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]

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Capertee Train Trip

Old trains capture my imagination. A short steam train ride in Tasmania remains a favourite memory from years ago – as the train tootled along, there were sheep scattering off the tracks in all directions. When the opportunity came up to travel from Lithgow to Capertee on an old CPH railmotor, I took it.

The train line to Capertee is no longer a passenger line, like many old lines across the state. The Gwabegar line remains open for coal trains and the railway travels through Wallerawang, Portland and Ben Bullen before arriving at the small village of Capertee.

But the destination is only part of the journey. There were three carriages of fellow travellers on this trip, and there was a frisson of excitement as the train arrived at Lithgow station, precisely on time. Our guide for the day was Graeme, the president of the Capertee Progress Association. He was decked out in tails and a top hat, which seemed entirely appropriate. Armed with a megaphone he had the passengers organised in no time at all.

 

CPH Railmotor arriving at Lithgow station

 

On the journey out I shared the trip with one of the volunteer train guards, who told some interesting stories of some of the heritage train trips he’d been on around the state. We marvelled at the rolling green hills, still soaked after days of heavy rain, the mob of kangaroos on the golf course at Marrangaroo, and the smaller groupings of roos startled by the train, springing into action and bounding at speed alongside the carriage.

But the real star of the show was the scenery. The landscape became increasingly rocky and steep, and there were swathes of darkness as the train rumbled through tunnels. The rocking of the carriages, the smell of diesel, the excited chatter of a large group of people, all of this faded into the background as the wide canyons and valleys came into view. The area has the largest enclosed canyon in the world.

In recent travels, I’ve been through quite a few small country towns. I find them interesting, as no two are really alike. Some places feel heavy with a sense of their own demise as people move away for work and lifestyle reasons. Capertee, although small, has a sense of vibrancy. The town knew that the train was coming and there were markets and activities lined up for the visitors. A sign near the market proclaimed it to be ‘train day’ and there were various stalls set up inside and around the local hall. Part of the proceeds from the train trip was to be used to help maintain and upkeep the hall, which remains a living hub for the community.

Inside the hall, there were many photos of gatherings from previous years, along with local landmarks including the Glen Davis Shale Mine. Outside there was a BBQ for the hungry hordes and a special performance from the Lithgow Pipe Band. It was great – a professional and entertaining performance, and it will take me a long time to forget their rendition of Hokey Pokey. Santa had paid a visit earlier in the day, but I had been having a wander around the Glen Davis Shale Mine.

 

Lithgow Pipe Band performing at Capertee

 

When the train pulled back in at the station – it had followed the line out through to Kandos before returning – it was a happy crowd that piled on board with local purchases and memories of a day out in a friendly country town.

Have you had a day out of the ordinary lately?

[Photo: CPH ‘Tin Hare’ railmotors leaving Capertee for Kandos, part of the heritage fleet at Lachlan Valley Railway]