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Tullah revisited - A story about booms, busts and re -invention

Dark waters of Lake Rosebery, Tullah, Tasmania  -early in the morning. The water is brown due to the tannin in the vegetation, but it is in fact very clean.

 Spotify leaps back into life as the car lurches down the last few zig zags onto the Tullah straight. I didn’t really appreciate country music until I came here. It tells the stories of country life.  I think of  John Prine’s “Paradise” for example. Tullah even had a place called “Paradise” on the Macintosh River where everyone used to swim, before it was swallowed up by the Lake. Many places on the West Coast were indeed "hauled away by Mr. Peabody’s coal train" or one very similar - Places  like Dundas,  Williamsford, Crotty, Adamsfield and Lindato name just a few. 


Tullah - which means "meeting of the waters," did have a couple of near -death experiences. Silver -lead was discovered by Tom Farrell in 1892 and by 1900 two mines had sprung up at each end of the valley, each with its own village. In 1901, the government declared the whole area a town and named it Tullah. When the South Farrell Mine ceased operating in about 1932, the North Farrell enjoyed a bit of a boom until the early 1970’s after which it went into care and maintenance. However,  just as it was closing, the Hydro Electric Commission came along and decided to use the town as a base for its Pieman Hydro Electric scheme.

By the time I got there in 1980, there were singlemen’s quarters, a staff house, a school, a supermarket, a Post Office, a betting shop, a medical service and the community hall. Hundreds of men - and they were nearly all men, except perhaps for the odd office worker, were already hard at work either building dams or constructing a separate village for the families of Hydro workers who were yet to come. In the older part of Tullah a gaggle of children perched on car bonnets and flattened cardboard, were zooming down the giant mullock heap which still occupied the slope below the North Farrell Mine. Here and there patches of foxgloves, daffodils and bright splashes of Mombretia  marked places on the hillsides where other homes had stood.


When Rail was King 

"Wee Georgie" (1963) hard at work along the Rake Line which serviced the North Farrell Mine

 - Image by Weston Langford  under Creative Commons Licence 4.0


Until the Murchison Highway was built in 1964, the only way in and out was with the diminutive steam train “Wee Georgie Wood” -named after a short statured English comedian, which carried ore to the Emu Bay Railway about 7 Km away. “Wee Georgie” also hauled in the road making material which would eventually spell his demise. It was a sad day indeed for the people of Tullah when the connecting bridge over the Macintosh was finally blown up to make way for the dam. Reluctant to see their faithful little workhorse rust away or fall into to the hands of other railway collectors, local people restored it and gave it a short track that runs close to the lake and takes in the stunning mountain views. 


"Wee Georgie" today at rest at the station

Cue Gordon Lightfoot’s Railroad Trilogy. Though Gordon Lightfoot was writing about Canada, his feeling for the times and references  to "majestic mountains” and “deep dark woods” certainly resonate here.

Tullah – 1980s


The first time I came here, the A10 was being sealed and new bridges were being built in anticipation of the dam's higher water levels. In those days it was still quite a heroic journey. On a good day it was supposed to take a bit over an hour and a half to get there from Burnie, but it took me a lot longer. I found out why, if you asked a local how far it was to somewhere, they would instead tell you how long it would take given the prevailing weather. 

After I had ground my way through the hairpin bends in and out of the Hellyer Gorge, it started to snow. Though beautiful to look at at, it made for slow and treacherous progress. You can’t imagine how relieved I was when I finally saw the glimmer of light that was Tullah, after so many hours of darkness and wheel - gripping anxiety.

In daylight, the scenery took my breath away. At first it was the ring of mountains, then the rainforest. Back then it lined both sides of the road and sometimes met overhead – an exuberance of mosses, ferns, sassafras, myrtle, waratah, celery top and King Billy pine. These days, boring plantations of Eucalyptus nitens have replaced much of it, but you can still see remnants at the picnic ground in the middle of the Gorge, around the Murchison Dam, along the Pieman Road or driving over Mt. Black to Rosebery. 


Temperate rainforest near the Hellyer Gorge - it's not as dark and mysterious now and looks drier. Not sure if it's because of Climate Change, forest clearing or the dams, but it's still beautiful

For the explorers and prospectors who had to live and work in places like this, the bush was something to be avoided, cursed and conquered. It was nearly always wet and full of leeches. During the Franklin dam debate, our then Premier, called the river "a brown leech – ridden ditch” which pretty much summed up the attitude of anyone who had to work in these parts.

It took ‘foreigners’ such as Gustav Weindorfer and later Oleg Truchanas and his protegee Peter Dombrovskis to appreciate its beauty and call for the protection of these wild landscapes and their flora and fauna. Not that the fight is over. It’s just moved further West to the Tarkine and the penalties for protesting have become much harsher.

On that first visit to Tullah we were snowed in, so I got to know it a lot better than planned. In fact, I ended up staying three months. At first, like a few other families, we lived in a caravan, but when I came back in 1987, the Macintosh dam was already full and a fully -fledged hydro town with about 3,000 people had been laid out in a neat grid on the river flat to the south. 

It was separate from what was left of the original  township - the locals hate it being called "Old Tullah,"with its modest cottages scattered higgledy- piggledy over the hills and looking for all the world like the little town of Bushnook in the children's book "Gregory Ghostgum and the Bushnook Bunyip"  by Richard and Andrea Galbraith. "This is Tullah," they would say emphatically. "That (pointing south) is the Hydro Village."

A bit of rivalry had sprung up between the two townships. The Hydro village had television and garbage collection for example, while the original Tullah had neither, though "The Pom's shop" did a brisk trade in videos. 

More of the older buildings in Tullah had gone – particularly the church and the academy of music – no doubt cannibalised to refurbish those that remained. Tullah residents are the original recyclers owing to the fact that for nearly a century it had been very difficult to bring anything in. There was a sign at the tip that said "Tullah Kmart" (Walmart might be the nearest equivalent elsewhere) where better things were set aside. Once or twice a year, all divisions were forgotten as everyone came together in the Community Hall for the school concert and the Christmas party. 

The pub was also very even -handed in that respect, happily taking money from both ends of town with equal enthusiasm. However, there was one unwritten rule. If a man spent so much money on beer that his family didn't have enough for groceries, no publican on the West Coast would serve him, beyond what the budget allowed.

Staff were not supposed to mingle with the workers so they would turn up discreetly at the tearoom for movie nights, medieval dinners and other entertainments, including strolling musicians and even a whole chamber music ensemble. I wonder what happened to the song "When the Moon Shines over Cradle Mountain" by the Bush Turkeys? The tearoom was also host to groups such as the Rosebery Touch Football Club, the Arts Council, the Wine Appreciation Society and the Ulysses Motor Cycle Club. None of it would have happened if I hadn't been aided and abetted by many people on both sides of the fence -people like Toni and Jack, Barbara B., Ruth Wilson, Betty Butler and too many others to mention. There were also people like Fortesque and the lovely carpenter who used to bring buckets of blackberries to make crumble, because they had nothing else to do on their weekends off.

On paydays there would be what was known as the Tullah 500. As soon as the day's shift ended, the men - and they were still mostly all men, would leap into their 4x4s to make a dash for the bright lights of Burnie or Hobart for a three day weekend. Those who had to stay on would line up in the rain at the two phone boxes outside the Post Office to make a long -distance call to a girlfriend or their families. 

It rained a lot then and with an average rainfall of 2800mm (110 inches) a year, Tullah is still one of the wettest places in Tasmania. The rivers would often rise 10 metres overnight, sweeping away cribsheds and anything which wasn't nailed down. Legend has it, that when the foreman at Stringer's Creek - further down on the Pieman River, demanded to know why a bulldozer he'd ordered hadn't arrived, he was told something like this. "Don't worry mate. She'll be down there any minute. You just have to watch out for it  when it comes down the river."

This time we stayed 10 years. My younger children had a wonderful time here – roaming the hills, fishing and canoeing on the dark waters of the lake, catching tadpoles,  building cubbies and panning for ‘gold.’ It was a bit more difficult for their big sister who had to board in Burnie for her final years of school and could only come home on weekends. By 1994 the Hydro construction work was finished and almost overnight, the town's population fell from around 3,000 to 300 residents. 

The school closed, the medical centre closed and so did the subsidised supermarket. A giant auction followed during which most of the houses were sold off for removal. My husband was among the few workers left at the last farewell barbecue and then we left too.

Tullah Revisited


The Hydro Village in 2022 -  Mount Murchison (1278 m) overlooks it from the south as if nothing had happened

It's a lot quieter now in the Hydro Village. These days people come to fish, go boating or walking, or just to relax. A few of the old hands have retired here, but most of the houses which were left are now weekenders or tourist accommodation, as is the Staff House and even my former tearoom. Despite all that, I can't get any accommodation. Apparently it's a "Back to Tullah" weekend and everything is booked out. 

In old Tullah, the pub is for sale, the service station looks deserted and sad and Radford’s woodwork shop has closed too. However, a new tea shop in Daisy’s old house across the road and a bit further down from mine, is doing a brisk trade and it looks like the Wilderness Society now has a small presence here at the tiny shop which sold ice cream to people travelling on  "Wee Georgie.”


There's a new tearoom on the other side of the road



Still coming around the mountain. "Wee Georgie" appears from around the bend

Despite these changes, some things have stayed the same. Aloof and impervious, the mountains still gaze down on the valley and even the lakes have gained that air of permanence. “Wee Georgie” is at this moment chugging around his loop and a group of walkers is heading up to Lake Herbert, the small ice carved lake on top of Mt. Farrell. It seems to have retained its allure despite being overshadowed by the much larger Lakes Macintosh and Rosebery. A few of the original residents are still here too. Lynn still sells her handmade Teddy Bears outside her neat cottage next to the station and Butch and his son still live in theirs across the road. I see that Butch has lately traded in his passion for collecting Service Station memorabilia for collecting loaders and diggers and restoring old road workers' cottages.


Little cottages still dot the hills but most have been refurbished and repurposed

It still looks lovely, but many dear faces are missing along with many of the larger-than-life characters that used to populate the place.  I'm thinking here of people like prospector, metallurgist and all -round bushmaster and story – teller, Jekyll Smythe, Gordon Clarke the publican who practically ran the town and Tony Williamson - better known as “The Pom,” who used to own the service station. They were some of our guardian angels then, but all of them have passed away. Others have simply moved “up the coast” to that mythical place where the sun always shines - at least a lot more than in Tullah, and where there’s endless shopping and a hospital. Occasionally I'm tempted to move back, but most of my family is now in Hobart, petrol is expensive and bad for the environment and I don’t want to have to wield a chainsaw to keep warm in winter when I’m in my twilight years. I probably couldn't afford the real estate here now either. 

This song by Gordon Lightfoot is for my old friend JS and all those who are no longer with us. 




There are many roads now. One takes you to Burnie in under an hour. There’s another that gets you to Queenstown in 50 minutes, or to Zeehan via the Pieman, all thanks to the Hydro. You can drive straight to Cradle Mountain in a bit over half an hour or even up to Smithton, weather permitting and so long as you don’t mind unsealed roads, but they all have the effect of taking people away. Men  - and shock, horror, even women, who work down here these days, either at other mines or doing maintenance for the Hydro, are just as likely to live “up the coast’ and simply drive in and out. 

The old timers always swore that the mine would reopen some day when the price was right, but even if it does, as seems to be happening in Zeehan, they tend to be smaller and not as long – lived as in earlier times and as likely as not, they’ll be highly automated. Companies no longer need to create townships in order to get workers to stay. For them it 's much cheaper to pay them well and not have responsibility for housing, healthcare and even getting the food in to feed them. These new arrangements don't make for the close -knit communities or the fierce loyalties (or antagonisms) which happen when people must live together and rely on one another. 


NEXT: A bit More "Wee Georgie" (running times etc) and Other Places where you can enjoy Steam Trains