The Beginning: Mining Era in Tasmania
This is the story of
- a mining era that took the state out of financial crisis and saved Tasmania
- the discovery of tin on Mt. Bischoff
- extreme conditions of hardship as the miners of this community shaped the future of the mining industry in Tasmania
- a small township now in transition, a town which remained completely isolated from the rest of Tasmania by road until in 1963 when a connecting road was finally completed
Waratah also lays claim to having had one of the first two Hydro-electric generating stations in Tasmania. Built in 1888, it’s use was mainly for the mine processing plant, but was also used to light some public buildings on special occasions. Over 120 mineral species have been recorded here, and a fossicking area has been designated to the western side of Mt. Bischoff. Species of minerals found, other than the tin it is famous for, include quartz, topaz, zinc, copper, lead, gold, silver, wolframite and pyrite to name but a few.
Waratah Hotels: Escape from Mt Bischoff
Waratah in its heyday had three licensed hotels, and a temperance hotel (a hotel which did not serve alcohol) with the first hotel built before the town had a magistrate, a church or even a school. There was good reason for this, or so it was thought back then. The early mining employees were learning to deal with living in isolation; Waratah so isolated that a 13 hour rough horse-tram ride was needed to get there from Burnie. These miners had to cope with working in very extreme conditions, where snow, mud and icy winds became forces to work with in winter, and extremes of heat in summer. Sadly, many found alcohol as an escape from the realities they were living with. Many of the people living here developed a love-hate relationship with the town, the climate extremes and the landscape. One day the landscape so beautifully inspiring, the next throwing challenges at trying to run a business and raise a family as the blizzards hit. But sadly, all the original hotels are now gone, including the original Bischoff Hotel built in 1881. The Bischoff Hotel standing today (located in Main Street) was built in 1909, but still shows the old worldly charm of its original namesake with 16 foot high pressed tin ceilings, a welcoming open log fire, mantles made of Huon Pine, solid doors of King Billy Pine and Blackwood Bannisters.
Waratah Museum; James ‘Philosopher’ Smith’s Hut
In 1879 the law moved into Waratah when the Court House and Police Station were built side by side. Prior to this, ‘Company Law’ prevailed in the form of The Mt Bischoff Company, whose manager would preside as a magistrate. It was a job unwanted, as many who stood before him were his own employees, and most were charged with being drunk and disorderly. In 1908 Municipal Law was introduced and the building became Court House and Council Chambers. As the number of residents of the town dwindled as the mining boom folded, the Court House and Council Chambers eventually closed with all court cases being heard in Burnie. The Waratah Museum was established in the building in 1983, and now houses a huge collection of local historical artifacts, photos and personal stories all relative to the early days of Waratah. Next to the museum sits a replica of James ‘Philosopher’ Smith’s hut, built in 1988, a fitting memorial to the conditions in which those miners lived in the early days.
Church Services at Waratah
Religion came to Waratah long before a church for this mining community was even planned. Clergymen in the early days travelled many miles on either foot or horseback, over rough tracks in rain, hail or sunshine to spread the Gospel. The mining site of Waratah and small settlements beyond were no exception; records even tell of services for the pioneers of this mining settlement being held in tents on the mining fields. The tracks in and out of Waratah were described as wretched and the distances involved meant the area only had very occasional visits in the early days.
It was in 1877 at a meeting of parishioners it was resolved to build a church at Waratah. St. James Anglican Church was opened for services on 17th October, 1880, and is the oldest enduring church on a Tasmanian mining field, and strongly upheld the tradition of prayer and faith found in many mining towns around the world. It is written on a sign to be seen outside the church today:
According to the Gospels, James was a fisherman, called by Jesus to become a ‘fisher of men’. Here in Waratah, the church formed part of the moral fabric of the town and ‘fished’ men from the hotels and billiard rooms.
Waratah Cemetery: Mining Pioneers
The Waratah Pioneer Cemetery is (as the name suggests), the final resting place for many of the early Waratah pioneers and their families. It’s a sad place to visit as many living in such harsh conditions only had short lives. This cemetery though is truly worth a visit, and is often visited for family history research purposes. Headstones relating to only 91 people remain visible today. Many headstones over the years have been removed due to damage both physical and from the elements of time.
Waratah’s Link to the Tarkine
The mining boom of Mt. Bischoff now ended, the township of Waratah today sits peacefully on the eastern border of The Tarkine, a region containing Australia’s largest temperate rainforest. A short drive south will take you to the Philosopher Falls turnoff. Philosopher Falls was found by James ‘Philosopher’ Smith while on his hunt for valuable minerals, and is a 1.5 hour return walk, through rainforest bordering the upper reaches of the Arthur River. The walking track takes you through pristine myrtle and eucalypt rainforest, and follows an old water race which was built to supply water to the Magnet Mine which closed in 1940.
About 40 minutes in and one comes to a descent of a little over 200 steps to a viewing platform providing views out over the tops of rainforest trees and giant dickensonia (manferns) to the magnificent Philosopher Falls. At a little under two hours, this walk is now listed as one of Tasmania’s Great Short Walks. A little further south of the falls turnoff is Whyte Hill Lookout, where one can stand and survey the forests of The Tarkine, magical views over our many native treetops: myrtle, sassafras, celery top pine and leatherwood provide a palette of greens to the mountains in the far distance.
Accommodation by Lake Waratah
Waratah provides a caravan park complete with on-site power, and accommodation can also be found at The Bischoff Hotel. If you want to truly experience the feel of the mining era, then step back in time in a beautiful two bedroom, circa 1880, stone cottage. Roses By The Lake overlooks Lake Waratah, and the cottage is fully self–contained and furnished to the period.
Thanks to Jeff Crowe for permission to share historical photos taken by his grandfather John H Robinson.