"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity" - Dorothy Parker
Published July 25th 2018
History in the breaking
It's fifty years since the closure of the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine in 1968, and part of the mine and workings is now a state park and tourist destination, staffed by volunteers. The Eastern Area Heritage Park offers underground, guided tours, which give visitors a glimpse of some of the Mine's tunnel complex. Above ground, the daily working lives of the men who tolerated extremely hazardous working conditions to hew the Mine's black gold, are well documented within the visitor centre and open-air museum.
A short film plays in the Mine Overseer Cottage at the Eastern Area Heritage Park, describing the events of 16th February 1937, when 13 mine employees died following a methane explosion in a shaft they were inspecting at the time.
A historic marker at the side of the Bass Highway, between Dalyston and Wonthaggi, commemorates the site of the 1937 explosion in Number 20 Shaft mine. Even though four men had been killed six years earlier in a similar explosion, naked flame lamps were still being used for lighting in the Mine.
Information board and no.19 ventilation shaft (site of commemorative plaque)
Following the disaster, and a prolonged period of protest from the miners demanding safer working conditions, sealed battery lamps were made compulsory in Number 20 Shaft and two other Wonthaggi mines. Number 20 Shaft mine continued to operate for another 25 years, but was always disliked by the workers. Conditions were cramped and the men worked with the constant threat of roof collapses.
Wonthaggi's mining heritage is evident everywhere in the town. I hadn't really appreciated the sheer scale of the Coal Mine's operation until I'd set foot in the State Coal Mine Historic Central Area, which lies just past the town's hospital. Dating back to 1909, the Historic Central Area is the birthplace of both Mine and town. The Wonthaggi Coal Mine was actually made up of 12 separate mines, producing a total of 16.7 million tonnes of coal in its 59 year lifespan, all laboriously dug by hand.
The Historic Central Area - largely overlooked by visitors to the more dynamic State Coal Mine Heritage Park complex five kilometres away - can be accessed from the Bass Coast Rail Trail, as well as from West Area Road, further south. Wonthaggi's hospital, founded in 1910, was, unsurprisingly, established within spitting distance of the early mine workings.
There's a helpful map at the car park, off West Area Road, with a plan of the five walking trails which wind through the Historic Central Area and adjacent wetland and bushland reserve. The site of "Tent Town" is close by, "housing" the first miners under canvas from 1909-10. As you follow each trail, there are signs indicating the original location of key structures and sites, such as the power station, brace, brickworks, sawmill and rescue station. All once performed a vital function in the Mine's day-to-day operation.
Nature has quietly been reclaiming what remains of the Central Area's dismantled or collapsed infrastructure. Number 5 Brace (where 14-year old boys would start their mining lives sorting through coal for stones) has deteriorated badly in recent years and is barely standing. Most of the still-visible structures and artefacts are only recognisable with the aid of a vivid imagination.
I suppose that, at the time of its abandonment, no-one could have foreseen the importance or benefit of preserving the precinct. The past can't be undone but I would have thought the Historic Central Area's age, features, accessibility and educational potential are qualities which make its conservation a priority for the nation, let alone the state. The Mine's Central Area is a unique site, without equal in Australia. See it while there's still something left to see.
A working lifetime may have elapsed since the closure of the mine, but the town continues to pay homage to the industry responsible for its foundation and growth. If you're in Wonthaggi on a Saturday, be sure to check out the museum, housed in the preserved station building, which is only open from 10.00am to 2.00pm. Listen out for the mine whistle, which blows daily at 12.00 noon from its position in Apex Park. The original, three-chambered, brass whistle was made in 1913 by John Danks in Melbourne and, interestingly, is said to have been the same design as the funnel whistle used on the Titanic. But that, as they say, is another story.