The name Moonta is derived from the aboriginal word Moonta-Monterra meaning impenetrable scrub. Walter Watson Hughes occupied the area as part of his sheep run and it was one of his shepherds, Patrick Ryan, who discovered copper on the mouth of a wombat burrow in 1861.
The Moonta field consisted of several mines, the main ones being Moonta, Yelta, Paramatta, Hamley and Mid Moonta. The Moonta Mining Company was the first in Australia to pay one million pounds in dividends to its shareholders. Moonta Mines Tailings Heaps The Moonta Mining Co and the Wallaroo Mining Co amalgamated in 1889 and formed the Wallaroo and Moonta Mining Smelting Co. The mines worked until 1923 when the company went into liquidation. During the 1930’s small syndicates worked several leases, subsidised by the Commonwealth and State Governments. Since 1960 exploration companies have located many zones of copper mineralisation, several of which have proved economic. Small ore bodies near Poona Mine and Wheal Hughes Mine, just north of Moonta, have been mined by open cut and underground methods since 1989.
The district became known as “Australia’s little Cornwall” because the early miners who emigrated to the district were of Cornish descent, most coming directly from Cornwall or via the earlier mining areas of the state. Headstones in the Moonta Cemetery indicate the Cornish birthplaces of many early Moonta residents.
The Moonta Mines produced about 170,000 tonnes of copper metal and, along with the Wallaroo Mine, were the longest worked in South Australia’s mining history. The mechanical workshops were the largest in the southern hemisphere. Moonta was the first mine in Australia to have a Cementation Works ( a process of further copper extraction from previously treated ore ). The first Gas Works and School of Mines outside the metropolitan area were established at Moonta in 1872 and 1890 respectively.
The closure of the mines in 1923 led to a rapid decline in population particularly in the mine area, but Moonta survived as an agricultural and service centre. Since the 1970’s this has been supported by a fast growing tourism industry and now, interest and investment in Moonta and its surrounding district is escalating with many looking to visit and retire to the area to relax, have fun and enjoy its rich heritage, beautiful beaches, seaside activities and friendly people.
Courtesy of the Moonta Branch of the National Trust of South Australia