I have always been interested in the effect of water on survival—not just that of plants, animals, and humans, but on cities and even civilizations. A river changes course, and a city disappears. That’s less true these days, as we now pipe water into all sorts of inhospitable places that were never really meant to support life, at least not much life (Las Vegas and Los Angeles come to mind). But historically, it has been an issue.
I can remember being amazed as I walked the streets of Ostia Antica, once the great port of Ancient Rome, to note that there was no sign of the great harbor that once made this spot so important. The silting up of the harbor doomed the great city, which sank into oblivion (though the city is one of the all-time great places to visit Roman ruins, as so much is still intact).
In Western Australia, Cossack was once a bustling port, too. Not like Ostia, of course, but impressive for a remote location in the Australian outback. Things started to bustle a little less as the pearl oyster beds diminished and people moved to Broome. But it was the silting up of the harbor that ended Cossack’s glory days.
Cossack, which was our next stop as we crossed the Pilbara, is now a ghost town, but a few imposing stone buildings, some of them restored by those who love the region’s history, suggest a time when the town was busier.
In addition to being the first port in the northwest to service the region’s growing pastoral industry (by 1869, there were more than 39,000 sheep in the Pilbara), it was also the gateway for thousands of people seeking their fortunes in the Pilbara gold rush in the 1880s. And for a while, it was a cornerstone of Australia’s booming pearling industry.
The town had several names before it became Cossack. The name that finally stuck came from a ship that brought the governor of Western Australia, Sir Frederick Weld, to the site. So it has been Cossack since 1871. By 1887, there was a horse drawn tramway connecting Cossack with the nearby town of Roebourne.
But Cossack was soon in decline. By 1900, pearlers were moving on. By 1910, the harbor had silted up and shipping had been relocated. A few people continued to live in the town until after World War II, but by 1950, the town had been abandoned.
It was not abandoned for good, however. Those history buffs keep restoring buildings, interested in saving a piece of history. And Cossack has become a big tourist draw for this little corner of the northwest.
The site is actually quite lovely. The harbor may no longer be useful, but there is still water nearby, and it makes a remarkably vivid backdrop to the little ghost town.
The images below are of an abandoned house and of the restored Cossack Courthouse.