Last December I visited Ballarat, the historic Australian gold boom town. Unlike many mining towns, the gold continued to flow for decades and the town grew large enough to survive even after gold production declined. Nearly 50 years after the discovery of gold in the hills not far from Melbourne, another rich gold find popped up, this time half way around the world. Taking its name from the now famous Australian city, Ballarat California was born in 1897. I’ve just had the opportunity to visit and the contrast between the two towns couldn’t be more striking.
When you visit Ballarat, Australia you visit along with thousands of other people. I definitely felt like I was in a place of historic importance but it also felt like a bit of a tourist trap. When you visit Ballarat, California, you’ll be lucky to see another soul.
20,000 hopeful miners rushed into Australia’s Ballarat when gold was discovered in 1851. At that same time, the deserts of California were considered inhospitable wasteland. Nearby Death Valley had yet to be discovered for its borax mines and it was many years more until tourists even heard of this area.
Miners hoping to get rich rushed into Ballarat, California too. Shortly after the discovery of gold in 1897, the town hit a peak population of 500. It started to feel like a happening place with a Wells Fargo bank, post office, school, jail, morgue, three hotels, and seven saloons (saloons are the lifeblood of any self-respecting mining town!). At the same time Australia’s Ballarat already had many respectable hotels, including the Craigs Royal Hotel which the Duke of Edinburgh visited to much fanfare.
California’s Ballarat was short-lived. In 1905 the mine shut down and by 1917 it was a ghost town. In 1905 enthusiastic promoters were calling Australia’s Ballarat the “Athens of Australia” as the city made a successful transition from gold rush town to a modern industrial city. When California’s Ballarat died in 1917, its namesake was already reflecting on its own history by building the Avenue of Honour, Australia’s longest memorial avenue.
Two towns flood with hopeful miners fuelled with gold rush fever. One grows and flourishes. The other withers and dies. Today you can visit both. You can see and touch their history, feel transported to a time long since passed. But how different your experiences will be.