The first Australian gold rush is widely considered to have begun in 1851 after a number of payable gold discoveries were made in New South Wales and Victoria. Stories of instant riches and unimaginable wealth spread across the world and soon boat loads of hopeful prospectors from Europe began to rock up on the East coast in search of that elusive pot of gold. By the late 1880s the gold rush had turned into a cavalcade, with prospectors’ spilling into Queensland and eventually over into the vast Northern expanses of Western Australia before coming down into what is now known as the Eastern Goldfields.
By 1892 the first rich gold specimens from the Eastern Goldfields were uncovered in Coolgardie, which quickly became the centre of mining activity in WA. One year later, three Irish prospectors by the names of Patrick ‘Paddy’ Hannan, Thomas Flanagan and Daniel Shea arrived in the region.
At the time, little did they know that they were about to discover one of the world’s richest gold deposits, in doing so etching their names into the history of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, which continues to bear the legacy of these small-time prospectors and this year the city is celebrating the 125th anniversary of the trio’s famous discovery.
Prior to 1983 Hannan and Flanagan had been partners in Coolgardie, which was already a prolific gold district at this stage. But along with Shea, they soon got wind of rumours of another gold rush in the region and went about prospecting near the present site of Mt Charlotte.
“Hannan, Flanagan and Shea were on the way to a rush,” explains Scott Wilson, president of the Eastern Goldfields Historical Society. “While they were trying to find where this rush was, Flanagan stumbled onto a few specks of gold and induced the others to stay behind.
“They decided to give the area a good prospect and didn’t let on to the other chaps in the party, making an excuse to hang back. They prospected the region and kept finding more gold until they had uncovered over 100 ounces of alluvial gold, at which point they went to register a claim.”
At the time, mining laws demanded that prospectors stake a claim otherwise the area would remain fair game for exploration, so they sent Hannan back to Coolgardie to register the claim. This simple decision was to create an enduring legacy for Hannan that remains evident across the city to this day.
The main street in Kalgoorlie is called Hannan Street, a statue of Hannan stands outside the town hall and the local beer is even named after the Irishman – a very fine beer according to John Bowler, the current Mayor of Kalgoorlie-Boulder.
While Hannan’s name maintains a strong presence in the city, traces of his friends Flanagan and Shea are less evident across Kalgoorlie, which reveals how history has been kind to the man who staked the claim and less so to the other individuals in the party. This is something that Bowler has sought to address during the 125th year celebrations across the city.
“The first gold was actually found by Tom Flanagan, but Paddy got all the recognition because he was the most literate of the three and was sent back 24 miles to Coolgardie to peg the reward claim,” reveals Bowler.
“Without denigrating or diminishing any of the achievements of Paddy Hannan, we’ve tried to give his two partners a bit more credit as they each have an equal claim to fame.”
Celebrations that have taken place so far this year in the city include a plaque unveiling in the apparent location where the trio pegged their first reward, which took place on Friday 15th June – 125 years to the day of that illustrious moment.
Like most historical yarns, the exact location of the gold discovery has been hotly contested with plenty of conjecture attributed to the story. However, Bowler holds third hand evidence as to the location of that first pegging of gold.
“Paddy Hannan told a local editor and labour member of parliament where the discovery was down a laneway. That editor told Henry Mills, a local historian, who told me as an old man.”
After the plaque unveiling, the city council hosted a big evening ball that celebrated the occasion in true ‘gold rush’ fashion – Bowler recalls how more beer was consumed than needed over the night, which was likely the case for Hannan and co on the evening of their discovery.
“Throughout the year there has been a lot of events that we have tagged with the 125th anniversary, so there is a really good feeling in the town at the moment,” says the mayor.
Returning to those heady days of 1893, the Irish trio’s discovery sparked an avalanche of prospecting activity in the area, which was quickly christened Hannan’s Find before the name Kalgoorlie was adopted from the Wangai word Karlkurla or Kulgooluh, meaning ‘place of the silky pears’.
“After the initial discovery, prospectors were raking over the surface and finding gold everywhere in Kalgoorlie,” says Wilson. “Some of the prospectors worked out that the gold was in the roots and the coarse veins of the rock, so there were several gold mining leases pegged in the area around Hannan’s Find.”
Discovering the Golden Mile
Into this bustling hive of activity arrived two more important figures only a few weeks after Hannan, Flanagan and Shea’s discovery. Sam Pearce and William Brookman had heard about the gold rush in Coolgardie while they were prospecting in South Australia, but by the time they had arrived in WA they were too late to be at the vanguard of the prospecting in Kalgoorlie.
However, this wasn’t to stop the duo from making an enormous discovery that was to shape the development of the town and the gold industry in a much bigger way than Hannan’s initial find ever did.
At the time, Pearce was known as a talented prospector who could allegedly ‘smell gold’, while Brookman was an entrepreneur and financier type-figure. Together they formed a formidable duo, acting on behalf of a syndicate comprised of 15 members who each paid 10-15 pounds to fund Pearce’s exploration.
“Pearce and Brookman weren’t your average Hannan, Shea and Flanagan figures, who wanted to stumble on a big nugget and go home, kiss the wife and live happily ever after,” Wilson quips. “These guys had a clear mission to secure ground for the syndicate.”
According to the legend, Pearce liked the look of the iron stone hills, some four to five miles Southeast of Hannan’s Find. After receiving a heads up from fellow prospectors in the region, he went down to a spot and using his geological knowledge and rudimentary equipment was able to identify gold-bearing rocks. Within a few days they had pegged out a lease called the Ivanhoe.
“Pearce understood that the iron stone hills had gold in them and he was able to find the veins. He worked out that the gold was scattered around that area, not just on that lease but throughout the lease.”
By the time Brookman came back from pegging the initial claim, Pearce had found the fabulously rich Great Boulder Mine, which resembled a major bingo moment for the pair, who quickly pegged the Great Boulder lease.
“They knew the claim was valuable but what was to come in the next few years was beyond their wildest dreams. The gold deposit they discovered promised phenomenal growth in wealth, not just to their syndicate but for WA and Australia as a whole.”
By the end of 1893, Brookman and Pearce had pegged a total of 19 leases in the area which soon became known as the Golden Mile, which is still producing today through the Super Pit – a 3.5 x 1.5 km open pit mine which extends more than 600 metres deep.
The Super Pit
The area has produced over 60 million ounces of gold to date and is the 5th biggest gold resource in the world, but most significantly it is widely accepted as the richest square mile in the world with the gold mineralisation condensed into a tight area.
“The phenomenal thing is that Pearce and Brookman pegged some of the best ground that was to make up the bulk of the Golden Mile the Super Pit,” Wilson remarks. “As a prospector myself I think about how amazing it would be been to be around in those days with all the tools we have today.”
A glance at Wilson’s recent ancestry reveals that gold is in his blood. His father was a prospector before him and this familial passion can be traced back to Wilson’s great great grandfather, who came to Australia from Scotland to be a prospector during the Victorian gold rushes.
“I am still out there doing exploration and small-scale drilling as well as the metal detector. I’ve had a few deals go well so I can put back into the industry and hopefully have my own little discovery.”
To this day, Kalgoorlie’s mining industry remains synonymous with gold exploration and extraction, however it is not the only commodity that has been identified amongst the region’s ancient rock formations. Nickel was discovered in the 1960s just South of Kalgoorlie, which led to a massive boom that is still going strong today.
Nonetheless, gold mining is still the bread and butter of the region with the Super Pit producing close to 800,000 ounces per annum, although this year’s production will be set back after a recent pit will collapse. However, it is hoped that this split will accelerate plans to establish an underground mining facility, which would resemble a major economic boost for the city.
The creation of the Super Pit by Kalgoorlie Consolidates Gold Mines (KCGM), along with the improving price of gold on international markets in the late 1980s, made a significant difference to the fortunes of the town, instigating vital economic growth across the region.
“We still tend to feel the ups and downs of the gold price – sometimes it has an effect on retail as shops will close only to reopen once again after not long,” explains Wilson.
“But the exploration industry is going very well, and the public has a great appetite for risk investment and putting capital into junior miners and larger companies, particularly into those who want to come up with new mines. Overall, it’s a pretty healthy environment and the towns folk always maintain an optimistic view.”
The new white gold
Today, Kalgoorlie stands on the brink of a new commodity boom after the discovery of several high grade lithium deposits in the region, and with the battery metal taking on increasing importance in the electrified world of today, Kalgoorlie’s future as a key mining hub of WA looks secure.
However, to this day – 125 years after the first discovery of gold in the region – Kalgoorlie is predominantly a gold mining town that has been built on the finds of Hannan, Flanagan and Shea along with Pearce and Brookman.
“Whether you are a local or visitor, I encourage you all to take advantage of the wonderful events, hosted by the city and other local organisations, and join in to commemorate the 125th year since the discovery of gold in Kalgoorlie-Boulder,” concludes Bowler.