Leonora is a town in the Goldfields-Esperance region of Western Australia, located 833 kilometres (518 mi) northeast of the state capital, Perth, and 237 kilometres (147 mi) north of the city of Kalgoorlie.
At the 2006 census, Leonora had a population of 401, about a third of whom are of Aboriginal descent.
The area is extremely arid, with a mean annual rainfall of just 230 millimetres (9 in). It is also quite warm, with mean daily maximum temperatures ranging from 18°C (64°F) in July to 37°C (99°F) in January.
Leonora is primarily a mining town. There are a number of major gold mines in the Shire, and the Murrin Murin laterite nickel project is located in the shire. The area is too arid to support agriculture, but there is a substantial pastoral industry.
The first European explorer was John Forrest, who visited the area in 1869. Forrest’s party made camp near a hill, which Forrest named Mount Leonora, after a lady friend of his, Miss Phylis Leonora Hardey.
In 1894, gold was discovered in the area by a prospector named Morrisey, and in the following two years a number of rich finds resulted in rapid development of the area. The Gwalia and Sons of Gwalia gold mines brought Leonora to the attention of the world. By 1897 a residential and business area had been established, and the town was gazetted as Leonora in 1898.
Leonora had an urban tramway system between 1901 and 1921: perhaps it was the smallest town in the world to have an electric tram.
In 2010, the Rudd Government relocated asylum seekers from Christmas Island to a former mining camp near Leonora.
Goldmining Town In The Desert.
Located 236 km north from Kalgoorlie and 833 km east of Perth, Leonora, like so many of the small goldmining towns in the Eastern Goldfields, has had a chequered history. The first European explorer through the area was John Forrest who, on his 1869 expedition in search of Ludwig Leichhardt, named the nearby 420 m high landmark, Mount Leonora.
It was the discovery of gold which changed everything. The eager searching beyond Kalgoorlie’s ‘Golden Mile’ resulted in alluvial gold being found in 1896. Immediately a rush was on. Later that year two reefing claims – ‘Johannesburg’ and ‘Sons of Gwalia’ – were pegged. For a short time the latter claim grew to become the largest gold mine outside Kalgoorlie.
The town grew quickly. The Leonora townsite was declared in 1898 and two years later the thriving settlement became a municipality. In 1900 a steam tramway linked Leonora and Gwalia. Two years later this small service was linked to Menzies and thus to the main railway line to Perth.
Leonora is always vulnerable to changes in world gold prices. After a long and slow decline (it was only sustained by its importance as an administrative centre for the surrounding pastoral holdings) it was revitalised by the boom in world gold prices which occurred in the 1980s. The famous Tower Hill mine was reopened in 1983 and the Harbour Lights mine came into existence in 1985.
Gwalia Historical Precinct
A community museum was formed by a group of residents from Leonora-Gwalia after the large company of Berwick Moreing closed the Sons of Gwalia mine down in December 1963.
The town of Gwalia was basically a mining town and most of the residents were employed either on the mine or associated industries connected to the mine. So when the mine closed, the town quickly became deserted, and the little temporary miners houses, shops, boarding houses and other important buildings were left empty to the elements.
These included the Gwalia State School, the State Hotel, Mine Manager’s & Superintendent’s houses and the Mine Office & Assay building. Slowly as the years went by, people started to realise that the town was disappearing with the impact of the harsh elements of the Goldfields outback.
The Museum was opened in the Mine Manager’s office, then owned by Western Mining, in 1972 and the Sons of Gwalia mine itself was reopened by a company called Sons of Gwalia in 1981, and they mined the site via ‘open pit’ mining. The open pit is right along side the Museum. This provided additional interest for tourists who then could watch the mine in operation from the safety of a tower overlooking the pit.
In 1987 the old Oregon headframe and steam winding engine were relocated to the Museum precinct, saving it from the open pit which had since taken over the area of the old mine.
These two exhibits were very important to save – the headframe being of Oregon pine, designed by Herbert Hoover (later to become the 31st American President), and the engine being the largest steam winding engine in Australia.
In 1912 the winder had come from England, designed by Frazer & Chalmers. These are two very important pieces of history for the Museum. They both now stand overlooking the new mining operations very majestically.
In 1996 the area celebrated its centenary and part of a ‘gift’ to the town was a project where many of the old miners huts were going to be restored. As they had been left neglected for some thirty years suffering cyclones, wind, rain & extreme heat, these were in, to say the least, very poor condition, with some not having lining, roofs or floors.
These camps were built as shelters by the miners using left over filter cloth, old explosive boxes and tin from the mine. The miners were not, in most cases, architects or builders but mainly Italian miners looking for shelter and something substantial to put over their tents.
The community of Leonora-Gwalia has worked very hard at restoring these camps using similar implements and materials that were used nearly 100 years ago. These buildings are open for tourists to wander through and all that is asked is that nothing be touched or taken, and that children are under supervision.
Leonora is the centre of a very large pastoral community which started with the arrival of the miners. Though predominately sheep-based, some beef was also grazed in the region. Unfortunately the pastoral industry has declined in recent years due to people wanting different lifestyles than the hardship and loneliness of the outback. Explorers that travelled throughout the area included John Forrest, Frank Hann, David Carnegie, Ernest Giles, Tietkin and Gas Luck.
Things to see:
The appeal of the town lies in the fact that Tower Street, the main street, has remained largely unchanged since the turn of the century. The shops, with their footpath verandahs, and the hotels have a charm which offers an insight into what the town must have been like during the boom.