The industrial history of Lithgow is intricately linked to coal mining in the district. The outcrops of coal at Esk Bank were an early indication of the mineral wealth of the area, and the demand for coal increased exponentially with the arrival of the railways in the late 1860s. The first commercial mining of coal in the area is attributed to the Hermitage Colliery in 1868, and before long there were more coal mines operating in the valley, including the Eskbank Colliery, Lithgow Valley Colliery and Vale of Clwydd Colliery. The coal was transported by the railways, along with the output from the various factories and industries of the town.
The State Railway mine was officially opened in 1916 and was under the control of the Department of Railways. There were a couple of stops and starts, and it wasn’t until 1921 that the mine was at full production. It was a substantial operation, and in 1927 an electricity plant was built for the mine and for a while this supplied the town with electricity.
In this age of privatisation, it is difficult to imagine public ownership and operation of a large coal mining enterprise. Looking over some of the histories of Lithgow, tensions between entrepreneurs running their own coal mines versus the government-owned enterprise were evident from the outset and continued until the mine was closed in 1964. The closure coincided with a number of external events, including serious local flooding and the lowering price and demand for coal due in part to the dieselisation of the railways.
A personal insight into the history of coal mining in the region is available through the Lithgow State Mine Heritage Park. Located at the old State Railway Mine site, it provides a wealth of insights into what life was like for miners, illustrating the shift in technologies over time with a wide range of mining memorabilia. On a crisp winter afternoon I arrived for a look around, inspired by a talk on the history and culture of Lithgow by Ray Christison. I was met by a volunteer guide who provided an overview of the site and its history. An indication of the depth of the mine shaft was provided by dropping a pebble and waiting to hear it land in water half as deep as the original shaft – it seemed to take an age. The mine workshop was once used as the repair workshop for all of the state-owned mines, and is now used by a local blacksmith.
The bathhouse, which was originally a powerhouse, is a popular venue for hire and has a collection of coal mining transport vehicles on display as well as coal cutters. In the auditorium there was a holographic movie telling some of the stories of the men and their families who worked at the site as well as the moving story of the fire that had a catastrophic outcome for 27 pit ponies.
A wide range of information along with a documentary on coal mining methods is on display in the old office building. I was glad that I walked around the grounds before I entered the museum, as the displays really helped to bring it all together and to provide insight into what it might have been like to work there. It also demonstrated why it is so important that industrial heritage is kept alive.
How is industrial heritage preserved in your area?
Sources: Lithgow: The Valley and the People by Brian Jinks; Lithgow State Coal Mine: A Pictorial History by Ray Christison. A drone-eye view of the park by daviddth99 is available here, and a touching rendition of the life of a pit pony by Martin Doherty and Leigh Burkitt is available here. It includes the cheering of the pit ponies by the householders in Macauley Street as they were brought above ground for the annual spell at Bowenfels.
[Photo of the Bathhouse and workshop at the Lithgow State Mine Heritage Park]