Broken Hill is in New South Wales but it is so remote that it still retains the 30 minute time difference of South Australia. The city is based around a hill that was almost pure silver, lead and zinc. It is a mining town right on the edge of the desert.
It’s not a big town with a population of only 17,500, yet compared to the tiny settlements nearby, ii’s an enormous town. It’s really only as big as Bairnsdale in Victoria, half the size of Mildura and a quarter the size of Shepparton.
Perhaps the most memorable feature of Broken Hill is that it is only a few minutes from the desert, no matter which direction you travel. It is a city surrounded by red soils, grey saltbush crub, impossible flatness and intensely blue skies that make the world seem larger and more dramatic.
In January 1885 a rich vein of silver was found by a prospecting syndicate and later that year Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) was floated on the stock exchange. To add to the mining experience, many of the streets are named after metals, minerals and compounds, or after mine managers, leading citizens and civic leaders. The Main Street is Argent Street with its streetscape of historic buildings and old pubs.
We spent our first day here taking a stroll along the street and checking out some of its historic buildings. There are so many to write about, so I am mentioning just the ones that really impressed me.
The Court House was built of stuccoed brick in 1889 in a design typical of late Victorian courthouses in Australia. Its symmetrical design includes a two-storey court room and an entry porch which is heralded by a fine coat of arms at window level.
There are a number of historic hotels in the city but the most famous and most impressive is the three-storey Palace Hotel (1889) with its long verandas and its beautiful cast-iron balustrades. Anyone who has seen the movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert will immediately recognise it.
In the central part of the civic group of buildings is the town hall with its ornate tower. It was the first first of the truly ornate structures to grace the streets of Broken Hill.
The trade unions were very active in Broken Hill and I get the impression that there were almost constant conflict between the unions and management. The Trades Hall building is a symbol of the union’s strength. With its highly ornate facade, stained-glass windows and geometrically patterned ceiling the Trades Hall (1898-1905) is a monument to the importance and status of the union movement in this union city. Built and paid for entirely by the people of Broken Hill, it stands as a proud monument to all workers, past and present. The Trades Hall stands out, not just in architectural terms but because history was made within its walls and on the streets outside. The Trades Hall has been the home of the union movement in Broken Hill since it was built in 1905.
In Argent Street, by a little park, is a memorial that shows how tough life must have been for the wives and families because of their men’s tough and protracted strikes for better working conditions and increased safety.
There are some high quality galleries and museums in Broken Hill. The old sandstone railway station, for example, is now a museum. It has a range of railway attractions, including the Silver City Comet and a selection of restored items from the Silverton Tramway Company. The Silver City Comet was a train service that operated from 1937 until 1989 between Parkes and Broken Hill. It was the first air-conditioned train in Australia.
Broken Hill’s Afghan Mosque is recognised as Australia’s first mosque. It was built in 1891 by a small group of Muslim camel drivers from Afghanistan and India on the site of a former camel camp. Importation of camels had commenced in 1840 and the first Afghan camel driver, Dost Mahomet, accompanied the Burke and Wills expedition in 1860. To complete the multiculturalism of this area Broken Hill also has a synagogue. The locals suggest that the synagogue, now a museum, is probably the most isolated Jewish museum in the world.
Above the town sits a memorial to the miners who lost their lives at work. The earliest names go back as far as 1885 and continue to the current day. Beside each name on the memorial is a red rose. It appears that veterans are commemorated with poppies and miners with roses.
In the afternoon, we paid a visit to Pro Hart’s gallery. Kevin (Pro) Hart began his working career as a locomotive driver in one of the mines, however his real passion was painting. He was a local man, born in Broken Hill and was considered the father of the Australian Outback painting movement. His works are widely admired for capturing the true spirit of the outback. He grew up on his family’s sheep farm in Menindee and was nicknamed “Professor” (hence “Pro”) during his younger days, when he was known as a bit of an inventor.
For most of his career, Pro was dismissed by many art critics as a mere showman, with his art often judged as populist and derivative, and not good enough for serious critical attention. However, people sought his work and his prolific output of paintings made him wealthy enough to collect vintage cars and to own three Roll Royce cars. The gallery has his distinctive Rolls Royce (he painted it with a typical Pro Hart design) outside and features a collection of Australian and European works and one of the largest pipe organs in Australia.
On our final activity for the day we drove a little way out of town to the Living Desert Sculpture Park. It didn’t tale long to drive through a few city blocks before we were out in the desert. The Sculpture Park is located on a hill nearby the city and is the product of a decision, back in 1993, to invite sculptors from around the world to create sculptures from the local rock. Twelve international sculptors each worked on their own piece of Wilcannia sandstone with the result being twelve large sandstone sculptures. To see them late in the afternoon when the golden rays of the setting sun light them up and turn them golden, is something special.
The late afternoon sun also gave us a stunning view across the desert.