With the discovery of gold at nearby Kiandra in 1859 and a resultant gold rush starting in 1860 – short-lived though it was – Cooma rapidly expanded from a minor settlement. Between 1851 and 1911 the population grew from 47 to 2,330.
Spurred by the gold rush and successes in agriculture, the town became the commercial centre for the Monaro region. Numerous substantial public buildings were erected, hotels were built, banks opened, two newspapers were started, the railway arrived in 1888, a range of shops were established and businesses which serviced and supported the rural economy opened. In addition to this civic and commercial development ecclesiastical development was also afoot but this is the subject separate reviews.
The civic and commercial development quickly moved from Lambie Street (see separate review) across the creek and into Vale Street – also now referred to as the Court House District.
A number of these early public buildings remain and inpart the same air of solidity and respectability to the town as they did when they were built. This is more than one can say about most current day developments in Cooma and elsewhere. The only saving grace, I guess, is that most of today’s buildings will not be around in over a hundred years while these late 1800s ones probably will.
There are three buildings especially worthy a look in Vale Street (the same street that is home to the Cenotaph).
Firstly, have a look at the Post Office. This was constructed in 1879 by John Harris using granite gneiss, a local stone easily worked into regular smooth blocks for ashlar masonry. The Post Office was designed by Colonial Architect James Barnett in the Italianate style.
Barnett also designed the two other buildings in this street that you should have a look at, the Court House and the Gaol (jail).
The Court House (still operating as such), a stunning and totally unexpected building, was built by John Main in 1886 of granite gneiss and in the Victorian Mannerist style. What an imposing facade and building for a town of less than 2,000 people – a building that oozed authority when built as it continues to do today.
Further down the street you will come across the Cooma Gaol. While the town and district flourished in good ways, villainy and crime (in particular cattle rustling) lurked in the background and a gaol was required. The gaol, opened in 1873 and housing 98 inmates was, in 1876, converted into lunatic asylum before being closed in the 1900s. Prisoners were sent to Goulburn some 200 kms away.
In the early days of the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electricity Scheme the former gaol was used as a secure store for materials. In 1957 it became a prison once more, to be closed again in the mid 1990s only to reopen in 2001 as a minimum/medium security prison. Do have a close look at the beautiful cedar doors (from the outside!).
Next door to the Gaol you will find the Cooma Gaol Museum (the Corrective Services NSW Museum). The museum houses a range of prison exhibits dating from convict days right up to the present – some 200 years of Correctional Services history in New South Wales. The Gaol itself housed the exhibits and was the museum until it was recommissioned as a gaol in 2001.
The museum has a reasonable range of exhibits including, and quoting from the museums website, “an original portable cell, restraint devices (e.g. manacles and leg irons), convict and prisoner clothing, tin wear manufactured within prison industries, security equipment (e.g. riot shields and batons), contraband (e.g. inmate weapons, escape devices and tattoo guns), artefacts from the notorious Katingal gaol, photographs, videos, oral histories, and film documentation”.
An interesting thing about this museum is that the guides are actually prisoners, albeit minimum security ones, from the prison next door. A small range of inmate made arts and crafts are on sale.
Children will especially like the museum.
Opening hours (2018)
Monday – Saturday 9:00am to 3:00pm
Please call (02) 6452 5974 to check for opening times
Closed Christmas Day
Address: Vale Street
Directions: All the buildings referred to are within a couple of hundred metres of each other.
My next Cooma review– HERE (coming soon!)
Return to the beginning of my Cooma reviews – HERE