Lithgow Blast Furnace

Nestled at the base of the Blue Mountains with rich veins of coal, Lithgow has been an industrial town for many decades. It also played a part in the development of the nascent Australian steel industry and one of the defining images of Lithgow is of the ruins of the Blast Furnace Park, located on the Coal Stage Hill.

Blast Furnace Park

The remains of the Ferranti generator house (left) and Davy engine house (right) are now accessible with walkways throughout and around the ruins and signage providing additional information.

This wasn’t the first blast furnace erected in Lithgow. Iron smelting had commenced in Lithgow in late 1875 at the Esk Bank Ironworks, and the following year a blast furnace was providing over 100 tonnes of pig iron per week. The operation wasn’t financially viable at the time as iron was being imported cheaply as ballast for ships, although the venture continued on for a while as a cooperative.

The operation was taken over by William Sandford in 1886, and Sandford ended up buying the estate and expanding the ironworks. In 1900 he built the first steelmaking plant in Australia, and in 1907 he opened the Blast Furnace site. Sandford had been awarded a contract to supply the NSW Government’s iron and steel requirements. The new blast furnace was built to meet capacity, but Sandford was experiencing financial difficulties and the bank foreclosed on the loan. Operations passed to G & C Hoskins Pty Ltd, and Charles Hoskins oversaw the continued development and modernisation of the site.

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Some of the ruins on the Blast Furnace site

From 1908 until 1932, Lithgow produced thousands of tonnes of steel, including steel for the trans-Australian railway. The Blast Furnace was a major employer and producer, and it relied upon local resources including limestone from Ben Bullen and coke from Carcoar. Local coal production and established railway networks were also contributing factors to the success of the enterprise.

But the future lay elsewhere. In 1915, BHP had opened up a new steelworks in Newcastle and in 1921 Hoskins negotiated the purchase of a large industrial site at Port Kembla. By 1926, construction had commenced on a 300,000 tonne per year site there. From 1928 onwards, all usable buildings and machinery were moved from Lithgow to Port Kembla. The Hoskins Iron and Steel Works closed in 1932. Various factors contributed to the closure including increased railway freight charges, supply issues with good quality ore and the Great Depression.

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Looking through the Davy Engine House ruins with ‘Bosh iron skull’ in the background

The importance of the site was recognised by the town and it has been largely preserved in the decades since it fell silent. In recent months there has been considerable work completed to improve the access and information around the site. It has long been a popular photographic backdrop, and is particularly striking at sunrise and sunset.

This clip provides a tour of the site using a mixture of photos and video footage.

Lithgow lead the way in producing steel, laying the foundations for the steel industry in Newcastle and Port Kembla. While the finishing touches are still being put in place following the site redevelopment, it is great to see the effort put into acknowledging an integral part of Australia’s industrial heritage.

[Photo: signage at the Blast Furnace Park, Lithgow]

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John Clarke on Nature and Walking

I think one of the useful things about an interest in nature and in walking and looking is a loss of the self. To completely lose yourself is a great pleasure especially if what you do for a living is put yourself up in some way which is psychically tiring. One of the principal joys of birdwatching is that you are being responsive to the world, you’re just another creature. You are the tool of the world. You are not mastering it, or moulding it to your image or any such piffle, you are reminded of what a pipsqueak you are.

John Clarke 1948-2017

There is a link here which shares some of John’s amazing photos. Also check out this link to his website.

When was the last time you lost yourself in the natural world?

[Photo: superb blue wren spotted in Canberra]

Following the Warada Track, Field of Mars Wildlife Refuge

It is a testament to the community spirit that this area exists at all, tucked alongside creeks in urban Sydney. The Field of Mars was part of a large land grant given to soldiers in 1792 by Governor Arthur Philip, originally taking in the entire area north of the Parramatta River from Dundas to the Lane Cove River. Over the decades the surrounding area had been carved up and allocated, and part of the reserve had been used as a tip. Moves to redevelop the remaining pockets of bush were challenged by local groups, and since 1975 the site has been available for the public to enjoy as well as being a sanctuary for animals, birds and other wildlife.

There is an Environmental Education Centre in the reserve, and it is a popular destination for school groups offering excursions along several tracks. The Visitor Centre, open each weekend, is supported by volunteers from the Ryde Hunters Hill Flora and Fauna Preservation Society who provide friendly assistance and knowledge in regards to the various tracks available. Walking tracks can also be downloaded from the Ryde Council website.

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Along the track

Upon arrival, I was greeted by a brush turkey. It paid little attention to me although when I was leaving another one appeared and seemed keen to follow me home. These birds are famed for the huge leaf-litter mounds which are maintained by male birds for up to nine months each year. They are up to five metres in diameter and one and a half metres high. The mounds are constantly turned over, waiting for a female turkey to come along, test the temperature and lay a clutch of eggs.

Australian Brush-turkey

Australian Brush-turkey (young/immature)

The Warada track is named for the Aboriginal heritage of the area, and the track’s proximity to the only known waratah plants in the reserve. They would be a spectacular sight in springtime – the one below was spotted in the upper Blue Mountains last October.

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Waratah (telopea speciosissima) spotted in upper Blue Mountains, Oct 2017

The track climbs upwards with sandstone ledges acting as steps in some parts. There are Sydney red gums throughout the walk, their roots holding tight onto the sandstone until the stone eventually crumbles. Some of the trees are marked with sap; this indicates that the tree is being attacked by insects, but it defends itself by exuding gum, called kino.

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Sydney red gum with kino – gum – exuding as it defends itself against insects

Banksias and scribbly gums appear along the path, along with hakeas and boronias. There were several large termite nests along the way, perched high up in the trees. The path turns, winding away along a ridge before snaking down towards Strangers Creek. According to field notes, the creek was named as there were homeless people living in the area until the 1950s, with local residents and farmers warning children not to venture near this creek alone.

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Termite nest remnants

The bush was alive with various birds including magpies, white cockatoos and rufous fantails. On the path leading back towards the Visitor Centre, alongside a stretch of mangroves, a pair of white ibis birds were foraging about. A short distance away, a kookaburra rested on a branch, watching the ground for any treats.

It was a delight to spend some time in this reserve and it will be worth revisiting during different times of the year to see various wildflowers and shrubs in bloom.

Have you taken a different track lately?

[Photo: Field of Mars Reserve, East Ryde]

A Community Collected

One of the current exhibits at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre is Blue Mountains Portraits. It features a range of artworks representing people from the local community, from well-known local personalities to the quiet achievers.

Many of the works are by local artists, which further adds to the authenticity of the collection.

One of the joys of the exhibition is getting to know the backstory behind the portraits, learning more about some of the people who live in the mountains and who bring their skills and personalities to the region. The story behind the portrait selection is also provided, often revealing a deeper connection between the artist and their subject. There is a selection of the portraits recently featured in the Blue Mountains Gazette here.

There are people who contribute to the vibrant art and music scene in the mountains, collaborators who get behind festivals and events that appeal to locals and tourists alike. There are people who work tirelessly in community organisations, making a huge difference to many people in a myriad of ways. These include firefighters and environmentalists, teachers and advocates. There is a father and son business partnership, along with some of the colourful characters who bring something unique to life in the mountain villages.

The range of artistic representation is also impressive across the forty-plus artworks. There are photographic and traditional painted portraits as well as people represented in mosaics, drawing and collages. From familiar faces to the unknown, the range of styles encourages a celebration of the local community.

The exhibition is on until 18 March 2018.

[Photo: glimpse of sculpture on the viewing platform of the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre]

A Walk Around Lake Pillans, Lithgow

Named for the first Labor mayor of Lithgow, Lake Pillans is located near the Blast Furnace park area in Lithgow. I recently came across it quite by chance whilst looking for something else. It was my intention to take some photos of the blast furnace site, as it had been a year or so since I had been out around the area. But there are extensive works underway and there is limited access to the ruins.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I took the turn to Lake Pillans and followed the track around to a parking area. This urban wetland was constructed in the 1990s with a number of functions in mind. It provides a place for recreational and educational activities, along with beauty and solitude. It also cleans and filters water as part of the larger ecosystem of the area. And it provides a place for wildlife, including frogs, birds, reptiles and fish.

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Wetlands views with Blast Furnace park in the background

The lake is also a great example of repurposing an old industrial site. It was created in 1911 by the construction of a weir across Vale Creek to provide cooling water for the Hoskins blast furnace. From its early days, it was used for recreation and was a popular swimming and boating venue. The site fell into disrepair when the steelworks relocated to Port Kembla around 1928 and it became an industrial dumping site.

In recent years, a mixture of local and state government funding has contributed towards the establishment of pathways that link the wetlands and the Blast Furnace park.

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One of the walkways around Lake Pillans

This link provides another viewpoint as it touches on the experience of one of the engineers involved in the creation of the wetlands project in the 1990s.

A quick aerial tour of the lake can be seen here, and there is a great photo of the lake in its earlier years in a blog post by Pauline Conolly featuring some Lithgow characters here.

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Looking towards one of the lakes with a sculpture in front

Walking around the lake is an absolute delight, from the wetlands and reeds to the water thrumming with tadpoles. Pathways circle the lake and nearby wetlands, and one path winds up towards the Blast Furnace park. There are a couple of metal sculptures along the way, including one which I think looks like an elephant. There is a boardwalk over part of the wetlands and there was a rustle of reeds before I realised that the birds darting about were purple swamp hens. There were also ducks and brown thornbills, magpies and peewees, to name just a few of the birds around the lake.

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Purple swamp hen at Lake Pillans

I’m very pleased to have found Lake Pillans and will return many times I’m sure to enjoy the walk around a pocket of nature circled by the history and modern realities of an industrial town.

Have you stumbled across a hidden treasure recently?

[Photo: wetland views]

The Evans Expedition

As you travel along the Great Western Highway from Bathurst towards Orange, there is a signpost for Evans Plains. Depending on the time of year and recent rainfall, the outlook is often a vista of rolling green hills. That a man called Evans had travelled through this way is clear, but as many parts of Australia are named for people with loose associations with the area, it was only when I came across a statue commemorating George Evans at Bathurst that I realised that he was one of the early colonial explorers.

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Evans Memorial at Bathurst, commemorating his discovery of the Bathurst Plains

Recently there was an unveiling of an interpretative sign on the Hampton Road near Rydal in the hills beyond Lithgow. The sign has been created to compliment a memorial to George Evans and his exploratory party who crossed the Blue Mountains and the Great Dividing Range near Mount Cheetham, south of Rydal. The expedition was at the request of Governor Macquarie in 1813, and followed the track through the mountains left by the Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson crossing. This journey paved the way for the opening up of the western districts with Evans and his party travelling past the future town of Bathurst and out towards the village of Molong. The journey took 55 days and covered nearly 500 km. The party eventually turned back as supplies were running out.

Evans kept a journal, and he became increasingly effusive about the countryside which he was travelling through, identifying the potential of the grassed lands to satisfy sheep and cattle. With the colony in need of expansion, this was welcome news.

I cannot speak too much of the country. The increase of stock for some 100 years cannot overrun it, the grass is so good and intermixed with a variety of herbs.

The memorial near Hampton is close to the location of Evan’s camp on the night that the mountains were crossed on 30 November 1813. The sign is located beside an obelisk now located on Antonio Reserve, Hampton Road. The obelisk was erected in 1963 by the Lithgow Historical Society, and it commemorates Evans and his party. The interpretative sign was the work of the Lithgow branch of the National Trust, Lithgow City Council and Bill Hoolihan, a Hampton resident, along with three years of fundraising efforts.

The unveiling of the sign was attended by a large number of people from the local area and further afield, keen to keep the story of Evan’s journey alive. This included a welcome to country by a member of the Wiradjuri nation, and a short introduction by Lithgow Mayor, Stephen Lesslie, who said that without understanding our past, we struggle to find our future.

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Interpretative sign near Hampton

The common perception is that the Blue Mountains were crossed by Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson, and whilst they did blaze a trail – largely by following the well-worn paths across the mountains travelled by Aboriginals – it is Evans and his small team of travellers and convicts who really deserve this recognition.

An overview of this exploratory journey and Evan’s life was provided by Paul Brunton OAM, Emeritus Curator of the State Library. From Evans’ upbringing in Warwick as the son of an estate manager to his various roles in the colonies of New South Wales and Tasmania, Evans lived an eventful life. Brunton provided an overview, noting that despite his considerable achievements, there is relatively little remaining in the way of personal papers to provide insight into the man himself. Evans seemed to be conscious of his lack of a classical education, and this also had an impact on his career opportunities. When his journals were sent to London to share the expedition’s discoveries, feedback on Evans’ educational shortcomings – such as ‘Riverlett’ which is still honoured today – overshadowed his achievements.

Despite his successful expedition out across the western plains, and the payment of a reward and land grant in Tasmania, Evans’ career was somewhat inconsistent. He continued on as Assistant Surveyor-General for a spell, and was sent to Hobart to help with rectifying issues with questionable land surveying practices there. Macquarie called him back and forth to help with further expeditions through New South Wales, and he accompanied John Oxley on various explorations.

Evans lived a long life, marrying again after the death of his first wife and having at least a dozen children. What personal records there are show him to be a brave, thoughtful man who treated the men including convicts who accompanied him with compassion. He displayed empathy towards the indigenous people and the changes that would follow for them with colonisation. He expressed admiration for the country he was helping to explore and chart. His occupations are listed as art teacher, bookseller, explorer, farmer, landscape artist, public servant, shop owner, stationer, surveyor and surveyor-general. Quite a resume!

It is apt that Evans’ role in charting the plains beyond the Blue Mountains is being recorded and expanded upon for more people to appreciate.

[Photo: Paul Brunton at the sign dedication to George W Evans]

Glen Davis Shale Oil Works

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.

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Retort remains in the valley

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.

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Mine ruins in Glen Davis

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.

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Looking up into the retort remains

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.

For a great two-minute video postcard, check out this link. There is also an interesting overview post here.

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]

Cloth: From Seeds to Bloom – A Touring Exhibition

Something that consistently surprises me is how often I wander through an exhibition which on the surface seems to have little to interest me, yet manages to captivate me anyway. The current exhibition at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre featuring the work of renowned textile artist Julie Paterson is an example of this. It is a touring exhibition from the Australian Design Centre, running through to January 28.

For over 20 years, Paterson has been creating contemporary designs which are brought to life on fabrics produced locally by hand using natural fabrics. She is a painter, printmaker and textile designer, and the exhibition includes a number of set pieces, displaying various collections with accompanying text describing inspiration and process. On one wall there is a selection of swathes of fabrics showing the scope of the design range.

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Some of the collections on display

The insights provided throughout the exhibition on Paterson’s creative process stood out for me. This included background on the source of inspiration for some of the collections, some of her notebooks and even a replica studio where visitors have the opportunity to watch the artist at work.

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A replica of the Blue Mountains studio

Regardless of the output of the creative process, it is interesting to know how other creative-types approach their work, what provides inspiration, the challenges they face and how they overcome them. This exhibition offers a valuable insight on a number of these points from the outside looking in. The exhibition ties in with a book published in 2015 called ClothBound, which outlines the daily practice which underlies Paterson’s creative process and traces the journey through various fabric collections.

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Some of Paterson’s notebooks on display

A particular favourite of mine is the Imperfect Manifesto, an acknowledgement that every day provides the opportunity to be creative. It is also about an approach to living a genuine, creative and meaningful life, which is something to aspire to. You can read the manifesto here on Paterson’s website.

When was the last time you were surprised by something out of the ordinary?

[Photo: some of the natural inspirations for Paterson’s work]

A Blue Mountain Christmas

Recently I came across an article about what Christmas was like in the Blue Mountains over a hundred years ago. The lure of a mountains Christmas has tempted many families and travellers over the decades with the promise of a break from Sydney, which is usually heaving with heat in the middle of summer.

Whilst the majority of holiday makers arrive by coach and car these days, the railways provided the main mode of transport at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Boarding houses, guest houses and hotels provided accommodation options for travellers, and some people let out rooms in their houses as well.

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Christmas decorations in the trees with Carrington Hotel in the background (Katoomba)

The article by Robyne Ridge shares a family Christmas spent in a Lawson boarding house in 1885. After a huge traditional dinner on a wet Christmas Day, the family took the train to Bowenfels (Lithgow) on Boxing Day to experience the Zigzag railway. The mountains were such a popular Christmas destination that on Christmas Eve in 1918, there were twenty trains sent from Central Station to the mountains, all packed with holiday makers. The article includes some great photos from the Blue Mountains Local Studies collection including a very serious looking Father Christmas at Blackheath in 1924.

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An example of the random acts of knitting and love – including ladybirds and buttons

These days there are signs of Christmas throughout the villages of the mountains. A particular delight is the dressing up of Katoomba Street, Katoomba in festive apparel. The combined efforts of students from the local primary schools, the Katoomba Garden Brigade (who do a wonderful job year round to keep the gardens along this busy tourist strip in fine form), the Chamber of Commerce and Random Acts of Knitting and Love have transformed the street.

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One of the many stars along Katoomba Street

Stars adorn the trees, decorated by the children with Christmas messages. They also pop up from garden beds, carefully prepared with bright flowers. And the light and street poles have also had a makeover, covered in swathes of fabric and specially knitted creations. The idea is to encourage people to engage with their environment by seeing the everyday with a different lens. It’s quirky and fun.

Along the highway there are signs for community lunches on Christmas Day so people can gather to share a meal on what can otherwise be a lonely time. Hamper parties are held by local churches and groups to share donated goods with those less fortunate in a casual social environment. These gestures embody much of the spirit of goodwill which seems more evident at this time of year.

How is Christmas celebrated in your town?

To wish you a Christmas contented and glad, and the brightest New Year ever you’ve had – from this old postcard featuring Echo Point.

[Photo: Santa heading down a chimney at the Carrington Hotel, Katoomba]

Feeding the Magpies

One of my Dad’s favourite expressions around mealtimes was that it was like ‘feeding the magpies’. I was reminded of this recently when I was distracted by a noisy young magpie, calling for food. It was loud and insistent, crying out until a parent returned with a morsel of food for consumption. The feeding mustn’t have been quick enough as the noise continued right up until the food was positioned in the young magpie’s beak, with the parent arching back in order to drop the food into the open mouth. As soon as it disappeared the noise started again.

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Feeding the magpie – open beak waiting for food

Off went the parent to source some more food. The young magpie poked around in the garden a bit and drank some rainwater out of a hollow in the path. The parent returned with more sustenance, and they moved around the garden a bit, hunting for the next treat. Another magpie flew in with a worm, and there was a bit of jostling about as the young magpie looked between the two food sources with great interest. Once both tidbits were consumed, the three birds walked the garden, looking for more food until a currawong landed in a nearby tree.

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Feeding time

One magpie immediately flew up into the tree, making warning noises and pushing at the currawong. The currawong held its ground, not meeting the warning with a similar response, but remaining steadfast on the branch. After a while the magpie rejoined the two magpies on the ground, and a wattle bird flew in and gave the currawong another serve, shoving it further down the branch before perching in the branch above. The size difference seemed not to matter, and I was reminded of Tim Low’s comments in Where Song Began about how aggressive Australian honeyeaters are.

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Currawong (left upper branch) and magpie working out their territory

Many insights into the behaviour of Australian magpies are provided by Dr Gisela Kaplan in her book Australian Magpie: Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird. The feeding of young magpies is taken care of by both parents as well as helpers when available. Earthworms are a popular choice for the baby chicks and fledglings as magpies don’t drink water until they are more mobile. The young are fed constantly for the first three months are so, then there is a further period of two to three months when they are shown how to fend for themselves, with some assistance if required. A process of weaning applies, with parents and helpers withholding food if need be to encourage the young to be self-sufficient.

It was interesting to be able to watch just a small part of the process of feeding the magpies.

And worth noting, too, that it was recently voted as Australian Bird of the Year 2017.

[Photo: magpies feeding]