Into the Outback

In 1897, the 22-year-old future president went Down Under to scout the goldfields. By the time he left, he had become a local legend.

March/April 2000

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Into the Outback

Courtesy Herbert Hoover Presidential Library

It was close to midnight when I stepped off the Indian-Pacific express from Perth, nine hours to the west, into the outback town of Kalgoorlie. The temperature was nearly 100 degrees. As the red taillights of the streamliner disappeared down the track toward Sydney, the platform of the old-fashioned railroad station was deserted. I had to phone for a taxi to get downtown.

When the cab driver asked if I wanted to stop at a saloon or on Hay Street, where the brothels are, I got the feeling Kalgoorlie might not have changed a lot since 1897. That's when young Herbert Hoover turned up in this wild, sweltering boomtown seeking his fortune in Western Australia's gold stampede.

He arrived as a virtually penniless geologist fresh out of Stanford's first graduating class. On an early expedition, a camelback trip into the desert, he camped near an obscure mine developed by three Welshmen. Recognizing its potential for profit under aggressive management, Hoover encouraged his British employers to buy the operation and put him in charge. The mine, called Sons of Gwalia (Gaelic for "Wales"), would earn $55 million over the next six decades (more than $350 million in current dollars), yielding more than 2 million ounces of gold. It was one of the most productive mines in Australian history.

With the success of Sons of Gwalia, Hoover's salary more than doubled and he became a partner with a stake in the mine. Acclaimed as one of the most astute managers in the goldfields, he radically reorganized the operation during his seven months at the helm. Just that quickly -- in a period of his life largely neglected by historians -- he launched the fortune and reputation that would lead him to the American presidency.

Kalgoorlie is still a tough town. Prostitution is as legal here today as it was in Hoover's time, although it's easier now to find a bathtub and the hotels don't charge extra for the water. When I saw the main street that first night, the low buildings with balconies jutting over the sidewalks reminded me of American frontier towns. But the street seemed extraordinarily wide, roomier even than needed for a cattle drive. That, the taxi driver explained, was because camels won't back up. The camel trains used during the Australian gold rush needed lots of space for a U-turn.

Herbert Hoover is a near-mythic figure in Kalgoorlie today. Checking in at the Palace Hotel, where he had been a frequent guest, I found the Hoover à la Carte and Grill closed for the night. But things were going strong in the Diggers and Dealers Bar, where a pen-and-ink sketch of a dapper, pipe-smoking Hoover adorned the cigarette machine. From my room, I could hear the mining machinery three blocks away at the so-called Golden Mile, working all night under floodlights.

The next morning I came upon further evidence of Hoover's legacy. Framed in the hotel lobby was a florid love poem he was said to have written to a barmaid at the Palace some years after he left Australia: And I spent my soul in kisses, crushed upon your scarlet mouth / Oh! My red-lipped, sun-browned sweetheart, dark-eyed daughter of the south . . . . While the poem's authenticity is debatable (see box, page 65), young Hoover made no secret of his attraction to the local ladies. "At Lawlers [a nearby settlement], the barmaids are simply entrancing," he wrote to his brother, Tad, and sister, May. "Their personal beauty and municipal influence is unquestioned. If you want the policeman who is the sole representative of Her Majesty's government, you have only to find the barmaid."

Indeed, the Hoover remembered in these parts is not the somber, round-faced, Depression-era president of whom one critic wrote: "With his high stiff collar and his higher and stiffer manner, he had no more flair than an assistant funeral usher." No, here they'll tell you about a different Hoover -- a feisty adventurer, a mustachioed bachelor, a hard-nosed entrepreneur making his name in one of the hottest, dirtiest, most desolate places on earth.

When a british firm asked San Francisco mining consultant Louis Janin in early 1897 to suggest an American engineer for its interests in the new goldfields of Western Australia, Janin had just the man in mind. Herbert Hoover, who had studied geology under Professor John Branner, had been working for Janin for several months as a mine scout in the American Southwest. There was only one hitch. The firm -- Bewick, Moreing & Co. of London -- was looking for someone at least 35 years old. Hoover was 22.

By the time he reached London that spring, on a ship whose passenger list said he was 36 years old, he had grown an impressive mustache and beard. No one at company headquarters asked about his age, and he shipped out to Western Australia aboard the R.M.S. Victoria, arriving on May 13.

From Perth, the colony's sea-cooled capital, Hoover traveled 350 miles east into the outback in a wooden carriage on the new, narrow-gauge steam railroad. In May 1897, he reported to his company's regional office in Coolgardie, a tent-and-shanty city of 8,000 that had sprung up with the discovery of gold there in 1892.

Coolgardie's gold was shallow, alluvial ore -- easy to find and quick to peter out. Miners called it poor man's gold, because individual prospectors could easily extract it. Just a year after the Coolgardie rush began, a group of Irishmen started another rush by discovering gold 25 miles to the northeast, on Kalgoorlie's Golden Mile. Just east of that claim, prospectors found gold-bearing lodes extending deep into the earth. Extracting such ore required heavy machinery, a large labor force, major capital investment, efficient management and a keen knowledge of metallurgy. It required, in other words, a just-arrived Herbert Hoover.

Coolgardie was already beginning to dry up, on its way to becoming a ghost town, when Hoover joined the office there. Kalgoorlie, on the other hand, was booming.

Life was raw and rowdy in West Australia's Roaring '90s. The gold stampede attracted camel dealers from Afghanistan, laundrymen and prostitutes from Japan and miners from all over the world. They found a dry, dustblown wasteland scattered with occasional gum trees and swarming with biting flies.

"The Australian fly is much inferior, more vicious and less energetic than the American fly," Hoover grumbled to his cousin, Harriette Miles, in a letter written in September 1897. "He always makes for one's eyes, so we always wear nets, which keep away what little air may be stirring. Yesterday, my cook made a bucket of cocoa and left it sitting by the fire while he went to the tent. When he returned, not three minutes later, he fished 391 flies out of it."

The desert could be bitterly cold on winter nights and searing in the daytime year-round, reaching 150 degrees in the sun. It was so hot, Hoover joked, that they had to feed cracked ice to the chickens to keep them from laying hard-boiled eggs. And dust was everywhere -- piled so deep, Hoover said, that snowplows would be needed to clear it. Fierce winds only made things worse. "We have had a terrible dust storm," he wrote to Harriette, "so dusty one cannot see across the street 10 minutes at a time."

Food in the outback was mainly biscuits and what the miners called "tinned dog" (probably canned ham, mutton or beef). Water was scarce and brackish -- "worth more to us than ore," Hoover told Harriette. Men rarely bathed more than once a week; some went months without getting into a tub. Hoover once saw a placard for a dance that read: "Gentlemen wearing clean shirts need not wear waistcoats." On a visit to the town of Menzies, when he requested a bath, "the landlady was shocked but brought me a can full of water, and my bill was 75 cents greater thereby."

Unsanitary conditions led to health problems. "Everyone gets the typhoid sooner or later," Hoover wrote his family. "One could expect nothing else in towns without sewage [systems], without water, built on level sand plains." Miners and prospectors tried to avoid the disease -- spread through tainted water and food -- by drinking beer, champagne or the local Mount Leonora whiskey. Hoover managed to escape typhoid but spent more than a week in bed with a blood infection the miners called barcoo rot, carried by the detested bush flies and usually picked up by accidentally ingesting the insects with food.

The newcomer ranked No. 4 among a staff of 53 in the regional office. His salary was $5,000 a year plus expenses and some fees, and he lived in a company-owned bungalow in Kalgoorlie with a cook and a valet. As the inspecting engineer in charge of mine exploration and evaluation, Hoover spent most of his time traveling around the outback. On one trip, he inspected 18 mines in 18 days, finding his way through virtually trackless bush. On another, he looked at nearly 50 mines in 10 days.

Most of these belonged to Bewick, Moreing, and Hoover had to make some unpopular decisions. "The bad [mines] must go and the good stay on sufferance," he wrote Lester Hinsdale, a Stanford classmate and San Francisco attorney. "They have been bought during boom times, when no regard was paid to the intrinsic value of the mine. . . . Good engineers are called in as physicians to mend the lame ducks. This we do by killing the bad ones immediately. At least, that's what I do."

When possible, Hoover made his trips by horse-and-buggy, a relatively comfortable mode of travel that enabled him to carry plenty of water. But in the great stretches of sand not suitable for buggies, camels were preferable to horses because they could go much longer without water. Hoover hated camels. "Long camel rides wrench every muscle in the body," he wrote Harriette. That limited a day's camel journey to about 40 miles, while relays of fresh horses allowed him to cover 70 miles in a day.

There was another way to get around the outback: bicycling. Once, Hoover was hundreds of miles into the desert on camelback when a telegram arrived by bicycle messenger. "I had proceeded as far as Lake Darlot," he reported, "when we were overtaken by a special bicyclist, who had come from Cue, the end of the telegraph, in three days, 390 miles." For as little as five shillings a letter, these intrepid "cycle specials" -- sometimes pedaling wildly across dry lake beds to escape packs of pursuing dingoes or groups of Aborigines -- carried mail to the mining camps. Their company even issued its own stamps, picturing camels and swans.

Packs of camels actually paved the way for the bicyclists, Hoover explained to Harriette: "The camels are soft-footed, so they make a hard pad or path through the softest sand. This is a good track for a bicycle." Hoover himself took to stowing a bicycle on his buggy. "One never thinks of taking such a trip as I am now on without a bicycle strapped on behind," he wrote, "because it is often 50 miles from water to water; and if an accident should happen to the team, a bicycle is the only salvation."

Often homesick, Hoover felt his travels into the empty desert carried him beyond the edge of the known world. After one long trip, he wrote to his cousin: "Am glad to get back within the borders of civilization. Coolgardie is three yards inside of it. Perth is about a mile, and of course, San Francisco is the center. . . . Stanford is the best place in the world."

Hoover got his first glimpse of the Sons of Gwalia in June 1897, the month after he arrived. He spotted the site near Mount Leonora, 150 miles north of Kalgoorlie. Noting the geologic resemblance between this ore deposit and Kalgoorlie's Golden Mile, he immediately recognized its untapped potential. The Sons of Gwalia was a working mine, but its scale of operation was still small. Hoover hastily cabled Bewick, Moreing, advising the firm to secure an option to buy the mine before anyone else got interested. The London office obtained the option and asked Hoover to make a more thorough inspection.

In September, he strongly recommended outright purchase. His inspection report to London described the mine as one of "enormous potential" that was "well worth securing control of." He also included a bold caveat: that the firm invest heavily in new machinery and place the operation under his sole management.

On November 17, the company exercised its option, buying Gwalia for a cash commitment of 100,000 pounds. The London office cabled Hoover, agreeing to upgrade the machinery and promising, "You will have entire management."

Hoover took over on May 1, 1898. Five years later, Charles Algernon Moreing would describe Sons of Gwalia as "the mine out of which we made the most profit of any business we did." Driving this success was Hoover's engineering savvy and stringent management. Gwalia's deposits, like Kalgoorlie's, were low-grade -- yielding just ounces of gold from tons of unearthed rock. To profit on a large scale, Hoover knew he'd have to squeeze more gold out of the ore while slashing operational costs. So he revamped the equipment, modernized the accounting system and obsessively pursued savings in even the smallest details.

Handwritten letters preserved at the John Battye Library in Perth verify his relentless cost-cutting and his insistence on improving labor productivity. To local camel dealers Faiz and Tagh Mahomet he wrote: "At what price will you sell us fifty picked camels?" To his managing director: "I should with our own camels be able to save some 100 pounds on freight within the next two months." To London: "We have some 15 Italians in the Mine and the rivalry between them and the [other] workers is no small benefit." To the local office: "We have changed the working hours of the men on the mines from 44 hours to 48 hours per week, and after some trouble, things have quieted down and work is proceeding smoothly."

Hoover fired workers who didn't come up to his standards and defied industry traditions wherever he saw fit. He rejected the English practice of promoting foremen to mine superintendents, instead hiring university-trained engineers. In charge of some 250 laborers at the remote and desolate mining camp, the upstart American quickly earned a reputation as a tough and outspoken boss. He once fell speechless, however, after rebuking a foreman for getting drunk every payday. The man replied that the place was unbearable unless he could occasionally get "good and drunk." "How do you know when you are good and drunk?" Hoover inquired. "When Mount Leonora whiskey begins to taste good," his foreman said.

Now a partner in the firm's Australian operations, with salary of $12,500 and a share of the profits, the 23-year-old Hoover was riding high. He began making small investments of his own and was able to send home monthly sums through Hinsdale to pay the expenses of his brother, sister and cousin, who for a while were all students at Stanford. Hoover also instructed Hinsdale to pass along small amounts to Ray Lyman Wilbur and other Stanford chums who might need them.

His reputation spread. The Australian Mail called his rapid development of the Sons of Gwalia "unprecedented in Westralian mining." The Financial Times of London described him as "one of the ablest mining engineers in Western Australia." A visit from the governor of Australia, an English nobleman, may have let some air out of the balloon: after Hoover escorted the governor on a tour of the mine, he was tipped five shillings.

While all the praise was ringing in his ears, and probably going to his head, the American firebrand was at swords' points with his boss, Ernest Williams, the managing director of the regional office. "He is quite the most complete scoundrel I have ever met, and it's a question of fight or be done up behind my back," Hoover wrote to his brother. He tried to organize a staff revolt against Williams, and twice threatened to resign. "Between ourselves," Hoover sulked to Tad, "they are a crowd of Sons of Bitches from stem to stern. . . . It just happens that [Charles Moreing's] business can't run without me and I will force him to make me managing director of Australia or tell him to [go to] the devil."

But Moreing had other plans for Hoover. After visiting China early in the summer of 1898, he decided the Yank-in-a-hurry was just the man to take over his firm's mining interests there. Hoover agreed to become managing director of a branch in Manchuria, which included a concession of 6,000 square miles thought to hold valuable gold deposits. Moreing promised him one-fifth of all Chinese profits and a junior partnership in the London office, in addition to his salary. Just three years later, the San Francisco Chronicle would cite Hoover as the richest man of his age in the world.

"Will you marry me?" said the cable he sent to Lou Henry, his college sweetheart, after accepting the China post. Two years earlier, she had declined his suggestion of marriage, but this time, she cabled a one-word reply: "Yes."

Thus Herbert Hoover -- tanned and trim, with prospects of great wealth ahead -- left Australia on December 11, 1898, for foggy London. From there he continued to Monterey, Calif., where he and Lou were married in her family's living room on February 10. The couple caught the train to San Francisco within the hour, and they sailed the next day for China.

William J. Coughlin, '44, MA '50, is a Pulitzer prize-winning editor and writer living in Ireland.

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