In the 1880s, the Barrier Rangers were alive with activity. Mining claims sprung up as pioneers arrived to seek their fortune in the outback earth.
Established in 1880, Silverton was the area’s largest township as it offered a central, flat position and a water supply. Originally called Umberumberka after the nearby township from which it was considered an offshoot, Silverton was truly born in 1883 when its name was proclaimed and it received a post office in 1883. At that time, Silverton boasted a population of 250, but in a matter of months that number had doubled.
Within two years, 3,000 people had set up shop in Silverton – the peak of the township’s population. Once Silverton was established, it quickly began to flourish, with businesses, medical practitioners, solicitors, and entrepreneurs of every type springing up to line the streets.
The Silverton Municipal Council was formed in 1886 and held its inaugural meeting the following January. As the town grew, the traditional methods of transport – wagons drawn by animals – had been all but exhausted. It became apparent that a railway line would be of benefit. While the South Australian Government constructed a line as far as the border, the NSW Government declined to extend the line through their territory.
Thus, the Silverton Tramway Company – locally and privately owned – was formed to build and operate the line. It was opened in 1888 and ran from Cockburn, through Silverton and on to the newly discovered Broken Hill.
The line functioned up until 1970, having transported 57 million tonnes of freight and 2,881,000 passengers, when trains were re-routed at Cockburn to bypass Silverton. In its heyday Silverton boasted every convenience, including a newspaper, Masonic Lodge, goal, gymnasium, hospital, jockey club, football team and Methodist Church. The trade union movement, popularised by its successes in Broken Hill, originated in Silverton in 1884.
Formed at a public meeting, the Barrier Ranges Miners’ Association was a friendly society aiming to assist those injured in a mining accident. In 1886 the association resolved to form a branch of the Amalgamated Miners’ Association of Australasia. They pushed for workers’ rights under the banner “United we stand, divided we fall”, and unionism was born in the region.
That wasn’t the only thing to happen in Silverton that would have repercussions farther a field. The Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited (BHP Billiton) was formed in the then-Silverton Hotel in 1885. The company would have a huge impact upon the country’s mining industry and the State’s finances for generations.
Ironically, the region’s rich mineral deposits that Silverton was built upon were also the cause of its eventual decline, as larger mines sprung up in nearby Broken Hill.
The Municipal Council was taken off the NSW state register in 1899, leaving the State Government in control of the town, and many of its buildings were transported into Broken Hill by teams of donkeys, camels or bullocks.
Although less than 60 people live in Silverton today, the town has enjoyed a new life. It is now managed by the Silverton Village Committee, which includes locals and Government representatives. Although few buildings remain, the culture remains vibrant. The same landscape that was once home to a legion of miners is now inspiring a new generation of artists. Its rich history and art galleries attract people from all over the world. The unique land and light has led to Silverton being immortalised on both television and the movie screen. Mineral wealth may have moved on, but Silverton is now richer than ever before.
Information sourced from “Silverton”, by RHB Kearns.