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]

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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]

Lithgow State Mine Heritage Park

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]