Westport's Coal mining history
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After we had set up the caravan in the Westport Camping Ground, in a nice place that would get lots of morning sun but6 not too much late afternoon sun plus still being close to the facilities, and been welcomed by, this time a friendly but equally cheeky Weka, we headed into the town of Westport. The town is very ‘olde worlde’ the buildings are mainly in a colonial style, with big high false fronts with lots of fancy concrete work on them, almost all shops are on the one long main street that leads down to the wharves, so we ended up at the wharf watching a Tuna Boat unloading the catch of Albacore Tuna. The Skipper was looking very pleased with himself, as well he should be, we were told by a fishery worker that his catch would be worth about $10,000 NZ.
Westport was first built as a gold mining town, but quickly became a coal mining town, it still produces New Zealand’s only bituminous coal, though not so much now as it used to.
Next day we decided to head out to Granity a small town 30 miles further up the coast, as we wished to find out about the old coal mining activities in the district. We first visited the only old Pub still operating in the tow The Big Fish it is now known as but I think it has had many names over the years, and is on its last legs now. We decided not to have a drink but instead amused the bar tended by buying a couple of Chocolate fish to nibble!
We next chose to drive up to Millerton Mine, it has been operating since about 1880, there is a wonderful new road, built in 2006, up to the still operating mine, modern machinery has hacked a cutting though the solid multi coloured rock to replace the very narrow unsealed steep mountain road.
I looked up the hillside and saw a lone oak tree and a patch of orange flowers, so I clambered high up the hill to discover there was a large clump of naturalised Orange Tiger Lilies of a type I have never seen before, these were not double but triple flowers and some of them were actually quadruple layers of petals, very pretty, so I quickly collected some seed to take home and try to grow and climbed back down, sadly I did not take my camera up the hill so no photo of them.
Then, on to Stockton Mine, this mine has been working since 1870 and is an open cast bituminous coal mine which also produces some electricity, but we didn’t see any of that we just checked out the old ruins of an old bath house built for the mines to clean the black coal of themselves after their mining work.
There is a small museum but it really only has a few photos of the old days. Its fun to wander around on foot at the old settlement and there is a lovely rushing stream that was used during the mining and also for generation of electricity now.
Our next and last stop was to Dennison Mine, the most interesting of all the West Coast coalmines. The mine with all its miners lived up on top of a mountain plateau which was very difficult to get to and to get the coal out from, so the Denniston incline was built, called by all who knew it as the eighth wonder of the world it is truly an outstanding engineering achievement.
The incline was built in the 1880s, it cuts a swath down the mountainside, it’s a rail system to bring down coal wagons on rails. The weight of the full, 12 ton, wagon of coal going down pulled up an empty wagon, by a steel rope, on rails that went almost vertically up and down the mountainside at speeds of 80km an hour. The incline was as steep as 1 in 69ft which is steepish!
The wagons had a strong braking system, but sometimes it failed and the full wagon would come hurtling down right on top of the workers who were emptying the previous wagons, it was a very dangerous job, many lives were lost.
The coal was so valuable at the time that it was not too much of a worry, or at least it continued to run until 1997.
Some of the incline was buried during an earthquake only a year after it had been closed.
We called into an old miner’s cemetery at the base of the mountain and found so very many graves where miners either died in their 20s, and ladies too either died in their 20s of childbirth, or lived to a ripe old age of 70 – 80. A very hard life but it was their way of life.
After all the mine visits we just had to find a good old Coaster Pub at The Pines and enjoy a cool drink and a chat with the locals.