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A brief history of White Cliffs

A BRIEF HISTORY OF WHITE CLIFFS. The town of White Cliffs, situated in remote northwest NSW, was Australia’s first viably commercial opal field. The vast fields of mineral deposits were first discovered in 1884 by a couple of stock-hands from Moomba Station, who were out hunting kangaroo for meat during the drought. The roo shooters stumbled across the colourful rocks while on their hunt, and curious about what they had found, sent a sample off to be analysed in Adelaide. The beautiful stones wound up in the hands of geologist Tullie Wollaston. In the past, small opal deposits had previously been discovered and mined in Hungary, but those mines had been exhausted some hundreds of years earlier. Wollaston couldn’t believe his eyes and embarked immediately on a journey back to Moomba Station to meet the stock-hands who had discovered the specimens, and to personally visit the area where the rocks were found. Upon meeting and speaking to the stock-hands, he offered them a whopping £140 to purchase these first samples. For the stock-hands who had very little knowledge or interest in geology, this was an outrageous amount, and they eagerly accepted Wallaston’s generous offer. Wollaston, knowing this stunning mineral was worth looking into, would have offered more. Subsequently, Tullie Wollaston became the first opal buyer in Australia. He promoted the opal in Europe and America, showcasing the naturally beautiful stones, and re-sparking the world’s interest in the mineral. This new Australian opal was unique; it was the first seam opal to be discovered and accessed commercially. Forming like glass in reasonably flat plates amongst the much softer sandstone, it was easier to clean, grade and cut into the prized gemstone jewellery found around the world today. By 1890, a small settlement had blossomed around the thriving outback minefields. This settlement became known as White Cliffs. The name was derived from the surrounding countryside with the white underlying sandstone outcrops peeking through along the escarpments of the hills; a stark contrast from the rusty red topsoil outback Australia is famous for. The success of the Australian opal in the industry resulted in the township thriving into a community of some 2,000 miners as well as many other workers peddling their services to those miners. 1892 saw the arrival of the first Hotel, as well as a general store run by a gentleman by the name of William Johnston. As these social hubs were established, communication amongst the miners back to their hometowns lead to word getting out about new prospects on the field, and the following year saw yet another influx of miners. Due to the remote locale and harsh terrain, building materials were scarce. Wealthy miners and prospectors were lucky enough to be able to purchase materials from the nearby mining town of Nutharungi, a previously dismantled settlement. Those who were not lucky enough to afford the costs of materials and shipping began to live underground, converting their older dis-used or exhausted mines into homes. This practice still occurs today, with many of White Cliffs residents still residing in beautiful underground ‘dugouts’. Billions of rabbits can’t be wrong! Over the course of the next 15 or so years, the commercial mining in White Cliffs began supplying the world with the precious gem. As more and more of the fields were mined, workers began discovering more impressive specimens. Among the rarities discovered were fossilised sea snails, fish, shells and belemnites and opalised wood. This was only the beginning. Many larger fossil specimens were also being found, including dog sharks, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, and the (completely unique to White Cliffs) famous opal ‘Pineapples’.

While these curios were extremely rare, there was still only a relatively small market for fossils at the time, and a vast majority of fossils were cut into jewellery. The opal coming out of White Cliffs displayed brilliantly vivid colours, the quality of which had never been seen before. It far surpassed the quality of the pre-existing Hungarian opal. Historical documents have indicated that White Cliffs commercially peaked in 1902, when a recorded 140,000 pounds of opal was mined and sold. However, the decade following (1903-1913) saw White Cliffs dwindle substantially. As the richer area of the field was cleared out, conditions simply proved too harsh for many to consider long-term settlement. Water shortages and droughts meant that water needed to be brought in with horses or camels from some 100 km away. Without access to fresh clean water, disease and sickness ran rife. Cholera-infected water and suspected Typhoid took their toll. The cemetery built just out of town bears much evidence of this. Many of the headstones still standing tell the tales of the hardships faced by the women and children who lost their lives to the brutal conditions. The onset of WW1 brought even more upheaval to the struggling settlement. The miners, mostly fit, young men, were called away from the fields to serve in the war and fight the German’s – who just so happened to be the most prominent buyers and dealers of opal at the time. During the conflict, all trading with Germany was halted, and due to a lack of working men mining production stalled. Many of the miners who were called away to war never came home, and after the loss of most of the township’s residents and workers, the White Cliffs Opal Fields never really recovered its former glory. Some of the old buildings and relics remain, reminding us of the town’s colourful past. The old church, one of the towns first prominent structures, is still the old church. The original Post Office building and Police station still stand; although both are now private residences and the latter has been extensively renovated. Other less prominent historical sites, including the old butcher’s shop, cordial factory (complete with scattered green bottles), cannery, abattoirs and slaughter yards have also been somewhat preserved over the years. Through the historical turmoil, White Cliffs has soldiered on. Although somewhat smaller than the commercial hub it was over 100 years ago, the remote community still thrives, with a population of approximately 200 people who reside year-round in town and on the surrounding stations.

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