Broken Hill Mines – the Story – Chapter 1: The Early Days

The area in Australia that this story concerns is the central west of what is now known as the state of New South Wales and as shown in Figure 1.

Fig. 1 The central west area showing Silverton, Thackaringa and the locality where Broken Hill was later established.

The earliest people to live in this area were the Bulali, a subgroup of the Wiljakali aboriginals, (although that is contentious), and they were only intermittent as there was no permanent water.  They were there for at least 40 000 years, perhaps even as long as 50 000 years, until the white settlers came and drove them from their lands.  The advent of white men had two devastating effects.  First, they brought disease (as they did in many places), and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, they built fences that interfered with animal runs and so diminished the availability of bush tucker.

Undoubtedly, the first white man to visit the area was Major Thomas Mitchell in 1841 as Surveyor-General for the Colony of New South Wales.  He was followed in 1844 by Charles Sturt, who came through from Adelaide to look for the great inland sea thought to lie to the north.  Sturt found his progress in that direction was impeded by a range of hills he appropriately named the Barrier Ranges.  In the 1850s pastoralists came and settled on the trade route to the Darling River in the south-east and then, in 1860-61, Burke and Wills passed through and camped at nearby Menindee.

In the mid 1870s, small but incredibly rich silver-lead deposits were discovered at two locations in the area.  These were Thackaringa, (Figure 2), near Cockburn and Umberumberka near Silverton, (see Figure 1).  Mining of these deposits commenced in 1876.  The population of Thackaringa soon rose to about 300, and of Silverton to about 3 000.  Silverton was big enough to be nearly self-sufficient with banks, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, a library, priests, pastors, a photo studio, a stock and station agent, a policeman (who had been involved in the hunt for Ned Kelly in Victoria), and a butcher (brother of Sydney Kidman) all setting up shop.  Of course, there were many pubs, and Mr. Resch, (probably Emil), established a brewery and made a small fortune.

By the early 1880s mining camps had sprung up in the vicinity of Silverton to enable miners to exploit the silver-lead shows in that region.  Their many mines had highly original and mostly appropriate names – Daydream, Hen & Chickens, Silver King, Purnamoota, Black Prince, Apollyon, Big Blow, Nil Desperandum, The Lubra, Terrible Dick, and many others.

Fig. 2 Mining claims at Thackaringa, circa 1883.

Twenty miles to the south-east of Silverton was a black rocky outcrop on a sheep station named Mt Gipps.  This outcrop was several miles long and sometimes known as the ‘black broken hill’.  The original name was Wilyu-Wilyu-von but the Silverton miners, who had had a good look at it, called it ‘the hill of mullock’  They were generally convinced that it was devoid of minerals, and by that they meant silver, for that was all that interested them.

Well, we know differently, and that leads to the discovery.