Here is another 5 Minute History written for the Esperance Tide. It was fascinating to research! Hope you enjoy this little history of Pink Lake.
Esperance’s Spencer Lake – commonly known as Pink Lake – used to be one of the town’s tourist attractions. The lake has played a significant role in the history of Esperance, featuring everything from horse races, to industry, culture and tourism.
Pink Lake has always been significant to the local Indigenous people, featuring in Dreamtime stories, and as a habitat for wildlife. The first European to ‘discover’ Pink Lake was naturalist Claude Riche, who arrived on the Recherche in 1792, one of the first Europeans to set foot in the area. Riche got lost while exploring, leading to him stumbling across the lake. He was almost left behind by the crew of the Recherche. WA’s first Surveyor General, John Septimus Roe, named Lake Spencer in 1848, after Sir Richard Spencer, a Magistrate from Albany. Nearby Lake Warden was named after Spencer’s wife, Lady Ann Warden Spencer.
In 1896, E.J. McCarthy arrived in Esperance, just as the town was beginning to boom due to the gold rush in the Goldfields. McCarthy and his family built the Bijou theatre, and a general store. McCarthy also began mining salt at Lake Spencer, which became known around town as Pink Lake, due to the lake’s colour. The salt was mined by hand, and carted to a salt works behind McCarthy’s landholdings on Dempster street, between William street and Taylor street. McCarthy also took up the lease to mine salt on Middle Island, from Lake Hillier. In the days before Federation, a one pound duty was charged on salt brought from the Eastern States, and salt was in high demand for preserving meat, along with many other uses.
McCarthy purchased the first internal combustion engine to operate in the Esperance area, a Howard Bedford engine, which was used to crush the salt taken from Pink Lake. McCarthy’s salt enterprises were taken on by ‘The Standard Salt Co’ of South Australia, and McCarthy was appointed as the manager. Salt was sent via ship to Fremantle and other areas throughout the state. The extraction and processing of salt from the lake became a big industry for the little town, providing employment for many men. Men were paid 9 shillings a day to shovel salt, and boys were paid 5 shillings. The salt operation was processing 40 tons of salt a day. A siding built on the Collier Road side of Pink Lake road in 1916 helped with transporting the salt to the port. McCarthy’s son, R.J. McCarthy, who took over running the salt works, described the colour of the lake as being ‘nearly blood red’ at times.
As well as the significant industry and employment that grew up around Pink Lake, the Lake also became a cultural hub for the town. In the very early years, horse racing was held at the lake, on the hard salt crust, and the lake was also used as an air strip for a time. In later years, ‘land yachting’ events also took place at Pink Lake.
In 1937, Boswell Synnot took over the salt works at Pink Lake. Synnot was a local businessman who also established the Aerated Water Factory in 1915. Synnot and his sons ran the salt works until 1947, exporting salt throughout the state, and also to New Zealand and Singapore. In 1966, the Shire President, Councillor Patterson, submitted a request to the Geographic Names Committee, resulting in the lake being officially renamed from Lake Spencer to Pink Lake.
In the 1960s, the Lister family bought the 1080 hectare lease of Pink Lake. Under the direction of Tony Lister, the family’s company Western Salt Refinery began harvesting salt from Pink Lake in the 1970s. The salt mined from the lake was praised for its purity, being 99.8 percent pure. In these days, Pink Lake was supplying 98% of all fine salt used in WA. Lister stated that the salt in Pink Lake ‘will last forever’, with estimates that the lake had reserves of around 30 million tonnes of salt. In 1984, the Esperance Shire Council commissioned a report on the environmental impact of salt mining at Pink Lake, amid concerns over the Western Salt Refinery’s plans to increase salt extraction from 1800 tonnes annually to 10,000 tonnes. In 1986, the report was released, stating that salt mining would not harm the lake, but that annual salt production should be limited to 14,000 tonnes per year. As well as its use for human consumption, Pink Lake salt was used for everything from swimming pools, cheese factories, salting sheepskins, and making salt licks for stock. BP Refinery also purchased salt from Pink Lake for use in filtering jet fuel and making chemicals.
In 1980, a biologist from the University of WA confirmed that the pink colouring of Pink Lake was caused by a micro-algae called Dunaliella salina, which is able to survive in environments of high salinity due to its high concentration of carotenoids. The high levels of Beta Carotene give the algae it’s distinctive orange-pink colour. In the 1990s, Pink Lake’s colour was noticeably reduced. Lake Hillier, on Middle Island, remains a stunning pink colour, and is currently growing in popularity as a tourist attraction. Salt mining at Pink Lake was ceased in 2008. Environmental scientist Tilo Massenbauer, who is currently undertaking a study of the lake, estimates that over the years of salt mining, at least 530,000 tonnes of salt were removed from Pink Lake. This amount of salt took an estimated 2,500 years to accumulate in the lake and was removed in just over 100 years of salt mining. The loss of salt from the lake has contributed to the lake losing its colour, along with the rise of ground water levels in the area, which have a much lower concentration of salt. The lake remains a significant habitat for bird life, and other wildlife, as a part of the ecologically important wetland system of the area. Tilo is optimistic that with increased salt levels in the lake, there is still hope that one day, Pink Lake could be pink again.
Pics below – Boswell Synott shovelling salt, and Esperance locals posing in snow gear with piles of pink lake salt.