The day didn’t start brilliantly – grey, overcast and a little misty and cold. We hadn’t slept well and now we had to rush to get my friend to the Gordon River Cruise. That, and the “The Ship that Never Was” -Australia’s longest running play (in years, not hours that is),was sure to keep her pleasantly occupied for most of the day, so taking the winding road back to Queenstown, I head for Kelly Basin, 40 km South. Where it belongs to the Hydro, the road is awesome in both the original and current sense of the word. It scales grades of 1:10 but is wide and smooth and there are several lookouts. The view is over many stegosaurus backed mountains, standing stones, the dams and the King River and the rift valley which runs through most of Queenstown. The ten km of unsealed Parks road that follow once I enter the Wild Rivers National Park, aren’t too bad either. Then I am confronted with a challenge.
Do I walk the last five kilometres in to the Bird River to the start of the track or do I take a chance and drive? The road is a former railway track minus the rails and is not recommended for two wheel drive vehicles, but walking would add ten kilometres to an already longish walk. While I am pondering this and pulling on my boots, a small sedan whizzes past and disappears into the tunnel-like gloom. I wait a while, walk a little bit of the track which looks almost smooth, though extremely narrow. Then I drink my first coffee of the day.
|Start of the Bird River Road - a very narrow former railway line|
When neither the car nor its occupants reappear, I jump back into the driver’s seat and take off after them. I hold my breath. It only takes five minutes or so in a vehicle but it’s the longest five minutes in the universe. I pass a big SUV parked slightly off the road in a wider section and the van just makes it beneath the overhanging trees and almost scrapes the sides of the steep cuttings. I honk my horn at every bend - and there are many, but I do get through. My sons will give me a long lecture about this, but here I am at the Bird River Bridge.
|A shower of petals and the buzz of bees greet me as I cross the Bird River Bridge. The bees are busy making Tasmania's famous Leatherwood Honey which comes from places like this|
The track still follows the old railway line but it's not possible to drive further because of earth movements and washed out bridges. As I cross the historic bridge, the sun comes out and I am showered with petals from tall leatherwood trees. I feel like a bride. Bees buzz. The river gurgles alongside and the rainforest puts on its prettiest face. I walk softly amid mosses and tree ferns while the river grows larger and breaks into riffles, rapids and falls. It is supposed to be a three hour walk, according to the sign, and though not unpleasant - mostly a gentle downhill to Macquarie Harbour, it seems a lot longer. About half way I meet a man taking photos. He's the owner of the SUV. He couldn't drive in all the way yesterday because there was a fallen tree across the road.
|A dense cover of tree ferns and tall trees provides welcome shade|
|Mosses and ferns clothe steep railway cuttings|
|The river grows stronger and louder|
At last I come out near the harbour and there is some signage. It says that here beneath the vegetation lies the town of East Pillinger, boldly carved out of the rainforest because of a feud between two mine owners. This is a story that begs to be told.
The main protagonists were both of Irish descent but Bowes Kelly (1852–1930) was an early investor in Broken Hill and was already wealthy. At over 6’ (183 cms) he was described “as a massive man, red haired, with a bone crushing handshake.” By investing heavily in mining and industrial opportunities such as the fledgling BHP, he became one of the richest men in Australia. He also liked to gamble – stories are told of games of two up with gold sovereigns after board meetings.
|Carpets of moss|
Meanwhile, according to Geoffrey Blainey writing in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, James Crotty (1845 -18980) had to walk a hundred miles to Waratah to register his claim on what was to become the Mt. Lyell Mining Company. Crotty was “excitable and eloquent” and liked to take matters to court. In 1890 Crotty’s gold mine was badly managed and he had to work on the Sydney sewerage project to pay his debts. Most of his shares passed to the Silver Kings of Broken Hill including Bowes Kelly. Bowes Kelly who had had great success with his railway at Silverton and Broken Hill, immediately set to work building one to Strahan and establishing port facilities there. He also built smelters and towns for his workers. The Mount Lyell Mine however, was running out of ore.
Crotty meanwhile profited both from the sale of his shares as well the better management of the mine. In 1897, he began the North Mt. Lyell Copper Company (where the Iron Blow is) and soon found himself the proud owner of an even richer find. He too set about creating identical facilities – a port at Pillinger, the towns of Crotty where his smelter was, and Linda which was the railway terminus for the ore from the Iron Blow, and a railway line to link all three.
Over a thousand people worked in East Pillinger at its peak -making bricks, cutting timber for the smelters and unloading ore. In 1898 however, while in London attempting to raise more capital, James Crotty died suddenly and with him died the vision for both his mine and the towns. In 1903 the Mt. Lyell Mining Co. and the North Mount Lyell Copper Company concluded a difficult merger as the Mt. Lyell Mining and Railway Company with the people in both sets of towns waiting anxiously to see which facilities would survive and prosper and whose would go.
Strahan was the winner in the port stakes. The sign at the Iron Blow says that Darwin, a small community along the railway line, was abandoned almost immediately. Crotty lasted a little longer but now lies beneath Lake Burbury since the building of the Crotty dam. The government town of West Pillinger with its police station vanished without trace and East Pillinger was almost deserted by 1920. Most of the population of Linda moved on to Gormanston, the workers' town of the Mt. Lyell Mining and Railway Company. Only the magnificent ruins of the Royal Hotel which closed in 1950, hint at its former glory. Gormanston lingers on with a population of around 164 at the 2006 census, relying mainly on tourism and fishermen attracted by the Lake.
The details may vary, but by such slender threads hangs the fate of many a mining town.
The details may vary, but by such slender threads hangs the fate of many a mining town.
|The remains of Pillinger's newly built 80 metre wharf which was forsaken for Strahan|
While this marked the end of Pillinger and James Crotty’s dream, the story doesn’t quite end there. Bowes Kelly went on to acquire many other mines, start railways and cement works, not all of them successful. By the time he died in 1930 he had lost most of his fortune, leaving only around 60,000 pounds to his wife and six children. By contrast, Crotty's estate was worth around 200,000 pounds (roughly $400,000, a vast sum in the 1890's) but his wife fared far worse. He left her only 100 pounds a year, with an extra 500 pounds a year if she agreed to enter a convent. After giving his siblings and one or two others a similar sum, he donated the remainder to the Catholic Church to build St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.*
|This was once the mess hall, centre of community life|
|One of two brick kilns which could produce enough bricks for 13 houses a day|
I poke around the substantial ruins for a while. The bush has reclaimed almost all of Pillinger, except for the brick kilns, the mess hall, some rusting boilers, a few strips of metal and a couple of calla lillies.The National Parks and Wildlife Service has done a great job of bringing the scene to life and you can imagine how the place might have looked and sounded in its heyday.
Suddenly I spot another sign which says that it's 7.5 km to “Bird River Road.” That’s a lot longer than 1.5 hours, even for rangers. I hurry back, not stopping now to take pictures. It's a pity. The mountains look even more spectacular now in the late afternoon light. I fly up the train track with my headlights on, back over the Crotty Road and then back down to Strahan.
My friend is not pleased when we finally catch up. She's had enough of roughing it in the van and tells me that she is staying in a hotel tonight and catching the bus home tomorrow. I think of Crotty's hundred mile walk, or the privations that Philospher Smith went through to find his Mountain of Tin and wonder where that pioneering spirit has gone. I do confess that I am over carrying a twenty kilo pack, sleeping in tents and foregoing hot showers myself. Lucky I didn’t have to walk the other five km both ways as well. Fifteen km feels like quite enough for one day.
|And the bush claims all|
* For the full story of these early days of Mt. Lyell and the bitter feud between these men, Geoffrey Blainey's The Peaks of Lyell (1959, 1993, ST. David's Park Press, Hobart) makes a riveting read.