Digging Burra

Back in the 1840s, copper was discovered in South Australia. The town of Burra, founded in 1845, became the site of a massive copper mine that, for a few decades, was the most important source of income for the state. Miners, especially from Wales and Cornall in the UK, flocked to Burra. Housing soon became an issue.

On the Great Plains in the United States, when there were limited housing materials, people cut pieces of sod and stacked them up to build houses. In Burra, there was no sod. However, there was erosion. Burra Creek had cut down far enough that the banks were steep—and “homes” were simply dug into the steep banks. Some needed the addition of a roof or a few bits of wood to prevent a landslide, but these homes had the advantage of being comparatively cool in a toasty locale, as well as rent free. Records of the day showed that nearly 2,000 miners lived in these “dugouts.” Of course, having a couple thousand guys all living in damp quarters and using the creek as their primary source of water meant disease and death were frequent visitors.

The dugouts were not the only homes in Burra. There are many charming buildings from the era of mining, including a lot of sturdy, stone cottages that would look familiar to anyone who knows Cornwall. It’s actually a really charming town, with lovely antique shops and many remnants of the past, along with all the necessities of modern life.

Today, about 1,200 people live in Burra—none of them in the dugouts, which are simply preserved to remind people of the town’s history. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area—and while you’re there, definitely check out the dugouts. (Three “homes” are shown below.)


Filed under Australia, Book, History, Travel

2 responses to “Digging Burra

  1. Amazing way people find shelter! Did they ever have to worry about the river rising and washing out their homes? Or was the river dammed for mining purposes?

    The kids and I went on a tour of a desert wash and were told that the Salt River and Gila river in Phoenix always had running water 100 years or so ago. However, now they have been dammed to make Saguaro Lake and another lake, so it very rarely has running water.

    • Actually, there were floods — some bad enough to affect the town itself, not just the dugouts along “Creek Street.”

      It was a combination of floods, disease, and the mining company’s worries over people’s lives that finally convinced people to move out of the dugouts.

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