Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Frontierland, this is not.

March 6th

I slept 20 km outside Ballarat. A larger town than I expected. Having spent the past two months among small country towns, I was a tad bewildered and not a little bit irritated that I could not find a local bakery. I was feeling a bit country mouse and unjustifiably vexed that I had to settle for "Maccers" (McDonalds) on the ironically named "Bakery Hill."

Like many of my countrymen 150 years ago, I was in Ballarat for the gold. In my case, it was my curiosity of the history that the gold produced. Ballarat is home to the richest alluvial (surface gold) deposits the world has yet found. In a few cases, inches below the surface nuggets of up to 60 kg and more were found. This was not the norm, however, it only takes a few of these to get a gold rush started. The surface gold quickly ran out, and from the late 1850s to WW I, the miners went deep underground. Lack of manpower stopped the mining when the manpower went overseas for war. The unmanned mines quickly filled with water, submerging the 60% of the gold still estimated to be under Ballarat. Even with modern mining equipment, it would take over 20 years to pull it out. You will be hearing of Ballarat soon.

Sovereign Hill is the historic recreation of the 1850s gold town (think "Wild West") and the Eureka Uprising that occurred during those years over miners rights and what they saw as unjust government laws regarding their work.

I was somewhat unsure of what to expect, but I saw this wild west town from the streets of Ballarat in 2008, and the historian inside me had made my decision – I would treat myself to a room at the adjacent Sovereign Hill Lodge.

Mar. 6th - 11 a.m.

Nothing in the world can keep a historic recreation from being slightly hokey, but until humanity develops a time-machine, Sovereign Hill will be the closest thing to it. Nowhere in the States would liability insurance or personal injury lawyers allow you to get finger- (or arm-) losing distance from an actual 1850s steam engine that still works and still powers a town in which wagon wheels, tin products, candles, candy and other traditional crafts are still made with all traditional equipment.

It’s a fine balance of charades, old time dress, theater, museum and modern media; but make no mistake, this is a completely functional 1850s town powered all by wood. The workers spend their days half-acting, half-running the logistics of the town. Where appropriate and discrete, sound and touch-screen LCDs built cleverly into crates tell the stories and dreams of the people who came to seek their fortune in Ballarat.

A few buildings are original, but the rest are recreated – a few sizes smaller than original, but are still excellent copies of descriptions, lithographs, and sketches of the old town.

The rush happened in ‘51, two years after the California ‘49 rush, and many experienced American miners came here to try their luck here. Some with money and an eye for business started shops to cater to miners and gave them names like "the United States Hotel" and "New York Bakery". I enjoyed a beer at the United States Hotel before walking 30 meters underground to an old quartz gold mine found accidentally as Sovereign Hill was being built. I saw $80,000 ASD of gold being poured, saw candy made, wagon hubs crafted and gold pans lathed. I also witnessed the lovely singer and dancer, Lola Montez, furiously address her detractor, the editor of the Ballarat times, with a riding crop after he would not take back the slanderous things he wrote about her. It was just a day in the life of a good old mining town.

Loving it.

No comments: