Opal Mining Town of White Cliffs...

This is a story of the opal mining town of White Cliffs - courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald - not too sure where it originated from as the author is written down as  unknown - however whoever they are, we thank them for this contribution - it gives a nice insight and history into White Cliffs ....



The Opal Mining Town of White Cliffs is remarkable for its underground accommodation.

The real way to see White Cliffs, if  photographs are to be believed, is from the air. It looks like a strange moonscape with an estimated 50 000 disused diggings, all little like ants nests with neat piles of dirt surrounding holes of optimism dug by miners believing that somewhere below the surface of this inhospitable land lay a hidden fortune in opals.

Most visitors, however, have to drive the 98 km  road from Wilcannia (which, in turn, is 974 km northwest of Sydney) through scrubby, semi-desert saltbush plains inhabited by kangaroos and every imported feral pest (cats, rabbits and foxes) known to the Australian bush. White Cliffs is located 122 metres above sea level and has a miserably low average annual rainfall of 234mm.

Arriving in the White Cliffs is like arriving in any opal mining settlement. It is immediately obvious that every regular activity comes a bad last to the one thing which drives the town - seeking a fortune!

The pub is dusty and lonely, the general store is small and simple, the roads are rough and unsealed, the settlement is spread in every direction, and the attempts at 'civilisation' are crude and simplistic.White Cliffs housing operates on the iceberg principle with most of the town's 'buildings' being underground. For every building you see on the surface there are as many as ten more underground.

White Cliffs came into existence in the most unusual way. Instead of experiencing a rush it experienced a gradual emergence. It is known that opals were found in the area as early as 1884 but it wasn't until 1889 that any real interest was shown. 1889 was a year of drought and four kangaroo shooters were hired to reduce their numbers on the Momba Pastoral Company Station. The roo shooters found opals and realising their potential value sent them off to Adelaide for valuation by a man with the improbable name of Tullie Cornthwaite Wollaston.

Wollaston was sufficiently impressed with the samples to make the journey from Adelaide to White Cliffs. He subsequently became the town's 'promoter' selling White Cliffs opals in Europe and the USA.

Wollaston later observed: 'I at once made a trip to the spot. There were two tents and a bough shed, and the party of kangaroo shooters who had found the stones were, on my arrival, discussing the advisability of pitching them in the nearest pot-hole and continuing their search for the merry marsupial. I was asked to make an offer for the parcel, and I named £140, prepared to spring £10, but my bid was promptly snapped. That was the first purchase of White Cliffs opal, and started the field.'

By 1890 a small settlement had come into existence. It was around this time that it got the name White Cliffs as a simple description of the white shale which every miner had to dig through to find opals. William Johnstone arrived in 1892 setting up the first store and hotel. The real growth of the town did not occur until 1893 when news of some good finds drew miners to the area precipitating the development of the town's infrastructure. By 1897 White Cliffs had grown to a point where there were about 1000 people.

However, building materials were scarce and expensive and the heat in summer was oppressive. Consequently, around 1894, miners started converting their old shafts into homes. The hills being solid sandstone rather than earth the dugouts were in no danger of collapsing and the temperature was constant. It is proof positive of the growth of the subterranean lifestyle that by 1900 there was an underground bar at the Centennial Hall. Today there are around 140.

The town peaked in 1902 when opals worth about £140 000 were found. The area continued to attract large numbers of miners until about 1914 when the combination of declining opal deposits and the call of war saw the town reduced to the small settlement it is today.

The town's decline continued and there were times when there were only a few people living in the town. However the patronage of the nearby rural workers and property owners ensured that the pub and the General Store survived. Today the permanent population is around 200 and this rises to about 500 in winter when gem seekers come from the south. In 1987 the production of opals from the White Cliffs fields was estimated to be $150 million.

Over the years remarkable opals have been found in White Cliffs. The White Cliffs opal 'pineapples' and opalised shells are commonplace. By far the most unusual was the opalised remains of plesiosaur which was found in 1976. It is nearly 2 metres long and is believed to be around 100 million years old. For years it was on display in White Cliffs but it was recently removed to Sydney. The locals hope the plesiosaur will be once again on display in the near future.


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