Recently I had the opportunity to take an old train from Lithgow to Capertee. Capertee is a small village on the road from Lithgow to Mudgee, past Wallerawang and Portland. It is home to the widest canyon in the world: the Grand Canyon is a little deeper.
About 35 kilometres from Capertee is the remnants of the Glen Davis Shale Oil Works. The road to Glen Davis passes through part of the Gardens of Stone National Park, and it is hard not to be distracted by the stunning vistas as you head down towards the base of the canyon, passing by patches of forest and farms.
At the base of the valley are the remnants of the village of Glen Davis. There are still people living in the village, and some of the accommodation built during the mine set-up and operation remains. The industrial ruins are striking. The group I was travelling with was given a tour which provided some insights into the relatively short-lived life of this endeavour.
A number of factors led to the development of the mine. These included a 1934 report seeking work to reduce the number of unemployed miners in the region due to the Great Depression, and shale oil requirements for national defence. The project was funded by national and state governments, along with the National Oil Proprietary Ltd, a company created by G F Davis of Davis Gelatine. Construction began in 1938 and it was producing shale oil by January 1940. The company was later taken over by the government under the National Security Act. The mine was in operation from 1940 to 1952. The extracted petrol was sent to Newnes for storage and processing via a pipeline. The pipeline had to be guarded as some locals tried to tap in and extract fuel along the way.
The project was plagued by constant problems: water supply, flooding, housing, labour, electricity issues and a shortage of mined shale. Living conditions were particularly poor with inadequate housing and endemic diseases prior to the construction of barracks, staff cottages and permanent housing. The town swelled to 1,600 with a school, general stores, hall, post office, bank, butcher and chemist as well as a cinema.
By the early 1950s, the mine was unsustainable as the cost of the extracted and processed fuel was significantly more expensive than the fuel imported from overseas. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald summed up the situation: “The simple truth is that it was costing too much money to produce an insignificant quantity of petrol, and there were no reasonable prospects upon which to base the hope that the economics of the project would improve.” At its peak operation, it was producing two-fifths of its capacity.
There were attempts to keep the mine open, influenced by the expected job losses and the roll on effect this would have on people indirectly providing services to the town and mine. This included a miners strike, with a group of 52 miners remaining underground for nearly a month, supported by family and friends. Eventually, the union confirmed that the strike was a lost cause, and they conceded defeat. A group of women had raised funds and lobbied to keep the mine open as well, without success. When the men returned above ground, there was a crowd of about 200 people waiting, including wives and children. “Many of the women, who for three weeks, had operated a soup kitchen at the pithead without showing any signs of breaking down, cried as they welcomed their menfolk.” There is a photo of some of the miners emerging in an article titled ”Stay-downers” Come Up.
Who was to blame for the unproductive mine? Management blamed the workers and the workers blamed poor management. There had been attempts to modernise some of the processes with improved machinery, but that would result in job losses. Some of the mining methodologies had been passed down generationally from miner to miner, and there was a fear that the proposed changes would have an adverse impact. For example, small twigs were placed in certain spots and were monitored in case of mine subsistence and movement. The introduction of machinery in some instances would obviate some of these methods.
What remains in Glen Davis are remnants of the infrastructure that could not be sold off or hauled away. The largest seam of high-grade oil shale in the world is still there too. There is the Glen Davis Boutique Hotel which offers group accommodation, along with Glen Davis Works which incorporates four of the remaining cottages. There is a ruins tour available each Saturday at 2 pm. It is close to the Wollemi National Park and there is a campsite in the town.
The village of Glen Davis isn’t quite a ghost town but it is a remarkable place to visit.
[Photo: view of the valley from Glen Davis]