Tributes flow for Don Reid who saved historic WA mining town of Gwalia

Residents of WA’s northern Goldfields have paid tribute to the man credited with saving an important piece of the region’s history.

Don Reid, who was instrumental in preserving the historic mining town of Gwalia, died recently in Adelaide where he had lived since 1980.

The town, now a major tourist drawcard, was abandoned in 1963 after the abrupt collapse of the mining company Sons of Gwalia.

Mr Reid and his wife Donna moved to Gwalia, 230km north of Kalgoorlie and 830km east of Perth, in 1970 to take part in nickel exploration.

Image of a tin shack, with a corrugated iron roof.  There's a gum tree out the front with various pots and pans hanging from it.
A shack in Gwalia that Don Reid helped restore.(ABC Pilbara: Kate Ferguson)

They would live in Hoover’s House, a residence commissioned by former mine manager and eventual 31st US president Herbert Hoover.

As they arrived the Reids went past red dusted piles of wood and corrugated iron, quickly realizing that what looked like a rubbish dump about to be bulldozed was a goldmine of artefacts worth preserving.

When the shift whistle of the Sons of Gwalia mine blew for the last time in December 1963, most of Gwalia’s residents left taking only what they could carry.

A general store abandoned in 1963 in the ghost town of Gwalia, WA.
Many Gwalia residents felt trapped by low wages and precarious work.(ABC Goldfields: Andy Tyndall)

The town lost 96 per cent of its population almost overnight but maintained its unique heritage.

The objects left behind and the lived-in miner’s huts made the place special for the Reids; they were the first to see them as a time machine to WA’s gold mining past.

Goldfields historian Tim Moore said the Reids’ vision for Gwalia in the past preserved it for the future.

“The place is so special because it tells the stories of women and men who came to work in Western Australia’s mines,” he said.

a pink shed with a window in Gwalia.
The Pink House in Gwalia.(ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

The couple were determined to bring the ghost town back to life. They stopped demolition and, with little money and some help from a few local volunteers, opened a museum in the former mine offices in 1972.

When he was not working as a geologist, Mr Reid was busy at the museum building exhibition panels and structures.

He repaired the steam winding engine, scraping away dirt and grease so that its golden letters could shine again for the visitors.

Aerial image of a timber mining headframe with several white buildings surrounding it.
Don Reid helped preserve many of Gwalia’s landmarks such as its headframe.(ABC Pilbara: Kate Ferguson)

Gwalia became a playground for the Reids’ children and other young people in the area.

Wanting the community to be involved in the preservation of its history, the couple used a government grant to pay young Aboriginal men to sort through the rubble and save artefacts of historical value.

Pini-Tjupan woman and Leonora local Verna Vos was also employed by Mr Reid, and remembers him as an encouraging boss with a deep understanding of Aboriginal culture.

“Don loved the land and knew he could learn a great deal from Aboriginal people,” she said.

“He acknowledged the difference between our cultures, but his desire to connect bridged the cultural divide.”

the Reid family posing in front of their house with their dog.
The Reids in front of Hoover House in 1978.(Supplied: Kerry Reid)

When an Aboriginal elder Mr Reid was visiting in hospital expressed a wish to see his ancestral land, the geologist did not hesitate.

Accompanied by two colleagues, they started driving into the desert, trusting the elder’s internal compass — they only stopped when he said, “I’m home.”

Mr Reid’s daughter, Kerry, has fond memories of exploring the land with her father.

“Dad was a real bushman, a naturalist — as a geologist he mapped remote areas,” she said.

“We did a lot of camping and stayed on sheep stations. He loved the changing nature of the bush: drought-stricken, blooming with wildflowers and flooded with rain.”

Gwalia State Hotel, a two-story brick building with 10ft.  balcony wrapped around the facade.
Gwalia State Hotel is a tourist drawcard.(ABC Goldfields: Andy Tyndall)

Gwalia was a collision of Indigenous, mining and pastoralist cultures. Mr Reid appreciated the uniqueness of the place and strove to preserve both its nature and history.

He was not discouraged by the limited resources available.

When he heard that Gwalia’s State Hotel — the remnant of a unique situation that saw WA’s government establish pubs in mining towns — had been bought for $1,500, he wrote a check for $3,000 to save it from being dismantled.

It is now one of the most iconic buildings in the region.

Leonora Shire President Peter Craig said the ghost town visitors helped reconnect with history and boosted the local economy.

“Gwalia is the backbone of tourism in Leonora; without Don and Donna Reid, this great asset would have been bulldozed,” he said.

Mr Reid and his wife fought for the survival of Gwalia — a multi-million-dollar redevelopment in 2018 ensured that Gwalia’s tin shacks, State Hotel and headframe continue to stand as their legacy.

Image of an elderly couple, looking into each other's eyes and smiling.
Donna and Don Reid moved to Gwalia in 1970.(ABC Pilbara: Kate Ferguson)


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