie's Golden Mile.

In the early 1930s some mines, such as the Lake View and Star mines in Kalgoorlie, amalgamated to increase efficiencies. The move from steam power to oil-generated electricity and a new flotation method of treating gold ore also aided a revival in the industry. Mines reopened in outback areas due to an injection of capital from new companies like Western Mining Corporation. 

During World War II the gold mining industry experienced another big downturn, from 731 mines in 1940 to 324 in 1943. By 1945 employment in the mining industry was at a third of its pre-war rate.

Innovations  in gold extraction during the 1950s and 1960s, such as portable one-man drills, tungsten carbide-tipped bits and electric locomotives, helped maintain production levels despite a shrinking work force. Despite this, the profitability of Kalgoorlie's gold mines declined, and production from areas outside the Golden Mile decreased.

The industry did not recover until the 1980s. Mines that were  previously unprofitable due to low grade ore, reopened with increased gold prices. 

Open cut mining was introduced to old areas of gold production such as Kalgoorlie's Golden Mile and Leonora's Sons of Gwalia mine. The buoyant gold price made very fine grained gold, extracted from low grade ore, highly profitable. 

In 2015-16, gold was Western Australia’s second most valuable mineral sector, earning $10 billion (12% of the mineral sector’s total sales). Western Australia is still the largest producer of gold in Australia with more than 70% of the nation’s overall gold production. 

Western Australia is believed to have the largest gold reserves in the world: 16% (9,100 tonnes) of the world estimated  gold reserves of 56,000 tonnes.

Extract from Interview with James (Jim) Limerick

Improved extraction techniques saw the reprocessing of slime dumps - the solidified sludge from the old cyanide-based ore extraction process.

Man surveying the damage to Kalafatis Bros shop after the Kalgoorlie riots

The improvement in the gold industry during the Depression saw those seeking work move to the goldfields, including large numbers of migrants from Italian and Slav backgrounds. The competition for jobs increased racial tensions and resulted in the Kalgoorlie race riots in 1934.

Pit, headframe and winder house at the Sons of Gwalia mine

Sons of Gwalia mine closed in 1963. By the end of the 1970s only Central Norseman and Mt Charlotte (Kalgoorlie) gold mines remained in production.

Panorama of the Super Pit

Economic modern methods of mining have changed the landscape of the goldfields. It has become feasible for entire areas of gold bearing veins, including the barren rock, to be treated. In the past, only the veins themselves were mined.
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