Kalgoorlie in the winter-time


Kalgoorlie wasn’t pretty but it was cold. Just as you’d expect in winter-time.

Diggers & Dealers logo.There was no snow but there was plenty of rain. Lots of it on the day I arrived in Kalgoorlie. In Western Australia the rain falls hard and fast … just like I’m told the locals like to party. I’d snuck into town early that Saturday morning and took roost in an outback guest house for the weekend. I was sure that I’d meet lots of conference delegates doing the same.

My accommodation was organised through Kelly Harris of Kalgoorlie Homes (http://diggersndealers.com.au/#services) who coordinates accommodation in private homes for the Diggers & Dealers Mining Forum. I was keen to gain a sense of Kalgoorlie before the conference began and thought private lodgings would add to my visitor experience.

As an oral historian – and viewed by locals as from ‘back out east’ (on the eastern seaboard of Australia) – I was keen to find out about mining and geology in Western Australia.  As a professional journalist, I interview geologists for the History of Australian geoscience oral history project for Geoscience Australia (https://beta.worldcat.org/archivegrid/collection/data/878076439).*

The day 01 August 2015 is etched into my mind as my coldest day so far in a desert situation. It started raining by breakfast time that day and didn’t let up for over 24 hours.

Photo license Fiona Rothchilds 2015
Kalgoorlie in the winter-time.

Walking down the street after lunch, there was no overhead protection, no trees, and no lost umbrella to claim. It rained hard as you’d expect in an outback town. Oops, in an outback city … I should say …

It’s just that it was not like any another rural city I’d been in before – not like Calgary, Santa Fe or Dubbo. There was no central plaza, or weekend shoppers or even many cars or utes. For a weekend in a rural hub…the place looked almost empty.

Where was everyone? I thought there was a conference on soon? I’d arrived for the 2015 Diggers & Dealers Mining Forum and was raring to go!  I’d expected to see people fetching and carrying, building or erecting, unloading, unpacking or at least moving conference items into town. I could see there were no tourists or buses or coaches in town.  No caravans, four-wheel drives with interstate number plates or obvious police presence. I had a Kalgoorlie map but had I arrived in the wrong town? Had my travel plans miss-stepped? Where was everyone for the conference?

I checked the pharmacies and found locals looking for cough mixture, paracetamol and paper tissues. The rain and cold weather had caught them out too.

Sassy Sue's dress shop on Hannan St, Kalgoorlie, WA.
Sassy Sue’s dress shop on Hannan St, Kalgoorlie.

I checked the dress shops and shoe shops – surely someone was looking for an upmarket dress or high-heeled shoes for the conference dinner? But I found only locals keeping out of the weather and catching up on local chit-chat…

I could have bought the t-shirt
The BIG t-shirt …

There were some local guys hanging around shop doors chatting up sales assistants – but no-one I could see that looked like part of the mining company fraternity or conference support staff. Where was everyone?  I tried the tourist museum at 4pm and found it had closed for the day so no chance to buy the t-shirt… ‘Back tomorrow 9am!’ the door sign read. That would make that day a Sunday …. mmm …
I looked for a coffee shop – and found the front door of The Relish closed. The café looked promising: tiny but the décor appeared cosmopolitan and trendy. The sign read ‘Open for breakfast 9am!’ …mmm…okay… Then I found the shop with the teatowels and postcards in the front window. That shop was closed too…

Outback recipes
The teatowel with Outback baking recipes.
Outback recipes for field trips
Outback tucker: billy tea, damper & mutton stew.
Kalgoorlie postcards of pubs
A postcard of the top ten pubs in Kalgoorlie, WA.

So I headed for the Palace Hotel on the corner of Hannan and Maritana Streets. The sandwich board signage read ‘Early meals from 5-6pm’. The hotel brochure I read inside said that this was the place that Hebert Hoover (who later became 31st President of the United States of America) visited during his time in Kalgoorlie.

Herbert Hoover had arrived in Kalgoorlie, WA in the late 1800s from London, England with English mining engineers. They had worked in the Goldfields as professional mining engineers. I was curious to find out what kind of life they might have lived at that time in Australian history.

The Palace Hotel looks a place of local heritage and pub history: it has an ornate wooden staircase, equally ornately-patterned carpets, potted palms, wood-framed mirrors and sepia photographs of eminent men and local events from times long passed. In all the photographs I saw there were masses of people in the street, almost falling over each other to be photographed.

I found one pen and ink sketch of the American Herbert Hoover. According to the literature, Hoover is recorded as being a Quaker (a Protestant teetotaller – non-alcoholic drinker). From my perspective it seemed unusual to visit his Kalgoorlie memories housed in a public hotel. But perhaps at the time that Hoover lived in Kalgoorlie it was possible to enjoy a soft drink soda or coffee in a hotel without the social pressure to drink alcoholic beverages?

Kalgoorlie - Hoover Mirror
The wooden mirror with carvings in the lobby, The Palace Hotel, Kalgoorlie.
The lobby of The Palace Hotel
The lobby of The Palace Hotel, Kalgoorlie with framed cartoon sketch.

In looking around the public areas of the Palace Hotel I could see that there were people enjoying coffee and cake as well as alcoholic beverages. Feeling more confident about the situation I joined in with the coffee crowd. I sat at a corner table in the downstairs lounge area and watched the scene. I saw tables and chairs being moved by a number of young fit-looking women. According to my waitress, the tables were being set-up for a mining company to entertain their intra-state guests. “We get a lot of money through here at this time of year!” she said.

I said “Thank you” to her on hearing her comments, because I was relieved to learn that there was some action happening in this town tonight. The town looked empty. “Maybe I’ve arrived too early? I’m here for the mining forum” I said. The waitress blushed and then I wondered what her red face was about? It was the pre-conference day after all yet I could not see another delegate around.

“Oh no, they’re here, you just can’t see them in here yet!?” she laughed, clearly embarrassed about something … but what? I wiped the moisture from behind my ears…

I ordered a coffee. Several other young women helped my table waitress to prepare for the Saturday night dinner. It later turned out that a mining company was flying its Australian-based executives in from around Australia. The company had booked the downstairs dining room for a pre-conference briefing and evening meal. I noticed the women spoke with faintly Irish accents. They were keen to get everything ‘just right’ with table cloths, cutlery, glassware and flatware. Clearly the money being offered by the company client was taken seriously by the Palace Hotel waitresses. The area where I sat needed to be vacated by 5pm so I was rushed a coffee quick smart.

I enjoyed my robust coffee and then looked again at the Hoover Mirror. I’d interviewed several scientists for the History of Australian Geoscience oral history project over the last 18 months who’d lived or worked in Kalgoorlie. They’d each suggested to me that the Hoover Mirror was the iconic item to visit should I ever head out west to Kalgoorlie, Western Australia (WA).

The Palace Hotel Chef's taster plate
The Palace Hotel 5.30pm Chef’s taster plate.

So I made the trip to Kalgoorlie in time for the Diggers & Dealers Mining Forum (1-3 August 2015) at the Goldfields Arts Centre. In the Palace Hotel in Kalgoorlie I found a hand-written poem housed in a wooden frame near the outsized mirror. The poem described a young man’s view of the world and his admiration for the beauty of a local girl. A small sign board on the wall near the Mirror said the poem was written by Herbert Hoover in memory of a barmaid he had admired while working in the Goldfields of WA.

At 5pm the Palace Hotel’s restaurant opened so I ventured up the stairs and walked into the upper bar-restaurant for an early meal. I couldn’t wait any longer for a street-level eatery to open. It was convenient to stay within the warmth of the Palace Hotel. So I chanced it and was offered a table on the Palace Hotel balcony with a view of the corners of Hannan and Maritana Streets. The balcony was closed in with transparent plastic blinds so I could see out without being seen from the street level.

After ordering the Chef’s Special Plate, I had a spritzer and admired the local architecture on view. Directly opposite the Palace Hotel on Hannan Street is a brick building with ornate plaster façade; it houses a pharmacy which is open seven days a week. On the diagonally opposite corner is the Australia Hotel which I’m told provides temporary accommodation for itinerant workers and tourists. Directly opposite the Palace Hotel is the Exchange Hotel.

The Exchange Hotel, Kalgoorlie
The Exchange Hotel (photo taken in the rain).

The Exchange building has an ornate wooden balcony and is adjacent to the office of the Kalgoorlie Miner newspaper. It is featured in many photographs of outback Australian pubs. There is a country-and-western style corner door in the Exchange Hotel which opens onto Hannan Street. I recommend using that door to anyone wanting to step directly into a ‘wild-west’ type saloon. It was an experience I will never forget.  I did so on a Sunday morning and found the saloon complete with ‘The Lost Delilah’ written about by EG ‘Dryblower’ Murray in 1908 in Jarrahland Jottings. It was like being in a scene in an American cowboy and western film … Not what I would prefer to see at that time of the day. But then Kalgoorlie is a goldfields town in the outback. What else would swains want to see in an outback bar?

Photo license Fiona Rothchilds 2015.
The lost Delilah in ‘Hire and Sale’ in Jarraland Jingles, pp. 155-156.

In comparison, my dinner at the Palace Hotel on Saturday night was very quiet. As it was 5.30pm there was little traffic on the street, only a few people walking around and still fewer people in the hotel I visited. A slow afternoon in an outback country town? Perhaps everyone I was looking for was still ‘on the road’ to Kalgoorlie… The wind and rain rattled the plastic blinds as I finished my nourishing meal.

Hot food did hit the spot… I sent my compliments to the chef…  As I left, the waitress asked why I was in town. “What are you here for…?”  When I told her of my interest in the Herbert Hoover connection to Kalgoorlie, she almost yawned. Her rolling eyes seemed like that of a teenager … She said the barmaid had not wanted the Mirror which Herbert Hoover had commissioned for her. She suggested that the Mirror was placed in the hotel because it was somewhere where the Mirror would fit …

kal sat hoover poem
Herbert Hoover’s poem to the hotel barmaid.
Late Saturday afternoon in Kalgoorlie
Late Saturday afternoon in Kalgoorlie, WA.

That sounded a bit sad to me… was the Mirror really an unrequited love object from a well-meaning admirer? Later that week I tried to verify the waitress’s claim. I could find no written evidence in the Kalgoorlie Mining Museum or through the Kalgoorlie Tourist Office. The people I spoke with said they’d “…never heard that one before…” … Perhaps the waitress’s claims were unfounded.

I walked back to my guest house as there were no taxis around. The shuttle bus service for the Diggers’n’Dealers Mining Forum didn’t start until Monday. The wind buffeted me as I turned the corner and walked past the Aboriginal hostel. It was all quiet there too.

*History of Australian geoscience oral history project http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/6455816?lookfor=fiona%20rothchilds&offset=12&max=12  and (https://beta.worldcat.org/archivegrid/collection/data/878076439).

Copyright of text and photographs Fiona Rothchilds.
Article uploaded 26 August 2015 Canberra; updated 25 October 2015.