The Tin Centre (or the Tin Dragon Interpretation Centre and Cafe, as it’s officially known) is a feature of the Trail of the Tin Dragon touring route in north east Tasmania. As luck would have it, we actually made a brief visit to the centre during the week it opened in May 2008. But a date with the Spirit of Tasmania in Devonport meant we couldn’t stay and explore. We’ve been keen to return since then, and finally, thanks to an invitation by the owners of Tin Dragon Trail Cottages to come and stay in Branxholm in June 2012, we were able to do just that.
The Tin Centre is in Derby, and is easily found in the main street of the small town. The north east tourism trail from St Helens to Launceston was designed to highlight the history of tin mining in the region, in particular the involvement of Chinese immigrants. And the Tin Dragon Interpretation Centre is the very impressive, federally-funded focus of the trail. The movie shown on a massive, cinema-style screen running the length of an entire room was the highlight of our time at the museum.
The movie tells an epic tale. Miners originally came to the region in search of gold, but following the discovery of tin at Mt Bischoff near Waratah in Tasmania, tin was also found in the hills surrounding Derby. An elaborate 48km-long race was built to direct water to the site. Then a dam on the Cascade River was built right above Derby to maintain the water supply required, as summer rainfall was insufficient.
The dam was declared safe by the engineering staff, but sadly they didn’t envisage the torrential rain that was to fall in April 1929. The dam failed, sending a billion litres of water hurtling through the valley and claiming everything in its path. There is a bronze statue outside the cafe of the Tin Centre commemorating the loss of life during the tragedy.
Set into the floor of the cinema, are several “light-boxes” to highlight the dramatic events of the flood. One employee of the mine, for example, would most likely have escaped had he not returned to fetch his new hat. How sad is that? You leave the cinema via a lookout area, where you can gaze out over the river in the valley, and imagine the impact of a torrent of water storming towards the town. That’s if it’s even possible to imagine* what a billion litres of water looks like!
You return from the lookout to another main room of the Tin Centre via a passage adorned with Chinese lettering. The site of the tragedy, the Briseis Mine in Derby, was the richest mine in north east Tasmania, and was once the world’s largest exporter of tin ore. However, it was also one of the few mines in the region not actually worked by Chinese miners.
The main room of the tin mining museum has lots of displays, both static and interactive. You can read about the racial tension and hostility directed towards the Chinese miners, culminating in a stand-off at the Branxholm Bridge. Large communities of Chinese workers outnumbered their European counterparts by a long way, and they were resented for their ability to work for much less money.
All Things Tin!
The Tin Centre is not just about the Briseis Mine tragedy and the Chinese miners of the region. There are displays showcasing the multitude of uses for tin, ranging from weapons and armour; through to cans for food and wind-up toys. My kids were quite amused by the toy car in the display case (of a history museum, no less) that looked exactly like the one I had owned as a child. Such rude children!
The Tin Centre in Derby is open seven days and is well worth a visit. We arrived just after 4:00pm, the dreaded cut-off time for many Tasmanian tourist attractions and cafes, especially during winter. As we approached the entrance, we could see chairs lifted onto tables and a mop being wielded over the floor.
Our hearts sank momentarily, thinking we’d missed another opportunity after waiting over four years for our second chance to visit. But we were welcomed with a cheery smile and ushered straight into the theatre without any hesitation at all. I would definitely not be that happy if someone walked on my freshly-mopped floors!
The dam on the Cascade River that collapsed and flooded the Briseis Mine was NOT the one Carol wrote about in her Mt Paris Dam article. Graham, our host at Tin Dragon Trail Cottages, told us the Mt Paris Dam was released when authorities feared it might also fail and cause another flooding catastrophe.
*Standing at the base of the Mt Paris Dam does give you some insight into the huge volumes of water required to extract the tin from the hillsides, though.
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