Heritage in the spotlight

I like a town that values its heritage. Burra in South Australia certainly is that place. Which makes sense – after all it was placed on the National Heritage Register as a significant historical site in 1993.

Situated in the Clare Valley region, about 40kms NE of Clare itself, Kooringa (as the initial township was called) was the first company owned mining town in Australia and was Australia’s largest inland town by 1851. The Monster Mine, as it became known, that was at its heart was the largest metal producing mine in Australia up until 1860.

It was relatively short lived, albeit vital to the South Australian economy whilst it was in production, and by 1867 the underground mining operation had wound up. An open cut was then created to extract more of the valuable ore, closing in 1877.  It produced in total 50,000 tonnes of copper metal between 1845 and 1877.

Fast forward to the late 20th century and the open cut was re-opened as a modern operation between 1971 and 1981, relieving a further 24,000 tonnes of copper from the ground. This phase left an impressive 100m deep hole in the ground (though paling in significance compared to Kalgoorlie’s Super Pit!). Rising groundwater was always a problem for all stages of the mining operations, requiring sophisticated pumping and water transfer technology, and since the final mine closure the pit has filled with groundwater once more, which has levelled out at 50m deep. It is now used for underwater dive training. Enterprising!

And the heritage to be found in the town? Where do I start??! The Monster Mine itself I suppose. The first and largest wave of miners to the Burra mine were Cornish. So they left behind a legacy of Cornish enginehouses, winding houses and all the 19th century technology that goes along with it. For me, it brought back memories of traveling in Cornwall.

The Morphett Enginehouse has been restored and is now the focal point of an excellent museum. You can walk around a large part of the old mine site as well. The old powder magazine – which stored the gunpowder used for blasting in the mine – is the oldest mining building in Australia still standing. It’s a remarkably solid squat little blip on the hillside above the open cut.

One of the most amusing aspects of the mine is their mascot – Johnny Green. This was a figure of a miner holding traditional mining tools. He used to stand on top of the engine house, and later at the entrance to the mine, but was stolen by vandals in 1967. A replica now stands on Peacock’s Chimney, which was moved in 1971 from its original location to allow the modern open cut, and rebuilt on the main road signalling the entry to the mine precinct. He’s a happy chappy, made me smile each time I saw him.

Other highlights included the miners dug outs – these were early miners’ homes that had literally been dug out of the creek banks – largely because of a chronic housing shortage in the company town, but also because they were rent free and close to water. A couple have been restored so you can walk in and imagine what it would have been like.

It’s extraordinary to learn that at one time, there were nearly 600 of these homes lining the creek – in 1851, around 1,800 people in a total population of 4,400 lived in them. However, they were of course particularly flood prone, and in 1851 alone there were three floods that wiped out these communities. By 1860 they were all but deserted.

One of the most interesting factors to me was that Burra was originally a collection of distinct townships, each one made up of immigrants from different parts of the UK – Cornwall, Scotland, Wales and England – reflected in names such as Redruth, Aberdeen, Llwchwr, and Hampton. It was only in 1940 that the name Burra was officially adopted for one collection of these townships, and Burra North for the others.

The municipal buildings are extraordinary and open to the public most days – the Town Hall is a fantastic resource, including a really interesting walk through the old cinema reel house, back of house rooms, and significant historical photograph collections. The old Kooringa Telegraph Station building – now the regional art gallery – is a gorgeous building that was abuzz when I called with the opening of a new exhibition.

There’s so much more – the lonely abandoned English village of Hampton with remnant drystone walls and crumbling ruined houses (remarkably, the last one only left in the 1960s!) punctuated by gum trees; the old Unicorn Brewery cellars; the Redruth Gail; the Courthouse and Police/Lockup complex; significant homes, hotels and cottage rows; the amazing school building; churches – I won’t attempt to describe it all. You have to go see it for yourself.

So the reason I say that Burra values its heritage? The community has developed the Burra Heritage Trail to showcase the best sites and stories, which incorporates the Burra Passport. For $20, you get a guide book (albeit very inexpensively produced) outlining the significance of 50 different sites in around the town, a key that provides access to 8 locked attractions around the route, and entry to the 3 museums along the route is also included. The trail is enhanced by great interpretative signage at key attractions on the route. The flash of brilliance for me is the key – it really gives a sense of ownership and specialised access that I appreciated. You can keep the key as long as you need, but do pay a $20 deposit that is only reclaimable when you give it back.

Getting started on the trail was a bit daunting actually. On my last night at the caravan park, it was funny talking to a couple who had clearly bought their Passport from the same guy at the visitor centre that I had. When I approached the counter and said I wanted to do the trail, he launched into his spiel – pulled out the guidebook, talking me around the trail at breakneck speed; highlighted the sites that had limited opening hours on the guidebook’s central map with a highlighter; pulled out a separate museums sheet and proceeded to highlight key info on that including their different opening hours; pulled out a completely different town map to highlight other sites on that; advised the cost and key deposit, took the money for those and waved me on my way – all in about 7 minutes flat! I was left confused, bemused, amused and totally unsure of where to start – certainly none the wiser on the best way to tackle the trail! Definitely room for improvement in that area.

But start I did – the next day, on my bike. I got most of the way around the trail but missed a lot of attractions towards the end as I was running out of daylight. So had to continue the next day, requiring another night’s stay at the great local caravan park. Perhaps that’s part of their cunning plan to get folks to stay another day. If so, good for them. 🙂

The experience of delivery and introduction to the trail aside, it was a fascinating couple of days of exploration. Good on the community of Burra for recognising and maximising their great assets!

The town itself has much to offer even if doing the heritage trail is not your thing – a number of pubs, nice cafes, and unique shops, and a genuinely friendly atmosphere. From my experience it appears the majority of Burra townsfolk are proud of their heritage and their town, which was so nice to be a part of for a few days.

And for those interesting in good Aussie rock, just out of the town you’ll find the abandoned farm cottage memorably featured on the front of Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust album. It’s not looking so sad these days – surrounded by wheat when I found it – but unmistakable none the less.


About Yvette Hollings

Writer, born-again cricket tragic, rookie cricket player, occasional musician and songwriter. I love inspiring stories that empower everyday people.
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