Along the road I see a sign for the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine so stopped in to take a look. Wonthaggi is about 140km south-east of Melbourne. It is the only historic coal mine experience in the Southern Hemisphere. The mine was operational from 1909 to 1968, producing around 17 million tonnes of coal for Victoria’s industries and railways. It was created due to the Victorian government being unable to secure any coal from NSW during an extended miner’s industrial strike there. The decision was made for Victoria to create its own mine to guarantee supply.
The age of the coal in Wonthaggi is estimated to be more than 150 million-years-old. It is estimated that if you were to join all the coal tunnels up in a straight line it would stretch nearly 5,000 kilometres. That’s more than the driving distance from Melbourne to Darwin! Needless to say the whole town of Wonthaggi is placed right on top of this labyrinth.
The mine was all hand dug with picks and shovels, using horses and pit ponies to pull coal filled carts around. Hand powered drills were used to drill holes in the coal than dynamite was used to blow and loosen the coal. The miners used flame head lights so there were a number of small gas explosions in the mine. The biggest disaster claimed thirteen men in number 20 shaft. They had a tough life only getting paid for the amount of coal they sent to the surface. All the time they spent descending and ascending from the shafts, meal breaks and digging and reinforcing tunnels were not paid for. They also had to pay for their own headlamp fuel and dynamite. The alternative was a factory job which paid about half what a man could earn as a miner.
With most of the underground network now filled with water some mine passages are closing up with underground movement. Some scientists believe the water is acting like a hydraulic press and pushing tunnels closed, but no one knows for sure. There is a joke in town that if you want to buy a house, buy it on the side of town where there are no tunnels underneath.
Above ground there are some fully furnished homes and buildings like this from the early 1900’s era.
The mine is maintained by volunteers weekly who check the tunnels for movement and add bracing where necessary to ensure it continues to be safe for tourism. One of the volunteers is in his 70’s or 80’s who started working in the mine around age 19.
It was well worth the visit.
More info on the Wonthaggi state coal mine can be found at: http://www.parkstay.vic.gov.au/state-coal-mine-wonthaggi