|The train and
the poppet head in the park near the
Wonthaggi Historical Society
Famous historic coal mining town
Wonthaggi, with a name said to derive from a
local Aboriginal language and mean either 'home'
or 'to pull along', is located 132 km south-east
of Melbourne via the South Gippsland and Bass
Highways and 40 metres above sea level.
The history of the town is inseparable from
the discovery, in 1826, of coal at Cape
Paterson, on Bass Strait, by explorer William
Hovell, while he was on an expedition from the
military settlement at Corinella. Black coal was
mined in the area, known as the Powlett River
fields, between 1859 and 1864. A total of 2000
tons of coal were bagged and taken to whale
boats on the coast which, in turn, carried the
fuel to larger ships out on Bass Strait for
shipment to Melbourne. However, the venture
proved costly and the absence of safe anchorage
was a major problem. As a result of heavy losses
the mining operations ceased in 1864.
From the 1870s Victoria relied heavily on
coal from Newcastle. However, when the Newcastle
miners embarked on a major strike in 1909 the
dependence on the Hunter Valley coalfields
proved disastrous for Victoria's railways which
were all powered by steam trains. Unable to get
coal from Newcastle the trains ran on wood and
coal had to be imported from India and Japan. It
was clear that a more permanent solution was
needed and, virtually overnight, a large shanty
town appeared in the area that is now Wonthaggi
to extract the coal discovered in the vicinity
in the 1850s.
The fuel was being mined within two weeks and
construction of the town began in 1910, the year
the railway from Nyora arrived. A brickworks
operated between 1910 and 1914 to supply the
building blocks of the town and the mining
complex became the first electrified mining
operation in the southern hemisphere when a
power station was built in 1912 to run the mine
and supply the town with electricity.
In the 59 years that the Wonthaggi mines
operated, 17 million tonnes of coal was
extracted from 12 separate mines for use by the
railways, the Wonthaggi and Newport power
stations and for industrial and domestic
purposes. It was hauled to the shaft by pit
ponies and, until the railway arrived, it was
carted 12 km by bullock train to Inverloch and
from there it was taken by boat to Melbourne.
Prosperity peaked in the 1920s when the
population hit 5000 but the Depression caused a
fall in profits from which the mine never fully
recovered. A five-month strike occurred in 1934
and a new western area began operations in 1936.
The following year thirteen men were killed by a
methane gas explosion so powerful it catapulted
a 2-ton iron cage 60 feet from the mouth of the
shaft to the top of the poppet head. This
incident became the subject of a contemporary
play, called The Thirteen Dead, written and
performed by a radical theatre group.
With the introduction of diesel locomotives
demand fell and local operations ceased
altogether in 1968. Today Wonthaggi, at the
centre of the fertile Bass Valley agricultural
district, relies principally on the beef and
dairy industries for its prosperity.
Things to see:
The Wonthaggi Information Centre is located at
the corner of Watt St and McBride St and it can
be contacted on (03) 5671 2444.
State Mine Museum
State Coal Mine Historic Reserve
Wonthaggi's former coalmining sites have been
preserved and signposted as the State Coal Mine
Historic Reserve. Start your tour at East Area
mine where visitors can relax in the theatrette
as historic film brings Wonthaggi's mining
heritage to life. To get there follow Billson St
(the Cape Paterson Road) for about 1.5 km then
turn right into Garden St. Over one million
tonnes of coal was mined at this location
between 1919 and 1931. Forty-minute aboveground
tours are conducted between 10.00 a.m. and 3.30
p.m. daily, for a gold coin donation. Follow the
heritage walk around the mine site, exploring
historic buildings, housing, photographs of
mining days past and mining remnants. There is
also a pit pony and free barbecue facilities are
available, as well as refreshments for sale. The
complex is open from 10.00 a.m. to 3.30 p.m.
daily, tel: (03) 5672 3053 or ring the Parks
Victoria infoline on 131 963.
Hotel with the whale jaw bone in the
Taberners Hotel, licensed in 1914, is registered
with the National Trust. The huge jawbones at
the front are from a 74-foot whale which washed
up upon the beach in 1923. An unemployed butcher
boiled it down for 450 pounds and sold the jaws
to the hotelier for £25.
Other Historic Sites in the Town
A leaflet is available here, or from the
Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands,
which outlines the other historic sites around
Wonthaggi. On the western side of town is the
timber and corrugated iron brace of the old
Number 5 Mine, together with the remnants of
some buildings and machinery. Nearby is the old
coal-run power house, still intact and fronted
by maintenance and repair shops. The western
area, noted for its poor working conditions, is
about 3 km further along the road. The coal was
hauled from this point to the Number 5 Brace for
screening and loading onto rail wagons. A large
mullock heap remains on the site. By taking the
first left on the same road back into town and
then turning left again at the Bass Highway you
will arrive at Number 20 Mine where the
disastrous methane explosion of 1937 occurred.
On the eastern side of the town are the remains
of the Number 18 Mine and Kirrak, the last
Wonthaggi mine to cease operations.
From the western edge of town signposts lead 5
km south to the beach of Harmers Haven, named
after the first European settler, where
Aboriginal cooking middens can still be seen.
This area is suitable for fishing, snorkelling
amid the submerged rock platforms and surfing
but not for swimming. Some old tram rails
indicate how the coal was transported in the
1850s from the area known as the 'Old Boilers'
to Cape Paterson for loading onto seafaring
vessels. Most of the railing was removed to
Mitchell's Mine at Kilcunda.
Just south is Wreck Beach, named after the
remnants of the 1038-ton Artisan, which
foundered in 1901 with a 17-man crew on-board.
It was in this area that Richard Davis located a
coal seam and walked to Melbourne with a 50-lb
sack of coal on his back in order to qualify for
a £1000 reward proposed by Governor La Trobe in
1852. He received the money minus the cost of
sinking the Rock and Queen Shaft on the site.
Cape Paterson is a small township on the coast 8
km south of Wonthaggi. Nearby are Safety Beach
(suitable for swimming, fishing, snorkelling and
beachcombing with a rock pool for safe swimming)
and Surf Beach which, as its name suggests, is
good for surfing. There are scenic walking
tracks along the cliff face. Entry is beside the
toilet block. There are facilities at both
beaches and beach inspectors in summer.
The actual Cape itself was named by George
Bass after Lieutenant Cornell Paterson, the
second-in-command at Botany Bay. Explorer,
William Hovell, carved his initials in a large
cave at Browns Bay when he discovered the coal
seam in 1826. The first two Aborigines to be
hanged in Melbourne were convicted of murdering
two miners who were working the seam for Samuel
A trip from Cape Paterson to Inverloch can be
made either by car - a 15-km drive which leads
through the Bunurang Cliffs Coastal Reserve - or
by foot - a five-hour walk along the coast. In
the latter case it is best to set off two hours
before low tide. This walking track incorporates
a number of rocky outcrops with excellent sea
views, including Eagle's Nest.
12 km west of Wonthaggi along the Bass Highway
(2 km east of Kilcunda) there are signposts
which direct you to off the Bass Highway to a
picnic and barbecue spot on the river flats at
the mouth of the Powlett River where a
salt-marsh community of wetland birds can be
found. Fishing, swimming and canoeing can be
enjoyed in the river but the estuary is
dangerous for swimmers.