Until fairly recently, there was really nothing that could be called Coober Pedy history – this was simply a dry, hot place in the Australian Outback. Eons ago, this area had been covered with sea water, but geological changes caused the waters to recede, leaving behind a rich load of silica. It is silica that forms into opal under the right conditions, and opals are what have put Coober Pedy on the map.
The First Opals
As so often happens, no one was searching for opals in this area back in 1915 – it was gold that a party of prospectors was looking for. The youngest member of the party, William Hutchinson, had left the evening camp in search of water while the men readied dinner. When William did not return right away, the others became worried that he may have been injured or gotten lost. However, it wasn’t too long before the boy returned, with good news on two scores – he had discovered some drinkable water, and he had also discovered opals. As with most finds of this sort, it did not take long for word to get out, and prospectors began coming into the area in search of their share of the wealth.
While opals abound in the area around Coober Pedy, it is also one of the most hostile environments on earth. Daytime temperatures during the summer can top out at over 110 degrees F, and there is literally no water available. However, prospectors are a hardy breed, and they soon learned to dig into the hillsides in order to provide themselves with cooler lodgings.
The history of Coober Pedy is one of men and women struggling against a very difficult environment and finding ways to adapt. Water was a major problem, and the government did build a large tank to catch runoff water during the 1920s, but it was only the construction of a pipeline from a source about 24 kilometers from town that assured Coober Pedy of a stable water supply.
The idea of living more comfortably underground caught on and today, over 50% of the town is underground, taking advantage of the naturally cooler conditions there. Many of the homes and businesses are in old, abandoned mines.
Ups and Downs
Mining towns are always known for being volatile economically. There is typically a boom, followed by a bust when the mines play out. Coober Pedy was able to boom right along until the Great Depression struck, causing the price of precious stones to fall. World War II also stifled opal mining, but afterwards, the town began to pick up again. Fortunately, the supply of opals in Coober Pedy seems to be enormous, and if one mine dries up, there is always another to be dug.
When travelling to this small Outback town, you will be immersed in the history of Coober Pedy everywhere you turn. Seeing the mines and the many buildings, it will be hard to imagine that 100 years ago, this was just a nameless stretch of desert.