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Newnes and Portland - Company Towns

Home > New South Wales > Day Trips | Escape the City | Places of Interest
Published July 26th 2019

Agricultural centres grew on the backs of squatters and selectors, people came to the towns on the dreams of making a comfortable living for themselves and their families. Some towns flourished and remain today as thriving settlements along highways and rail lines, some faded away with only remnants of shops or chimney stacks on the side of the roads.

Other centres had their genesis as Company towns that sprung up around an industry whether it was timber or steel mills, coal, shale, gold and silver mines or even limestone for cement. With the prospect of escaping the unemployment and poverty of the cities, people flocked to these Company towns. They thrived creating their own industries for carpenters, plumbers, brick makers and brick layers, boiler makers just to name a few. Sometimes the towns became sustainable enough to cope with downturns, sometimes the towns folded when resources ran out. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution held true for both the life of species as well as the life of towns.

With the discovery of shale in the Wolgan Valley in the early 1900s, a town was set up by the Commonwealth Oil Corporation and named after its chairman Sir George Newnes. Construction of the shale works began in 1906 and the retorts were used for the first time in 1911 producing kerosene and oil, petroleum was a bi-product and discarded.

For its time, it had a reasonable population of 800 and the company invested funds to build a 50km rail line to link Newnes to the main railway line near Bell. It ceased major operations in 1912 and came back to life shortly during the depression and finally had all its major works relocated to Glen Davis in 1938. The rail line has long been abandoned and the surviving rail tunnel is now a glow worm tunnel renowned for it's glow worms.

Riding west from Lithgow and taking the Mudgee turnoff, the bike rolls into Lidsdale. A petrol station and group of factory units sit on a corner overlooking the now closed Wallerawang Power Station, a road sign clearly directs you in the direction of Newnes and the Wollemi National Park 36km further along Wolgan Road. Interestingly, Charles Darwin stayed at Wallerowang House in 1836 when he visited and described the country side and wildlife. Riding through the community, the houses are well maintained with an air of optimism as I roll through.

The town is not ready to give up yet. In my rear-view mirror, smokeless chimney stacks rise out of the ground from the defunct power station. My tyres grip the road while gum trees paint shadows on the bitumen in the morning sun and flocks of birds rise from grassy fields as the sound of the single cylinder thunders past. The road is in good condition and will get better in the near future, a road sign advertises works funded jointly by Emirates and the NSW Government of a $4.2 million project providing bitumen pavement from the foot of the Wolgan Gap to the low-level causeway near the entrance to the Emirates Spa Resort.

A few kilometres in, a barrage of road signs hit me warning of windy road, slow speed, Do Not Stop falling rocks, 50km/ hr, truck use slow speed, just before I get to a bend with a vista looking down into the valley. Bad idea for a person that likes taking photos. Walled in by sandstone cliffs and hidden from the main highway, it is reminiscent of riding into the Capertee Valley. The road is newly surfaced, narrow in most parts for its 3km, you still need to keep an eye out for fallen rocks on the road, cars coming in the opposite direction and for the idiots who stop in the middle of the road to take selfies. Mind you, once down the bottom, you will want to race back up, just to ride down again. With much of the road is now sealed, only the last 9km being dirt road. It's only a short run on dirt but well worth it.

Blue skies, the sound of cicada's and a high fire danger sign welcomes me to Newnes. Old rail carriges on the side of the road remain as a reminder of the past settlement. It has two good camping grounds with basic facilities and spacious enough for people not to camp on top of each other. One camp site is located just far past the pub, the second is located over a river crossing that leads you to ruins of the factory site and track leading to the glow worm tunnel.

The clear mountain water of the river crossing makes the depth deceiving and soft sand can catch you out. The water is refreshing even in the middle of summer. Remnants of the rail line can be seen through the undergrowth as I ride along the track, hand laid boulders have been positioned to cater for the rail line, now covered in ferns. A short stroll from the parking bay leads to the factory ruins.

Ghosts walk amongst the ruins and the wind whispers through the trees. Littered amongst fallen branches and dried leaves, rusted boilers, steps leading to nowhere, fragments of buildings now taken over by eucalypt trees and shrubs give an air of a dystopian world. As I walk back to my bike, I turn to the sound of rustling in the undergrowth, a goanna climbs on a brick wall, it's tongue flickers and head turns surveying the town it has inherited.

For all their dreams and labours, promises made and lost, evolution rears its head and the town slowly died. Sixty kilometres away, through Wallerawang is Portland. Famous for its cement works, Portland was declared a town in 1902, the year the first cement works in Australia opened. As legend has it, "It is the town that built Sydney". The Commonwealth Portland Cement Company Ltd was registered in 1900 and closed in 1991.

Not letting the closure of the cement works demoralise the town, a Sydney signwriter Ron Bidwell and locals had the brilliant idea to spruce up the town and bring in visitors by recreating vintage signs on the walls of buildings, Arnott's Biscuits and His Masters Voice next to the ANZAC Memorial. Flag Ale on the wall of a pub, adverts for famous black and white movies on the walls of the Crystal Theatre. Murals of Simpson and his Donkey, a Spitfire, a Fuzzy Wazzy Angle with Digger from Kokoda and John B Mackey VC painted on the wall of the RSL. More are found while walking around the town. All this while Elvis watches the street from someone's window.

The highlight is the silo paintings by Guido Van Helten at the old cement works. Coming from a person that can't draw a stick person properly, these paintings of an old man covering the height of the silos is really something to see, photos don't do then justice. Sitting on a curbside bench, a local takes a rest from his walk into town and watches the cars go by. Asked about the murals he says "It has helped the morale of the town, a recent gallery opening brought in 70 odd people which isn't bad for a town that few people have heard of. People like living here and don't want to see the town wither away". The main employers are Mt Piper Power Station and local coal mines. With forethought and an act of defiance to Darwin's laws of evolution, the town is re-inventing itself to give it its best chance of survival.

Newnes is an intriguing place to visit, you need at least two days to enjoy and explore the surrounds and the ride in there is laid back and worth the ride even if it is just to kick back by the river and take in the serenity. Places like Portland are all around us, not all adventures are on dirt roads, there is still lots to see and learn by travelling through unheard of towns on lost roads.
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Your Comment
The Silo Art at Portland is amazing.
On a trip to Mudgee last year during August, we stopped to see the silos but the art was not yet complete.
Lunch at the pub, friendly staff and warm comfort food on offer.
Sometimes it's good to detour off the main road and explore these small towns.
by Gloria (score: 2|555) 1396 days ago
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