A project from the National Trust of WA
A self-guided drive trail between the Perth Hills and Western Australia’s Eastern Goldfields. Go with the Flow. Follow the water to discover more about the audacious goldfields water supply scheme and Engineer CY O’Connor.
“Future generations, I am quite certain will think of us and bless us for our far seeing patriotism, and it will be said of us, as Isaiah said of old, ‘They made a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert”
Woolgangie was once the site of the Woolgangie Travellers’ Rest, a homely place where if the beds were packed close together, the mutton tough, and the preserved vegetables insipid, what matter?
It had a telegraph station, was also an important water stop and railhead. And it was nearly the final resting place for thousands of horses and men in dire need of water. By 1895 Woolgangie was an established stopping point on the Southern Cross to Coolgardie road and the traveller’s water needs were well met by a large rock catchment and tank.
50 acres of rock, round rugged and bulky, like a huge wart on the plain, features a reservoir, which waters every day many hundreds of horses and camels.
Albert Calvert 1897
No Water at Woolgangie
The railway, however, was pushing out. It reached Woolgangie and was opened to traffic on 18 December 1895, resulting in much greater demands for water. The dam was required to service not just travellers but also the men, animals and machines engaged in constructing the railway as well as those transporting goods from the railhead to Coolgardie and beyond.
To make matters worse, there was a severe drought. The water level in the tank sank lower and lower. The shortage of water meant men were afraid to leave what little there was. The number of people and animals at Woolgangie increased while the transport of food and other supplies to Coolgardie declined.
On 29 December 1895 a telegraph was sent to the Premier (John Forrest) urging the
…absolute and imperative necessity of sending water to Woolgangie without one moment’s delay. There are over 1000 horses camped here which must be supplied; if something is not done at once there will be a general stampede from here and no stores can possibly be supplied to the ‘fields.
On January 1896 an even more emphatic telegram was sent.
Many loaded teams cannot get away for want of water, horses starving, carriers indignant; look out for starvation.
In the emergency, without thought, the government railed contaminated water, unfit for human consumption, from Burlong Pool near Northam. Eventually the Pubic works Department organized effective water-supply relief, giving the Woolgangie water service priority on the railway and sending good water from Fremantle.
Seventeen truckloads of water, 23 000 gallons, reached the desperate camp on 8 January, with a further 20 000 arriving the next day. As luck would have it, there was a heavy thunderstorm on 9 January. Frequent downpours followed and the dam filled once more. A second tank to conserve water from the catchment area of granite was completed in June 1896 to prevent another such ‘Woolgangie Crisis’.
One month later the railway had reached Bullabulling (as it was spelt then). Most businesses moved to the new railhead leaving Woolgangie to continue life as one of the many small railway settlements along the line. Later buildings included two line runners cabins, constructed in conjunction with the water pipeline in 1903, and a telephone repeater station. Only ruins remain.
Fever strikes Woolgangie
Woolgangie’s months of suffering in the blistering summer of 1895/6 wasn’t just confined to the water famine. It made newspaper headlines too because at the same time – and no doubt because of the water shortage – an epidemic of typhoid struck the congested camp. As Vera Whittington states in Gold and Typhoid: two fevers, “Instant towns were attacked by almost instant disease – typhoid”.
The situation would have been much more serious if it hadn’t been for the generosity of Hugh Climie, a Scot and forwarding agent. As secretary/treasurer of the Mission Hospital in Southern Cross, Climie knew how typhoid could race through a community and the value of the work done by nurses of the Sisters of the People. He volunteered to pay for the expense of a tent hospital if a sister could be sent.
On 16 January Sister Gertrude arrived from Melbourne Hospital in response to the appeal. No sooner had she arrived that she gave up her own accommodation to nurse a delirious boy tossing and turning in old rugs and chaff bags under the counter of his father’s bough shed cool-drink shop. He was shouting – Pass the raspberry vinegar! – which, with hop beer and squash, Mills sold for a shilling a drink. Billy lay unconscious for weeks but survived to go back to washing the glasses.
Every day during Woolgangie’s typhoid outbreak, men feeling unwell came to the hospital asking for their temperatures to be taken and dreading the verdict. The number of her clients was so large that Sister Gertrude was joined in early February by Sister Mildred of the Sisters of the People in Perth. On her journey to the railhead Sister Mildred speculated how many of the young men packing the train on their way to Coolgardie would find gold without catching typhoid. She wrote in her report:
… I wondered how many of them would travel down the line again.
Many typhoid patients had to be sent ‘down the line’ because there were too many for the sisters to care for. Wilkie Bros, the New Zealand brothers who won the successful tender to extend the railway line from Southern Cross to Coolgardie provided covered trucks for the transfer of such patients – one fortnight there were 28. Among those who had to be transferred was Amy Adams, who died in Northam Hospital of typhoid. Amy was well-known to the travelling public, an assistant in Mrs Butterly’s 40 ft by 24ft dining room. Although one of many, her death warrants mention because it was the discovery of gold by her mother while cleaning out a well that sparked the rush to the Yilgarn goldfields. The Adams family lived at Mangowine, now a National Trust property, near Nungarin.
Today all the remains at Woolgangie are the railway dams and rusting reminders of what once was a thriving place.
Click on any map section or place below to discover The Golden Pipeline.