Miners take advantage of the new gold boom by breaking into an early 1900s mine

In pitch black, underground miners near the historic town of Coolgardie in Western Australia have just broken into old gold mines that were last mined before World War I.

The wooden supports still do their job, although they inspire less confidence than the modern steel mesh that runs through the rest of the newly installed yards.

This is Burbanks, one of Western Australia’s richest gold mines in the early 1900s, where today’s miners return to see what the original diggers left behind.

“When they came back [from the war] their mine was full of water.”

Burbanks Mine Manager Craig Boulton speaks with Greenstone Resources Managing Director Chris Hansen.(ABC Goldfields: Jarrod Lucas)

Historical records show that Burbanks, 9 kilometers southeast of Coolgardie, produced 324,479 ounces of gold between 1885 and 1961.

There has been only limited mining and exploration activity in Burbanks since the 1980s.

But with Australian dollar gold prices trading near historic highs, old mines like Burbanks are getting a new lease on life.

Old construction site inside a gold mine with wooden support beams.
These former Burbanks shipyards were last operated before World War I.(ABC Goldfields: Jarrod Lucas)

Mining was restarted last year on a trial basis by ASX-listed Greenstone Resources and private company FMR Investments.

The plan was to establish underground drilling platforms to explore new ore reserves.

Greenstone Resources managing director Chris Hansen said early signs were good, with the deepest drilling testing 450 meters below surface and hitting visible gold.

“Historically, operations only mined to around 140-150 meters,” Mr Hansen said.

“To put this into a broader context for you, a number of other mines in the region will often mine up to 1,000 to 1,200 meters below the surface quite comfortably.

A historic photograph of gold miners in Burbanks in 1895.
Miners in Burbanks circa 1895.(Provided: WA State Library)

Increase in mining activity

Once home to 15,000 people, Coolgardie is known as the ‘mother of the Goldfields’ with entry statements telling passing motorists it was home to ‘Australia’s biggest gold rush’.

Since 1892, historic and modern mining has produced over 2.8 million ounces from the Coolgardie region.

The goldfields have been reclaimed by prospectors and small-scale miners for over a century, but largely abandoned by larger miners in search of riches elsewhere.

A photograph taken by a drone of a truck inside a gold mine.
An aerial view of the underground gateway in Burbanks.(ABC Goldfields: Jarrod Lucas)

But amid WA’s latest mining boom, there has been renewed interest in the area.

Last year, Evolution Mining bought the Kundana gold operations that had been operating since the 1980s, paying $400 million, a clear sign that the company believed it still had a long life ahead of it.

Beacon Minerals is a relative newcomer after casting the first gold bar at its Jaurdi mine, 35km northwest of Coolgardie, in September 2019.

But already the company celebrated producing its first tonne of gold last year and is drilling to extend the life of its mine.

A statement of entry at the entrance to a mining town that tells motorists about the Coolgardie Gold Rush.
Gold was discovered at Coolgardie in 1892, a year before the start of the Kalgoorlie Gold Rush. (ABC Goldfields: Jarrod Lucas)

Focus Minerals, in which China’s Shandong Gold has a 49% stake, stands as one of the biggest potential shifters for the local economy.

The company has built up its gold reserves through exploration and has been working to restart its Coolgardie operations since it closed in 2013 when the price of gold crashed.

Focus land holdings also include the historic Bayleys Mine, a stone’s throw from where gold was discovered at Coolgardie.

Another Chinese-controlled miner, Norton Gold Fields, has also quietly advanced a feasibility study to develop the Bullabulling gold project, west of the city.

A man in high visibility workwear wearing a safety helmet inside a gold mine.
Chris Hansen of Greenstone Resources says new exploration in Burbanks is starting to pay off.(ABC Goldfields: Jarrod Lucas)

Mr Hansen said the increase in activity could be a sign of things to come.

“The junior sector of the market is beginning to awaken to prospectivity around the Coolgardie area,” he said.

A mine worker underground with a headlamp shining brightly.
The deepest drill hole in Burbanks tested up to 450 meters below surface.(ABC Goldfields: Jarrod Lucas)

Busier than the last boom

Coolgardie County hopes to take advantage of the economic recovery and estimates that 900 additional workers are needed to meet growing demand from the mining industry.

Shire chairman Mal Cullen said the last significant gold boom for Coolgardie was in the 1980s.

The chairman of a regional WA local council standing on the main street of his historic mining town.
Malcolm Cullen hopes the latest mining boom will grow the local population.(ABC Goldfields: Jarrod Lucas)

“One of the biggest hurdles to doing that is having employees work at all of those sites at the same time.

“In previous years, one product was always up and the others down a bit, so workers were moved between operations. But with all the products up, it created a severe shortage of employees. “

Geologist and drilling company owner Andrew Pumphrey, who works at a yard in Coolgardie which has an old mine headframe out front, said there was no doubt the area was booming again.

“It’s pretty obvious to me that we have a pretty serious skills shortage across Western Australia, particularly in the exploration sector,” he said.

“We’re busier in this boom than we were in 2008.

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