It was nothing but desert in 1892. Seven years later Coolgardie was the third-largest town in Western Australia. Shops lined the extraordinarily wide main street, there were seven newspapers, six banks and two stock exchanges, schools, theatres, churches, a synagogue and a mosque for the ‘Afghan’[i] cameleers who kept the 5000-or-so inhabitants supplied with goods. And much of their water. Two cemeteries held over a thousand underground residents, while three breweries and twenty-six hotels slaked the prodigious thirst of the miners. In 1896 the railway arrived and just a few years later ‘the mother of the Western Australian goldfields’ hosted a World Fair.
The first of the grand celebrations of industry and technology that began the World’s Fair movement was held in Paris in 1844. Fifty years later they were an international fad and no self-respecting country or industry could not have one. The Coolgardie event was officially titled ‘The Western Australian International Mining and Industrial Exhibition’. Nothing like it had been seen in the west and there would never be anything quite like it again.
On 21 March, the special train from Perth arrived carrying one hundred and fifty VIPs, including the Governor and the Premier with their respective families and entourages. They were welcomed by the mayor and all the dignitaries that Coolgardie boasted, together with the Mayor of Melbourne, an Archdeacon and the vice-consul of Denmark. The triumphal arch of flowers on Bayley Street had only just been completed in the early hours of the morning and there were: ‘festoons at the end of the street facing the exhibition, and these, with profuse displays of bunting at the hotels and other establishments along Bayley Street, comprised the decorations with which the town had arrayed itself for the occasion. Interwoven with the arch were the words, ‘Welcome to Coolgardie’, while similarly hospitable greetings appeared on the walls of buildings along each side of Bayley Street.’
Anyone who was anyone was there, as well as many who were not. The speeches, toasts and backslapping were almost endless. The shortest was made by a colourful entrepreneur named Jules Joubert, manager of the event. Joubert was an early example of a global organiser that we have become familiar with through international sporting networks and affiliations. He had parlayed an earlier involvement with the World Fair movement into a position of control and influence. Not surprisingly, he was happy. He claimed to have ‘managed fifty exhibitions, and the present one was therefore his jubilee. He would have liked to have stopped the sun for a fortnight, for then they would have had one of the best exhibitions ever seen in Australasia.’
And everyone else was in good spirits, especially when the official opening of the grand Exhibition Building finally took place. There were more speeches, of course. Premier Forrest was overflowing with praise, emphasising that the government was in full support of the Exhibition and ‘were most anxious that the Exhibition should do all its promoters desired it should do. There had been a great many sceptics and unbelievers, and people who threw cold water on the project, and if it had not been for the people of Coolgardie – supported, he thought, by himself and he might say the Government – this Exhibition would not have been in the position it was now.’
And there was more, rather a lot. But the topic that every miner and business-owner in the goldfields finally came:
There was one thing he missed, which he had hoped to see, and that was a river of water coming into the town-(cheers)-a river he had promised he would do his best to bring. And they were bringing it. People might say what they liked, they might be sceptical or disbelievers, but he could tell them that the great water scheme was raising itself up like the Temple of Jerusalem was raised silently. (Cheers.) There was no great sound of hammers going on. These hammers were, however, being applied, and in a very short time, like that magnificent edifice, this great water scheme would rear itself up, and fresh water would flow into the town. (Cheers).
A strike of wharfies at Fremantle meant that loads of exhibits being waggoned from Perth were still wending their way towards the glittering event. Despite this, the show went on with balls, orchestras and entertainments of all kinds – ‘Dancing was indulged in till after midnight.’ Over five thousand people attended on the first day and more than 60 000 were estimated to have visited by the time it ended almost three and a half months later. The Exhibition was pronounced a great success, particularly in the circumstances, as the press pointed out:
it may be safely asserted that no event of this nature has been attempted under more discouraging circumstances than those which have attended the present undertaking in this remote portion of the Australian continent, where eight years ago there was not a vestige of civilisation, and when the aboriginal, like Robinson Crusoe, was monarch of all he surveyed, but which through the discovery of gold has become a great mining centre and a hive of industry. It was undoubtedly a bold undertaking to induce the manufacturers of the old world to unite in displaying their wares and products to the population of these fields. Coolgardie being in the heart of a wilderness, and at a distance of nearly 400 miles from the sea coast, presented almost an insurmountable difficulty in this respect alone.[ii]
The city in the desert was on its way to even greater things!
But it was not to be. Rich as Coolgardie’s lodes of gold might be, they were outdone by the even richer and more abundant ores of Kalgoorlie and Boulder, not much further down the track, now known as the ‘Super Pit.’ Combined with the slump in gold prices at this period, Coolgardie began a slow decline. A School of Mines was opened in 1902 but closed a year later, supplanted by Kalgoorlie’s own school. In the 1930s the Grand Exhibition Building burned down, by which time the town was in terminal decline. Not quite a ghost town, Coolgardie today has around 900 people living there, but its glory days have long faded and its mainstay, like many bush towns, is tourism.
[i] The cameleers also came from various regions of India and what is now Pakistan; ‘Afghan’ was a colloquial term.
[ii] Quotations from The West Australian 22 March 1899, p. 5; see also Lynne Stevenson, ‘The Coolgardie International Exhibition, 1899’ in: Lenore Layman and Tom Stannage (eds). Celebrations in Western Australia, Studies in Western Australian History, No. 10, April 1989, pp. 100-106.