A day in … Gulgong

By | Category: Travel destinations

Prince of Wales Opera House; the oldest c ontinusly performing arts location in the southern hemisphere – Gulgong

If Australians could name gold mining towns in the state of NSW that were part of the nineteenth century gold rush they may suggest that visitors head to Bathurst and the nearby town of Hill End.

Few would name Gulgong, a small town perched on a hill overlooking mile after mile of pastureland and vineyards. As places go, the town is young; it won’t celebrate its 150th birthday until 2020 when three days of festivities over Easter will remind visitors of the importance of the town.

It was founded in 1870 because a certain Tom Saunders found gold on Red Hill. In the first five years of the town, miners extracted 12, 240 kilogrammes of gold. In the next 65 years they managed just 3,499 kilogrammes demonstrating that the gold rush was comparatively short lived.  And that could be to the town’s benefit as well as that of visitors.

Although born elsewhere, lason had strong ties to the area going to school in a nearby village

As gold fever took hold, new buildings were built – pubs cum hotels, general stores, rural suppliers and, of course, a bank into which miners could deposit the wealth  or lack of it!

The town attracted famed people of the time such as Dame Nellie Melba who sang at the Prince of  Wales Opera House and Henry Lawson one of the most important literary figures in Australian history who went to school in a nearby town.

An original gold mining shaft at Red Hill in Gulgong

If the gold rush had continued, buildings would have been replaced with the latest trends in construction but, because it didn’t, the central part of the town remained almost in a time warp. And that is its attraction to the visitor today. Many of the buildings along Herbert Street and the quaintly named Mayne Street are pretty much as they were in the 1870’s. The Prince of Wales Opera House that I mentioned earlier was built in 1871 and remains an arts centre to this day. Not only is it the oldest continually in-use arts centre in Australia, it is the oldest in the southern hemisphere.

The link with Henry Lawson remains although many other towns in Australia such as Grenfell (where he was born) also celebrate the poet, political commentator and short story novelist. This year the town had a nine-day celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Lawson and the Henry Lawson Centre regularly holds events about this Aussie icon.

This stamper battery was used to crush the stone to locate the ores of gold inside

Where gold was found is today commemorated with a plaque which tells you a little of the time. More interesting is the Gulgong Gold Experience which displays equipment connected with mining, has a replica miner’s cabin  and a replica underground mining tunnel in to which you can venture as well as one of the original shafts into which miners went to find gold. For visitors the attraction might be that you can pan for gold. This year two large troughs were installed which makes it much easier for groups as well as individuals to pan and try their luck.

Should I deter you by revealing that I found absolutely nothing and thus, remain poor and committed to writing to earn a crust? You can cheat by spending $A5 (say £3) on a bag of gems and rocks which you will not be surprised to learn contains the yellow metal. It might be fine for youngsters (who also have a portable low-level trough in which they can pan) but not really helpful for those bitten by the gold bug. Check the opening times before you go as usually it is only open for a couple of hours each afternoon. Each year in October (this year it is the 14th) there is the Gulgong Gold & Mining Festival which relives some of those gold rush days.

The Pioneer Museum is in a building dating back to 1871 – just one year after the town was founded

Almost allied with the Gulgong Gold Experience is the Pioneers Museum which is claimed to be one of the top four folk museums in NSW. Claiming to have over 60,000 items on display over its one acre site the museum has a large collection of photographs taken at the height of the gold fever boom in the early 1870’s.

There is one”museum” in this small town. The Holtermann Museum is slightly unusual in that its main purpose is the preservation of buildings in the town as well as its holding of another early collection of photographs of the town. (the main collection of 3,500 photographic plates was only found in 1951 and is housed in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. It was placed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World register in May 2013.) The two buildings which it is currently trying to preserve are The Greatest Wonder of the World (a former clothing store) and the American Tobacco Warehouse and Fancy Goods Emporium.

Here you see the old stone road service and the high kerbs as constructed in the nineteenth century

But perhaps the most interesting building is what is called the Gulgong Dispensary. Why so interesting? Apart from having a list of every chemist that owned or operated from the shop it tells a story. One chemist, Dr Charles Zimmler, was a doctor but his qualifications precluded him from practising as one so he became a chemist. Unfortunately he prescribed ammonia for a child who subsequently died. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six months gaol. This 2trouble” didn’t deter him from returning to his shop nor does it seem to have affected his relationship with the town as he was elected mayor four times and was the pncipal in gaining municipality status for the town!

Don’t only look at the buildings as you walk around. Look down at the road and the kerb where the pavement meets the road. You can see the original stones at the side of one or two of the roads because they haven’t been properly tarmacked. It shows you what the streets must have originally been like with their high kerbs presumably so that the mud and muck from horses and rain flowing down the roads didn’t rise as high as the pavements.

The Greteats Wonder and American Tobacco Warehouse which are on the preservation list

Before I went to Gulgong, I thought that I would probably just see the “historic” streets and drive on. I’m glad I stayed over, explored it properly and appreciated how lucky it was that so much of the fascias of the town have been preserved.

By the way, Gulgong has one other claim to fame. When the first Australian $10 note came out it had Henry Lawson on one side of it. And in the background were the preserved buildings of Gulgong. That might have done more to publicise the town than anything else. Now the note has been withdrawn, the town is using that background as the logo on its tourism promotions.

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