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Australia Curious Central West: Unearthing the mystery and beauty of ghost towns

02:29  13 july  2018
02:29  13 july  2018 Source:   abc.net.au

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The Central West of New South Wales is littered with crumbling remains of once thriving settlements.

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There are the collapsing tin roofs of former post offices, the empty Cobb and Co changing stables, and clusters of headstones worn smooth by wind and rain.

But there are also the unseen towns and villages — those reclaimed entirely by nature.

Curious Central West questioner Sam Guthrie grew up close to the lost village of Galleymont, near Blayney.

"I always knew there was a town out there, but it's gone now," he said.

"I just think it's fascinating that you can have a place where hundreds of people could have lived and now there's no-one there."

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Mr Guthrie wanted to know just how many of these places had faded or been lost completely from the region?

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What makes a village?

The Central West bears the footprints of at least 39 known lost towns or villages but the real number could be a lot higher.

The Geographical Names Board could not confirm a precise list.

"Although a place name provides a link to the past, the Geographical Names Board only began assigning names under the Geographical Names Act from the late 1960s," they said.

"Thus, to determine what towns or areas have disappeared over time would require lengthy research and involve comparing the Geographical Names Register with historic gazetteers of names."

Enter Gay Hendrikson, a Blue Mountains-based historian and researcher.

Ms Hendrikson led the Villages of the Heart project at the behest of Orange Regional Museum in 2013.

She spent six months researching parish maps, cross-checking council and museum records, and comparing oral histories to paint a picture of past and present Central West New South Wales.

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And while there are ghost towns all over the world (Japan’s Battleship Island was once the site of a vast coal mining facility; the diamond mining town of Kolmanskop, Namibia, was full of grand buildings before the desert started swallowing it up), the ghost towns of America have a special flavor.

Her eventual report cited 25 lost places in the region.

"[My report mentions] known villages, known lost villages, because is a settler's camp a village, if it's there for long enough," she asked.

"It comes back to what defines a village."

Walking distance apart

The Central West was once considered the Australian colony's wild frontier.

With the Blue Mountains only newly traversed, desperate men spilled over the Great Dividing Range, lured by the promise of land and gold.

Surveyors sent from London to define the boundaries of settlement would often arrive at a newly discovered location to find people already there squatting.

Given this pattern of squat settlement, Ms Hendrikson said there were often a practical reasons for early village locations.

"People on average can walk about 25 kilometres a day [so] have a look at how far apart those towns are," she said.

"Take a walk in any direction — from Orange for instance — and see what you pass, what's easy and what's hard to get to."

Hitting the road

Towns that have faded almost completely from view are commonly linked to mining or transport routes providing access, employment and passing trade, factors as critical to a town's success today as they were 200 years ago.

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The eventual police station, court house, post office, schools, and banks would transform a locality into a village but a mineral deposit drying up or a transport link being redefined could change the fortunes of a town almost overnight.

"Having or not having a railway meant the difference, in some cases, between remaining a village or becoming a city such as Eugowra being passed over for Parkes," Ms Hendrickson said.

The Orange City Library's Peter Douglas believes the evolution of transport was the single biggest contributing factor to the rise and fall of lost villages and towns.

"The things that kill most of these little villages is that the road systems, the transport systems, all improve," he said.

"People stop shopping [in their village], they don't need the post office, they don't need the schools in those localities anymore and they gradually disappear.

"When there were no cars for kids to go to school, anything more than 10 kilometres was a huge distance, but once there were cars, 10 or 20 kilometres was not a great distance.

"Once there were buses running, kids came in from those locations into the major centres so those little towns suffered [and] gradually, those little centres disappear."

Things of beauty endure

The remains of some lost places are still visible today.

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The dilapidated post office and stables of Cheeseman's Creek still stand between Orange and Cudal while graves lie still and silent in Toogong cemetery.

Some, like Ophir, have been devoured entirely by nature, leaving only ripples of earth where mine shafts once lay, while some localities retain their name, despite the village being long gone.

And Murga, for example, is now just a sign by the side of the road.

Director of conservation at the National Trust Graham Quint explains that remains can vary drastically, depending on their original purpose, the building materials used, their location or even the aesthetics.

"In the early days of the gold rush, you had the tents [and] once they moved on, there was not much left except the mining diggings," Mr Quint said.

"Or you might have had a general store — a timber building with a stone hearth — and what might survive is the stone hearth.

"You might find a particular area might have been very big on wool and you might have a lot of hay sheds or woolsheds.

"There are quite a number that survive and they are amazing places; the type of places Tom Roberts would paint."

Thrill of a ghost town

The role of artists in 'aestheticising' Australian colonial ruins cannot be discounted for its contribution to folklore and developing a narrative of romanticism when it comes to these lost villages.

"When did Australians start appreciating their own ruins, and thinking about them as ruins," asks Richard White, associate professor of history at Sydney University.

"It's only really around the end of the end of the 19th, early 20th century that people start thinking about Australia's ruins, and the artists start painting them."

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The appeal of ruins is innate and universal, according to Dr White.

"It's partly that we quite enjoy that melancholy feeling that you get looking at the decline of civilisation, the sense of a past society that no longer exists," he said.

"That's the great attraction of somewhere like Pompeii because you can see the everyday life and it's not there."

The Central West and indeed all of Australia's lost villages and towns are unique in their peaceful rise and fall.

"They tend to be lost due to inexorable economic factors, rather than war or Henry the Eighth's sacking of the monasteries or the eruption of Mt Vesuvius," Dr White said.

What do you know?

Quantifying an exact number of lost places in the Central West has proven impossible to date and that is largely due to the myriad of forms a village can take.

Was it once an official, surveyed town or just a mining tent or "bag city" and does it matter?

What we do know is that while many of these lost places are physically gone, they do survive in people's memories through oral histories and lived experiences passed down and hopefully recorded.

In light of this, the ABC invites your contribution on the subject.

Beyond the listed places below, do you know of a lost town or village whose story you'd like told? If so, please fill out the question field at the end of this article.

Known lost towns of the Central West

Bimbi, Browns Creek, Burdett, Burnt Yards, Byng, Cadia, Caleula, Cheeseman's Creek, Cranbury, Cumble, Dension, Emu Swamp, Fitzgerald Mount, Flyer's Creek, Forest, Forest Reefs, Four Mile Creek, Fredrick's Valley, Glen Davis, Gregam's Town, Guyong, Hill End, Icely, Junction Reefs, Kerrs Creek, Kings Plains, Lewis Ponds, Manduramah, Moonilda, Mount McDonald, Mount Wygaton, Murga, Newes, Ophir, Shadforth, Spring Hill, Summer Hill, The Springs, Toogong, Wattle Flat and Yarrabin.

Who asked the question?

Sam Guthrie studied History at the Australian National University. It was here he was first exposed to old parish maps of lost shires.

"We've lost places like Lyndhurst Shire – that used to be the shire that Blayney was in - they have changed over time. They exist in old records but have been lost to current memory."

Mr Guthrie believes information on lost villages is threatened because it often only survives in people's memories. He's hopeful this question will encourage people to contribute their knowledge.

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