History of tin mining: Waratah, the birthplace of the Tassie mining industry.
Waratah: The History and The Tin
Located just 40 minutes south of Burnie, the quiet little town of Waratah one visits today was the birthplace of the Tasmanian tin mining industry and introduced to Tasmania an industrial era. In 1871, while prospectors searched for gold, silver and osmiridium along the Pieman and Donaldson Rivers, James ‘Philosopher’ Smith found tin at Mt. Bischoff. This was the beginning of the mining era, a mining era that took the state out of financial crisis and saved Tasmania.
The discovery of tin at Mt Bischoff inspired the exploration of minerals both on Tasmania’s north east and west coasts. In this remote location, bordering on what is now known as The Tarkine, Mt Bischoff was one of Australia’s richest 19th century base metal mines and once the world’s greatest tin mine. Waratah became Tasmania’s first ‘dedicated’ mining town. In the first 70 years of operations, the Mt Bischoff tin mine produced in excess of 80,000 tonnes of tin metal. Today the mine has ceased production. At it’s peak, Waratah had a population of more than 5,000 people. Today the numbers are around 250; the eventual closure of the mine resulting in the desertion of both miners and residents of the town.
Today one can still explore the rich history of Waratah’s past. One needs to park their car, and a leisurely stroll through this town will have you exploring Waratah’s ‘Town of Tin Walk’. A stroll that takes you past old heritage buildings, past information and relics of the mining past and ends with a beautiful view of the Waratah Falls, located on the Waratah River, which was named for the endemic Tasmanian waratah (telopea truncata) which grows abundantly in this area. (Endemic species are those species of plants & animals which are found exclusively in a particular area. They are naturally not found anywhere else). From the Waratah River, Waratah took it’s name as the township was built.
Waratah Lake lies on the southern side of the township, a delightful picnic spot complete with BBQ’s where ducks, native birds and platypus can be seen. Also home to the picturesque 9 hole golf course, Mountain Vista Golf Club can boast having one of the longest par 5 holes in Tasmania.
Athenaeum Hall was opened in 1887 as Waratah’s second ‘Mechanics’ Institute’, representing a movement for working men to educate themselves and better their ‘social status’. It provided miners with an opportunity to improve themselves by reading good books and attending lectures. In later years it became Waratah’s town hall, where in true Tasmanian country town hall tradition, it hosted all community functions, concerts, lodge meetings, dances and wedding anniversaries, and was even used to host indoor wood-chopping events. For many years it was also the town’s cinema. Today, named ‘Athenaeum Hall’, this beautifully restored building holds ‘The Tarkine Interpretation Centre and Gallery’ and also houses the ‘John H Robinson Collection of Historic Photographs’. John H Robinson was well known for his photography in the Waratah area, capturing all manner of life. This collection truly ‘takes one back in time’ to the mining days of early Waratah, when miners knew what hard work was.
Kenworthy’s Stamper Mill
Originally situated on Mt Bischoff, this stamper mill has been relocated in it’s entirety, complete with original ‘felt screens’ to keep out the harsh winds, and is now housed in a building alongside The Athenaeum. The late Dudley Kenworthy, the final man to run a mining enterprise on the mountain, operated this stamper mill, a single-head stamp battery. It’s purpose was the first step in the process of separating the tin from the waste rock, hence it crushed the ore from the mine. This stamper was located on the side of the hill adjacent to the falls, and it’s ‘thumping’ provided a continuous background noise to the residents of Waratah. The stamper shut down at midnight on Saturdays for only one day, and Sunday was the only day one could hear the bird calls from the bush surrounding Waratah. At the press of a button visitors to the Stamper Mill can see the stamper working, and watch and wonder at how far mining has come these days.
Waratah Post Office: Communications Hub
The original 1882 Waratah Post and Telegraph Office was described as ‘draughty and leaky, a disgrace to the Government’, and a new Post Office was built adjacent to it. Still standing today, though no longer in use, the 1913 built historical Post Office stands proudly on the western end of the township, almost as a memorial to the postal workers of that era.
The postal workers were considered ‘marathon mud runners’; the first Waratah and West Coast postman being William Byrne, who it was estimated carried the mail some 68,000 kilometres during his career, mostly on foot, but a little on horseback. Sunshine, rain, fierce winds, hail or snow; snakes, bogs and swollen rivers… these were just some of the obstructions encountered, but it did not stop the mail from being delivered. Between both the postman and the postmistress, letters and telegrams were delivered, and the Post Office became the town’s communications hub.
Unlike many of our historical mining towns which ‘died’ after the ‘boom’, towns such as Luina, Heazlewood and Magnet where one can only see remnants of the past, parts of foundations left behind as the wilderness slowly creeps over and swallows all evidence of them ever having existed, Waratah still stands and fights for survival. Waratah today is a town in transition, gone is the ‘boom’ of the tin mining era, the town now focusing on tourism for survival.
Justice to the achievements and endeavours of the pioneers of Waratah, James ‘Philosopher’ Smith and the hard working miners who worked under extremely harsh conditions for a pittance of ‘5 shillings a day and NO perks’, these pioneers who shaped the mining industry of Tasmania today, cannot be given in only one article!
To be continued…..
Thanks to Jeff Crowe for granting permission for me to share the historical photo taken by his grandfather John H Robinson.