Wonthaggi and State Coal Mine or The Evolution of Fuel

We are housesitting for good friends in Inverloch, Victoria. Inverloch is best known as a seaside town on the Gippsland coastline offering surf beaches, quiet swimming beaches and boating opportunities. They tell me that the fishing from the beach is also good. We have spent our time here exploring the area and the history of the region. The closest large town is Wonthaggi. This town is best recently known as the site of Victoria’s Desalination Plant.

The weather at this time of year is cold, wet and windy and occasionally there are days where the sun shines and it is a pleasure to be out and about. On this particular Sunday we decided to explore the closed Wonthaggi State Coal Mine. This site is managed  by Parks Victoria  and restored by the local community ( Friends of Wonthaggi State Coal Mine) for the enjoyment of future generations.

For me the interest is the history which we did not learn at school. In spite of this sounding like a history lesson, I will try to put this in perspective of the current arguments on fossil fuel and Climate Change.

Back in 1826 William Hovell ( of Hume and Hovell fame) discovered  black coal near Cape Paterson only seven kilometres from Wonthaggi. The Victorian Coal Company dug out 2000 tonne from a workable seam. This coal needed to be transported by whale boat to to larger ships anchored offshore, proving both dangerous and costly and soon any mining activity was curtailed.

Black coal, with its low moisture content, was regarded as the premier fuel for household heating, industry, and railways.

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The Victorian Railways at at the turn of the century sourced all its black coal from New South Wales. In 1909 as a result of a protracted miners strike in New South Wales saw the Victorian Government very quickly develop The State Coal Mines at Wonthaggi to supply coal to the railways. Opening on November 22, 1909 the mine dispatched its first consignment just three days later with coal transported to the port and Inverloch by bullock wagon.  Coal production peaked in 1929 at 662,159 tonnes.

 

The Nyora/Woolamai Railway was extended 22km to Wonthaggi and built in 10 weeks. ( I would like it see that happen today!)

In the 1930s, production started to decline as the large seams were worked outing the mine was hit by industrial strife and profitability declined.  In 1937 disaster struck in Shaft 20. Thirteen men lost their lives.

Disaster at Shaft 20

Disaster at Shaft 20

In order to maintain a coal supply for its locomotives Victorian Railways subsided the mine until the last regular stream locomotive operations ceased.

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I started to think and a couple of things came to mind. As stated above black coal is a very efficient energy source, so I questioned why we now use brown coal. One of the volunteers at the State Mine explained that black coal strata were quite narrow in comparison to brown coal, so the only way to remove it from the ground was by underground mining. Brown Coal strata are in excess of 150 metres thick and this allowed open cut mining.

So how does this relate to the current arguments. My take on it as one energy source proves unsatisfactory for what ever reason, it needs to be replaced. As black coal became more difficult and expensive to mine, it was shut down and energy needs were taken up by brown coal. Now, Victoria is blessed with an abundance of fossil fuel, so alternatives could well be more expensive however our climate is changing due to emissions  of carbon and other things into the atmosphere. It must be time to shut this industry down and replace it with renewables.

We have an abundance of sunshine in this country so the obvious thing is to utilise the sun to provide our power needs. Sure there will be pain felt by those that work in the coal industry, but why is this different from closing down the black coal industry or going back further in history the Industrial Revolution where there was a transition from an agrarian base.