From its early explorers to its prolific mining industry, Broken Hill’s history is rich and colourful.
Australian explorers Burke and Wills famously camped in 1860 about 100 km south-east of Broken Hill, on the banks of the ephemeral Lake Pamamaroo, now full after a dry decade. They stayed at the Maiden Hotel in the nearby Darling River outpost of Menindee – the first permanent town on the river.
And their loss is linked to a local, William Wright, manager of the huge pastoral run that in 1967 became far western NSW’s first national park – Kinchega. A 19th-century inquiry into the explorers’ demise found Wright’s delay in taking supplies from Menindee to Cooper Creek contributed to their deaths.
From the 1860s, pastoralists established huge sheep flocks for wool production in the area, contributing on a grand scale to the proverbial sheep’s back upon which the early Australian economy rode.
It’s indicative of the industry’s scale that 6 million merinos and merino-crosses passed through the historic woolshed at Kinchega – immaculately preserved in the national park – during its century of operation.
It was, however, minerals – silver, zinc and lead – that saw Broken Hill established, and a rich mining heritage endures to this day. It’s evident in the architecture: from humble miners’ cottages clad with corrugated iron on the town’s south side, to grand hotels and emporiums that mark early economic boom times along the wide main thoroughfare, Argent Street.
But, running parallel to that street, the most striking visual symbol is the massive mound of mining waste from a century of digging – a hundred metres high and kilometres long.
“That hill – our mullock heap – has been recognised by the Broken Hill residents as one of the landscape features they couldn’t live without,” says Andrea Roberts, Broken Hill Council’s community development manager.
For this reason, rehabilitation of the rubble scar is unlikely to ever happen: ugly or not, it’s so intensely symbolic of the town’s origins and heritage that it’s here to stay.
Broken Hill was founded in 1888, five years after Charles Rasp, a boundary rider on the million-acre Mount Gipps Station, discovered a mineral outcrop exposed by erosion. Rasp and some of his fellow station employees formed the ‘Syndicate of Seven’ consortium to stake a claim around the outcrop; it was thought to be tin but was later identified as the world’s biggest lead-silver-zinc ore deposit.
It’s now the stuff of legend in the mining industry worldwide.
The ore is contained in a boomerang-shaped line of lode; the original exposed section at its centre – now long-since mined away – created the ‘broken hill’ appearance that gave the town its name. The lode is up to 250 m wide and 7.3 km long, each end plunging more than 1.6 km into the earth.
*Originally published in Australian Geographic magazine.