Broken Hill is more than just a great outback city – a true island of humanity in an otherwise forbidding landscape – it is one of the most unique and diverse biological and geological environments in the world. Located 1100km west of Sydney in the far west of NSW it draws much of its outside connections and its local time zone from Adelaide, located 500km to the south west.
The city of Broken Hill grew out of the chance discovery in 1883 of highly mineralised ore by a station boundary rider, Charles Rasp. Like many rural workers in Australia at the time Rasp kept his eye open for what was hoped to be an undiscovered ore body, a natural consequence of the flood of discoveries and riches begun by the discovery of gold in the 1850s.
Rasp’s samples proved not to be tin, which he’d first thought they were, but silver and lead in very rich concentration, and the ore body from which they had come proved to be the largest of its type in the world. Rasp and six associates founded a company, Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP), in 1885, which has gone on to become the world’s largest mining operation after having diversified in the early 20th century into steel manufacturing.
BHP ceased mining at Broken Hill in 1939, but other mining companies have continued to produce riches from the “Line of Lode”, the name given to the huge boomerang-shaped deposit below the town.
The rich silver-lead-zinc deposits were produced 1800 million years ago and outcropped at a jagged uprising known as the broken hill by the early pastoralists. The “arms” of the boomerang plunge deep into the Earth on either side of the outcrop. Minerals with the same isotopic signature as those found at Broken Hill have been found across Antarctica, and the ore body at Mt Isa in North Queensland is also related as having been formed about the same time, when this north-south line marked the eastern boundary of Australia.
Despite the decline in the mining outputs Broken Hill has remained a thriving and prosperous urban centre – though the population has shrunk from a peak of 30,000 during the 1970s boom in zinc production to around 18,000 today - that constantly threatens to outgrow the resources such as water and power that enable it to exist. The Broken Hill Solar Plant is one of the largest in Australia, producing 53MW of power, and was completed in 2016.
Broken Hill has a rich history in many areas, aside from its importance as a mining centre. The region was permanently settled by aboriginal tribes who lived off underground water resources, some of which remain secret even today. The area was first seen by Europeans when Major Thomas Mitchell led an exploration party through the area in 1841, and in 1844 Charles Sturt named the range of hills on which the town is now built the Barrier Range as it blocked his journey north in search of an inland sea. Pastoralists began settling the area in the 1850s and in 1860-61 Burke and Wills traversed the region on their ill-starred journey to the continent’s north coast.
In 1915 two Afghans, believed to be sympathetic to the Turkish Empire and the German-Austrian cause in World War 1, open fire on a trainload of people, killing four and wounding six before themselves being shot by police and soldiers.
The town was also significant in the formation of a strong trade union movement in Australia. Major industrial disputes in 1892, 1909 and 1919 helped forge a strong sense of brotherhood amongst the miners and the formation in 1923 of the Barrier Industrial Council, a major influence on local politics.
Broken Hill is a great town for travellers, with heaps to see. There are mine tours, and a trip to the Miners Memorial at the Line of Lode Mine, commemorating the 800 miners who died at the mine, is not only a moving visit in itself but there are panoramic views of the city from the top of the waste pile. A drive out of town to Silverton, with its many art galleries and the famous Silverton pub, where much of the Mad Max movies was filmed, and then stop offs at the Living Desert Sanctuary and the nearby sculptures makes a great afternoon out. Be there at the sculptures at sunset.
Broken Hill itself has numerous famous old pubs from the days when miners washed out the day’s dust with long glasses of cold beer, and for a mining town it has a remarkable number of art galleries, including that of artist Pro Hart.
A drive around the town often elicits a sense of amazement from visitors looking at the many buildings built entirely from corrugated iron. In a climate that can get as hot as the mid-40s between November and February this seems a remarkable choice for shelter.
The town still continues to produce about two million tonnes of ore a year and the region supports almost two million merino sheep.