Broken Hill is located near the border with South Australia on the crossing of the Barrier Highway (national route 32) and the Silver City Highway (national route 79), in the Barrier Range. It is above sea level, has an average rainfall of and summer temperatures that reach well over . The closest major city is Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, which is more than to the southwest. Unlike the rest of New South Wales, Broken Hill (and the surrounding region) observes Australian Central Standard Time a time zone it shares with South Australia and the Northern Territory.
Broken Hill has been called "The Silver City", the "Oasis of the West", and the "Capital of the Outback". Although over west of Sydney and surrounded by semi-desert, the town has colourful park and garden displays and offers a number of attractions such as the Living Desert Sculptures.
The earliest human settlers in the area around Broken Hill are thought to be the Wiljakali Aborigines, although this was probably only intermittent, owing to the lack of permanent water sources. As in much of Australia, a combination of disease and aggression by white settlers drove them from their lands.
The first European to visit the area was the then Surveyor General of New South Wales, Major Thomas Mitchell, in 1841. Three years later, in 1844, the explorer Charles Sturt saw and named the Barrier Range while searching for an inland sea; the range was so named as it was a barrier to his progress north. Burke and Wills passed through the area in their famous 1860–61 expedition, setting up a base camp at nearby Menindee. Pastoralists first began settling the area in the 1850s, with the main trade route to the area along the Darling River.
Broken Hill was founded in 1883 by boundary rider Charles Rasp who patrolled the Mount Gipps fences. In 1883 he discovered what he thought was tin, but the samples proved to be silver and lead. The ore body they came from became the largest and richest of its kind in the world. The Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) (later BHP Billiton) was founded by the Syndicate of Seven to mine the ore body of Broken Hill in 1885. By 1915 BHP realised its ore reserves were limited and began to diversify into steel production and on 28 February 1939 mining at the BHP mines at Broken Hill had ceased.
BHP was not the only miner at Broken Hill, and mining continued at the southern and northern ends of the Line of Lode. Currently the southern and northern operations are run by Perilya Limited who plan to open further mines along the Line of Lode.
The Battle of Broken Hill took place on New Year's Day 1915 when two Afghani men fired upon a trainload of people who were headed to a New Years Day picnic. Since, at that time, Australia was at war with the Ottoman Empire, those people were first speculated to be Turkish, but later identified as being from British colony of India (modern day Afghanistan). They killed four and wounded six, before they were killed by a group of policemen and soldiers.
Like many "outback" towns, Broken Hill was built on precious metals, having once had the world's richest deposits of lead, zinc and silver. Although now depleted somewhat, mining still yields around two million tonnes annually. Some mine tours are available. Sheep farming is now one of the principal industries in the area and there are considerably more sheep than people — almost 2 million Merino sheep.
On 10 January 2007, the Broken Hill City Council was dismissed by the New South Wales Minister for Local Government following a public inquiry.
The city's isolation was a problem until the Adelaide narrow gauge railway link was finished in 1888. Since the New South Wales Government would not allow the South Australia Government to build a railway to cross the border, the last was built by a private company as the Silverton Tramway. The line was so named because it was originally intended to serve the mining town of Silverton, but by the time the railway reached the town it was already being eclipsed by the newer and bigger mine at Broken Hill. The main purpose of the railway was to transport concentrates and ores from the mines to the smelters and port facilities on the coast at Port Pirie, South Australia. As a backload to Broken Hill it transported supplies, principally coal for boilers at the mines and timber for the timber sets used underground in mining. The Silverton Tramway was owned by Broken Hill mining interests.
The main sidings and locomotive servicing facilities were located in Railwaytown, a suburb of Broken Hill with sidings running to the south and north to serve the mines. The main passenger station was at Sulphide Street.
From the later 1890s, Broken Hill Council campaigned for a tramway to provide public transport around town and to the mines. Eventually the NSW Government decided to build a tramway which was opened on 19 March 1902. It was run by steam trams transferred from Sydney by sea and then by rail across South Australia. It was a curious operation which after World War I suffered increasingly bad losses until the New South Wales Government closed the system in December 1926.
Another curiosity was the Tarrawingee Tramway which was a narrow gauge railway line which ran north from Broken Hill for about to an area of limestone deposit which was quarried and transported to Broken Hill for use in the smelters at the mines. The tramway opened in 1891 but closed in 1898 as the smelters moved to Port Pirie. In 1889 the Public Works Committee of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly recommended that the Government take over the line and it subsequently became a narrow gauge part of the New South Wales Government Railways (NSWGR) run under contract by Silverton Tramway.
In 1919, a 4-foot 8½ inch (1435 mm) standard gauge rail link from Broken Hill to Menindee was opened as the first stage in a planned direct route to Sydney. The terminus for the train was at Crystal Street station, some distance from the Silverton Tramway's Sulphide Street station. The railway mainly hauled water from the Darling River. The rolling stock all had to be transported by sea to South Australia and the railway was supervised by the superintendent of the Broken Hill Tramways.
During World War II land transportation between South Australia and Eastern Australia became important with the threat posed by submarines and mines to coastal shipping. Extensive transshipment yards were constructed at Broken Hill in 1942 to allow transshipment of munitions. However, the threat was never fully realised.
With the purchase of the Sulphide Corporation by the Zinc Corporation in 1948 a modern zinc smelter was constructed at Cockle Creek, south of Newcastle. This started to take lead and zinc concentrates directly from Broken Hill via rail in the 1960s, marking the first major use of the rail link to NSW. This was the well known W44 Concentrate Train.
In 1970 the 3-foot 6 inch (1067 mm) gauge railway from Port Pirie to Broken Hill was converted to a 4-foot 8½ inch (1435 mm) gauge, thus completing the standard transcontinental gauge line from Sydney to Perth.
Broken Hill has never had a permanent local water supply which meets the town's needs. By 1888 when the town's population had reached 5000, the state government built a series of small storage tanks.
By the 1890s, mining development had increased to the point that there was a severe water shortage and the mines and the people fought for water. Emergency water supplies were shipped by rail from the Darling River. In 1891, the Stephens Creek Reservoir was completed by a private company. The cost of water was high but not excessive and people were willing to pay because the environment was arid. Another reservoir was built at Umberumberka, however variable rainfall meant supplemental supplies by rail and rationing was still needed.
In 1952, Broken Hill's demands for a permanent water supply were met with the completion of a pipeline from Menindee. The pipeline can supply 1.6 megalitres of water per hour. Water storage facilities that are part of the Menindee Lakes Scheme on the Darling River, have secured water supply to Broken Hill, making it a relative oasis amid the harsh climate of the Australian outback. High evaporation rates have resulted in the policy of using the local storages for supply before using the pipeline.
By the 1920s most of the nine mines on the Line of Lode had their own steam powered electrical generators to power the surface and underground workings. As Broken Hill is in a desert with little water and virtually no fuel, steam generation was an expensive option. In 1927 a plan for a central power generating facility was proposed by F. J. Mars, consulting electrical engineer with the Central Mine. The proposed powerhouse would provide electricity and compressed air. The mines agreed and formed Western New South Wales Electric Power Pty. Ltd. to construct and operate the plant. The Sulzer diesel powered plant was completed in 1931. This was one of the earliest examples of the use of diesel power generation in Australia. The plant was enlarged in 1950 to cope with increased demand from the North Mine. At the same time, a new power station run by the Southern Power Corporation (owned by Consolidated Zinc) was erected near the New Broken Hill Consolidated Mine to provide power to the southern end of the Line of Lode. Both stations were connected to a common grid that serviced the mines on the Line of Lode.
A HVDC back-to-back station with a maximum transmission rate of 40 megawatts was built at Broken Hill in 1986, to draw from the National Grid. It consists of 2 static inverters working with a voltage of 8.33 kV. After this station was operational, the two other power stations closed and the equipment was gradually removed from the Central Power Station. The mothballed Southern Power Station, now owned by remnant miner Perilya, still houses five, 9 cylinder, Nordberg marine engines and two Mirrlees V16 marine engines.