History of West Australia/Isidore James Knight Cohn

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EXPERIENCE is a kind of talismanic force which guides man on his path of life. In a comparatively new country the man of experience must invariably succeed; he brings to bear in his fresh fields of labour the knowledge he has acquired in other lands. Decidedly entertaining is the biography of Mr. I. J. K. Cohn, who has had a variety of experiences in the Australian colonies. From his early boyhood he has been associated with gold mining, and if there is one calling more than another that is conducive to adventure it is that of the seekers for this precious metal.

Isidore James Knight Cohn HOFWA.jpg
Photo by
Greenham & Evans.

Isidore James Knight Cohn was horn in Melbourne in 1843. Tiring of a city life and yearning to get to the goldfields, he left the domestic roof for Castlemaine at the early age of thirteen years. The little lad was fortunate enough to get in with a party of men who agreed to give a him third share in their findings. This infantile gold quest was not very successful, for we find him eighteen months afterwards on the road to Melbourne, carrying his swag. Three years later he proceeded to Bendigo, having in the meantime married, his young wife accompanying him. He had only a few pence in his pocket, but devoted himself to vigorous work, and although but eighteen years of age he applied for a prospector's license over the Burra-Eureka mine, situated between Sparrowhawk and Ironbark. Then, some months later, the goldfields of New Zealand caused a general exodus from Victoria, and Mr. Cohn joined in the pilgrimage. The gold was being found in the South Island, and with his swag on his back he tramped to Dunstan, and from there to Nookimia, mining and prospecting en route. Having no luck at either place, he proceeded to Dunedin, where he found letters awaiting him which called for his immediate presence in Melbourne. After settling his business in the latter place, he went to the Caledonian diggings, about twenty-four miles out from the capital. He remained there for two years, working puddling machines, and digging between times. Wood's Point was his next rendezvous, and with his pack horses he was one of the first to arrive. He became very largely interested in reefing, but made little or no money in his ventures. Not to be outdone, he started in photography—an art in which he had always displayed studious interest. Travelling from town to town and colony to colony, he became a peripatetic photographer in earnest. At one time he was engaged in taking views for an art publication. It necessitated his going to Cobar, New South Wales and this probably proved the turning point in his life.

Mr. Cohn decided to settle in Cobar, and opened an hotel, afterwards launching out in the coaching and livery business. The copper mines of that district were developing well at this time, and he pioneered the coaches running from Cobar to Bourke, to Ningan, to Condobolin, Nimagee, and, in conjunction with a Mr. Sproule, to Hillston. He cut the first track through to Wilcannia from Cobar, and was an original shareholder in the first crushing plant erected at Bourke. Mr. Cohn stopped in Cobar a few years, then journeyed to Silverton, New South Wales, when mining was in full swing there. Then he heard of gold being discovered in the Kimberley district, Western Australia, and although doing well at Silverton, he departed, and arrived at Perth in 1885. Making all enquiries about the country before starting, he lost no time in getting to the Kimberley district. He proceeded to Derby, the main port, and spent a little time there in completing arrangements to go to the fields. When he arrived at Hall's Creek he was very much impressed with the country. There were not many miners on the ground, but Mr. Cohn equipped prospecting parties, obtained a public house license, and opened a general store in conjunction with it. Prospectors whom he sent out discovered several properties, and he was one of the first to erect machinery on the field. The Rising Sun battery, which he had erected, was, with the mine, afterwards sold to Messrs. Dalgety and Co., acting on behalf of an English syndicate. Mr. Cohn was manager of the company, but resigned because he had expressed dubious views with regard to its future. He remained on the Kimberley Goldfields for five or six years, and during that period was once speared by blacks, and on two occasions contracted fever and ague; the last time, his life hung in the balance. When he left Hall's Greek, Mr. Cohn intended to return to New South Wales and settle in Sydney, his principal reason for leaving being that he did not think gold mining could be made to pay there with white labour. He arrived in Perth when the Yilgarn goldfields had been in progress but a few months. Meeting with the late Mr. J. H. Monger and Mr. Alexander Forrest, M.L.A., they advised him not to leave until he had had a look at the Yilgarn field. Mr. Cohn followed this advice, and after inspecting Southern Cross he determined to stay there. He was appointed manager of mines for a prominent syndicate, and eventually took up the work on the Central, being the first to discover the rich chute of gold which brought this property with a bound before the public eye. After holding the position for eight months, he relinquished it to start in business as a contractor, forwarding agent, and aerated waters manufacturer. He built the Club Hotel and many other properties, each of which proved highly remunerative to him.

Always an early riser, Mr. Cohn one morning witnessed a sight that would have been a feast for the eyes of Midas. At five o'clock on the morning we refer to he met Arthur Bayley returning from his now famous find at Coolgardie, he being the first to receive authentic news. Bayley approached with his two horses. Suspended from one of them were two heavy bags, and he asked Mr. Cohn to "feel" them. "What's in them?" queried Mr. Cohn. "Gold!" said Bayley. "How much?" said the astonished questioner. "Six hundred ounces!" was the quiet reply of the Coolgardie pioneer. Then the two sat down on the ground beside the horses, waiting for the bank to open, so that the gold might be safely deposited. Bayley recounted the incidents leading up to his rich discovery, and gave Mr. Cohn a lot of valuable information which he was not slow to act upon. When the telegraph office opened in the morning, Mr. Cohn wired the news of the find to Mr. A. Forrest, and gave all particulars concerning it. Acting on the information he received, Mr. Cohn organised teams and men to proceed to the field. Men and teams were ready next morning (Sunday) and a week after the first equipage reached Coolgardie. On the route plenty of water was found in the rocks and wayside "soaks." A month after despatching the teams, Mr. Cohn set out himself for Coolgardie, and on arrival formed the opinion that it was one of the best auriferous areas he had ever seen. He therefore acquired several properties on behalf of his syndicate. Meantime the "rush" had set in, and when tenders were called later on for mail delivery Mr. Cohn became the successful tenderer and opened up the first legitimate mail service, under the style of Cobb and Co. Still keeping up his contracting, he erected a number of wayside inns on the road to Coolgardie, and in that now rapidly-expanding centre built the first hotel, to wit, the Club, in Bayley Street. Mr. Cohn also claims the honour of building the first hotel in Kalgoorlie, also called the Club. In Dunnsville as well—the township founded on the site of John Dunn's sensational Wealth of Nations discovery—Mr. Cohn erected the pioneer hotel, and at Niagara he has erected several properties. Early in the history of the Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie fields, he acquired a considerable amount of town-site property.

On one occasion, when the excitement of the Wealth of Nations discovery was at its height, Mr. Cohn drove Messrs. Forrest, Hassell, Monger, Marmion, and Crossland—the original syndicate—to the scene of the find, and they were on the spot forty-three hours after leaving Perth, although the railway only ran as far as Southern Cross. He made special arrangements for the trip, and let out all his drags, buggies, &c., for the outing. About three years ago, Mr. Cohn sold out his interests in the coaches running from Coolgardie, but since then he has been the biggest mail contractor running to and from the fields. Out of eleven mail contracts let by the Government this year (1896), he secured eight. He has mail coaches running to Menzies, Niagara, Yerilla, Lake Darlot, Bulong, Kurnalpi, Esperance, and Norseman. As a contractor he erected the telegraph line to Dundas, and he is now engaged in the construction of the overland telegraph route to the South Australian border, a very large undertaking, involving the use of over 500 camels and the employment of 60 men. Outside the firm of Faiz and Taigh Mahomet, Mr. Cohn is the largest camel proprietor in the colony, owning over 600 "ships of the desert." In 1895 he lost over 10,000 through camels dying, and he has had considerable trouble with the Afghans, who, he states, are none too careful in their treatment of beasts owned by white men. The camels are used extensively in carrying goods, &c., and have done an immense amount of work for Mr. Cohn.

As a mining expert Mr. Cohn has had an extensive and successful experience in reporting on properties and recommending purchases, and every one has turned out well. He holds very large mining interests, and what with his forwarding agency, aerated waters business, mail contracts, and his public duties, his life is a busy one.

Mr. Cohn was gazetted a J.P. in June, 1895, and his decisions on the bench have given general satisfaction. He has always taken an interest in public matters. He has been a member of the Council at Southern Cross since its inception, and for the last two years has occupied the mayoral chair. He is also chairman of the Southern Cross Roads Board. He is a warm supporter of Sir John Forrest, and speaks highly of the uniform courtesy and kindness he has received when dealing with the Government and the officials on public business. He is a member of a large number of racing clubs in Western Australia, and is also connected with several agricultural societies.

Mr. Cohn has now amassed a comfortable competency, but his success in life came not without the reverses of Experience's "fiery furnace." He deserves credit for the work he has accomplished in Western Australia, and, though he was not born in it, he is one of its most solid and consistent supporters. He is a well-known figure on the goldfields, and the correspondence which reaches him on public matters from out-of-the-way parts shows how well he is liked and how thoroughly he is in touch with the mining population.