Pine Creek is the fourth largest town between Darwin and Alice Spring, in the Katherine region of the Northern Territory Australia. Local Aboriginal peoples of the area are the Wagiman, Mayall, Arigoolia and Jawoyn. Pine Creek had fascinating history. This town full of unusual buildings and memories of the old railway and telegraph line.
Located 248 km south of Darwin on the Stuart Highway, Pine Creek was named after the local creek, which was crossed, in December 1870 by the teams constructing the Overland Telegraph Line. The creek was notable, as the name suggests, for the many pines on its banks. Although the town was always known as Pine Creek, it was officially named Playford on the 24 January 1889. At the time, Thomas Playford Sr was the South Australian Commissioner of Crown Lands. Playford's desire for immortality was misplaced. The town continued to be known as Pine Creek in spite of the government's attempt to honour him. It was not officially gazetted as Pine Creek until 20 September 1973.
In December 1870, during construction of the Overland Telegraph Line, posthole diggers discovered traces of gold at Yam Creek and this led to the gold rush of 1871. After that discovery, Pine creek became a busy little mining town. When the telegraph line was completed, it meant very little to the few locals but the possibility of finding gold attracted thousands of prospectors, both from the southern colonies and China. The gold mining industry at Pine Creek was slow to develop, even though good alluvial gold had been located at Yam Creek, Cullen River and Gandy's Gully as early as 1871. The first major reef was discovered in 1872 and named the Priscilla. Since that time many small workings were developed, mostly by Chinese workers under tribute to European owners. The town then grew rapidly.
Mining was not a healthy occupation at that time. William Thomas died on 2 August 1873 and John White died on 5 September 1873, from fever and exhaustion at Pine Creek. Both were in the service of the Telegraph Gold Mining Company. Pastoralists, who had taken up leases did much better. One of the first among them was Dr W.J. Browne at Bonrook. Although he, and several others, first started with sheep, they soon found that the climate was too hot and too humid for these animals. Slowly one after the other changed to cattle and horses. Soon there were other gold discoveries and by 1874 there were enough people in the area to support the opening of a telegraph office. Although there was a large concentration of miners, the town of Pine Creek was not surveyed until 1888 during the building of the railway from Palmerston (now Darwin) to Pine Creek which was opened a year later.
Two of the best producing mines during these years were the Kohinoor and Eleanor mines on the Eleanor Reef, discovered by John Lewis in 1872 and named after his sister. In 1881 Olaf Jensen bought both the lease and machinery of the Kohinoor mine and later added many other leases to his name, including the Eleanor from which he got 1652 ounces in 1887. In 1892 Jensen floated his mines into the Jensen Gold Mining Company.
The surface gold disappeared rapidly and gold production declined during the 1890s but there were still twenty-seven stamp batteries at fifteen mines in the area. By 1907 most of the gold mining was replaced by tin and wolfram. The gold fields were kept active by Chinese miners who entered the area in considerable numbers. Initially they were brought in as 'coolie labour' with the South Australian government paying £20 per person. However the coolies, who were virtual slaves, were in ill-health and unwilling to work. The coolies, who had come from Singapore and Malaysia, were followed by Chinese diggers from Hong Kong who poured onto the gold fields. By the mid-1880s there were over 2000 Chinese in Pine Creek. In 1889 Chinese immigration was stopped.
In 1883, the John Cox Bray Government introduced the Palmerston and Pine Creek Railway Bill. In 1886, the £959,300 contract went to C & E Millar of Melbourne. This Melbourne company had underbid its competitors by demanding the right to use coolie labour. The process was that Singhalese and Indian gangs did the grubbing and earthwork. Behind them came the Chinese laying plates and up to 1200 metres of track a day.
The line reached Pine Creek in 1888. The construction was daunting. Between Darwin and Pine Creek a total of 310 bridges and flood openings were built. Some 3000 Chinese labourers worked on this part of the line. The first train arrived at Pine Creek in June, 1889. It was officially opened on 30 September 1889. The great plans for a Transcontinental Line were not continued and by 1890 it was clear that estimates of use of the line had been optimistic and the service was reduced to two days per week. It was not until 1917 that the line to the Katherine River was completed. Pine Creek became an overnight stop on the journey to Darwin.
Many different proposals have been made since to join Pine Creek with Oodnadatta. When the Commonwealth Government took control in 1926 it extended the line from Oodnadatta to Alice Springs and from Pine Creek to Birdum. Both places were reached during 1929. During the Second World War Larrimah, nine kilometres north of Birdum, became the effective railhead. The thousand or so kilometres between Birdum and Alice Springs were never completed.
Originally the terminus of the railway - 'the line to nowhere' Larrimah is now just another stopover point on the Stuart Highway with an outback pub, the Larrimah Hotel, which was actually the pub at Birdum until it was moved to Larrimah in 1952. The line was closed in 1976.
There were various services for the transportation of cattle and goods but by 1930 the mixed train, also known as Leaping Lena had an established timetable. The mixed train left Darwin at 8.00 am on Wednesdays and was scheduled to arrive at Pine Creek at 4.46 pm. Those travelling on to Katherine stayed overnight and again left at 8.00 am the next morning arriving in Katherine at 11.00 am. After an hour's stop the train continued on to Burdam (the end of the line) arriving at 5.51 pm. It is still remembered by many who used the service in the 1930s that the train was rarely, if ever, on time.
By the 1930s Pine Creek was diminishing in importance. World War II saw the town become an important staging camp and after the war some mines were reopened. Minerals such as uranium, iron ore, silver, lead and zinc were sought and Pine Creek became a service centre for over 500 miners.
It was not until the 1950s that Pine Creek enjoyed a revival of its mining industry. This time it was uranium and iron ore which provided the much needed employment opportunities. During the 1960s and 1970s about five hundred people were serviced by the towns stores and other facilities. However by the 1970s mining faded away and when in June 1976 the North Australia Railway closed it seemed that it was the end of the line for Pine Creek in more than one way.
By 1985 though matters had improved substantially. In February of that year Pine Creek Goldfields Limited was established and started mining from its open cut in October, once again providing employment for many of the local residents.
Between 1942 and 1965 tin was mined at Mount Masson and the government built a battery at Mt Wells for local prospectors.In 1959 United Uranium Ltd commenced processing uranium ore at Moline Mill from their El Sharana mine on the South Alligator River.
In 1966 the Francis Creek Iron Mining Co was formed and production of high grade iron ore commenced shortly afterwards. During the 1980s the improved price of gold on international markets encouraged further mineral exploration and in 1985 a joint venture between Enterprise Gold Mines NL and Renison Goldfields Consolidated Ltd commenced extensive open cut operations around the old Enterprise mine. Pine Creek is still a rich goldfield. New mining companies have arrived to exploit it with new machinery and new techniques.
Today, Pine Creek is a small friendly town. Pine Creek is serviced by a Police Station, a Post Office, service station, caravan park, accomodation, store and health services to cater local and visitor's needs. Among the stores that available are Ah Toy Store -sells groceries and fuel-, BP Roadhouse -stocks a small supply of groceries, takeaway foods and fuel- , The Lazy Lizard store -sells groceries and fuel- , Mayses' Café - has an array of homemade take-away food. Pine Creek has an Indoor Sports Centre located in the Shire Council Compound and tennis courts. Swimming is possible at the nearby Copperfield Dam during daylight hours.
Local attractions and places to go in Pine Creek include the collections of historic buildings and sites from the mining days, gorges and swimming holes. It is worth a visit the Railway Museum, Old Repeater Station, and Mining exhibition (noe become National Trust Museum), Ah Toy's Bakery, Enterprise Pit Mine Lookout, Miners' Park and Water Gardens.
Pine Creek holds the Gold Rush Festival annually in June, featuring the local goldpanning championships. The Pine Creek Races are held annually in May at Pussy Cat Flats Racecourse.
Pine Creek is an ideal spot for birds watching, with the largest number of bird species in the Northern Territory – including the elusive Hooded Parrot.