TASMANIA November 2011

Tasmania is located at around 42 deg South, in the path of the Roaring Forties. Inhabited by aborigines from about 35,000 years ago it was first settled by the British in 1803 – a move designed to prevent the French from claiming the island. In 1804 another settlement was started on the west bank of the Derwent River which eventually became Hobart – Australia’s second oldest capital city. During its first fifty years as a colony 75,000 convicts were transported there and, together with the military, began to establish agriculture and industry. The island has great natural beauty; about 37% by area is preserved in National Parks and reserves and it is Australia’s most mountainous state. We are indebted to Bruce Cole, chairman of Engineering Heritage Tasmania, who gave a great deal of assistance in compiling this tour.
Before embarking for Tasmania, the group gathered in Melbourne and was expertly led by Miles Pierce, chairman of Engineering Heritage Victoria and Owen Peake, its secretary and chairman of the national Engineering Heritage Board. Among the highlights were the impressive LaTrobe reading room in the State Library, the old shot tower now housed within a modern shopping/office complex, and a ride on a "w" class heritage tram which circles the city.

After viewing the city's bridges over the Yarra, we took the ferry as the rain descended to Spotswood former sewage pumping station, where we were met by Museum of Victoria curator Matthew Churchward, who took us round, seeing mainly the Austral-Otis engines and the 1901 Hathorn Davey triple expansion pumping engine. Our day ended in Williamstown, where we inspected H.M.A.S 'Castlemaine' and the restored time ball tower.

On the second day, some members of the group visited the preserved 'Puffing Billy' railway, enjoying a privileged ride on the footplate, while the rest took the train to Geelong, with a good museum and many fine buildings related to the wool trade.
The group then transferred to Hobart from where we headed for the Coal River Valley, named after the coal deposits found there but which became better known in the early years of the nineteenth century as “the granary of Australia”. This trade made a bridge crossing of the river at Richmond essential and in 1823 the Royal Engineers, with convict labour, built what is now the oldest bridge still in use in Australia.

Via a convict worked sandstone quarry and more convict engineering at the famous Spiky Bridge we made our way north along the east coast with views across Oyster Bay, in beautiful weather, to a bark mill established by the Morey family around 1885. The historic machinery reduced black wattle bark to a powder for use in tanning leather and the rest of the tree was fed as fuel to the ubiquitous Marshall portable engine. The mill which continued in operation until 1960 is Australia’s only restored black wattle bark mill and may be the only one in the world. But we had to leave the azure sea and white sand beaches behind as we turned inland and ascended Elephant pass through thick Eucalypt forest to St Marys. And here suddenly is a huge rusting water tank cast in Manchester in 1884 by Ashbury and Co, a turntable pit, a lonely semaphore signal and a few sleepers still visible amongst the grass betraying the route of the tracks into the former station.

Returning to the coast we called in at the St Helens History Room where the curator, Kym Matthews told us more about the opencast tin mining which was carried out on the escarpment near there known as the “Blue Tier”. Like tin mining everywhere the fortunes of the mines were dependent on the price of the metal and these mines were last in the ascendant at the beginning of the 20th century. Amongst the displays was a model of the water wheel at the Anchor mine, one of the largest tin mines in the area. We were also moved by a video presentation of the life of Chinese miners who played their part in the story.

Our next planned excursion was to the remains of the mine itself but we thought those plans had been dashed as the road to the mine had been washed away in recent storms. However, encouraged by the imminent arrival of our group, local volunteers led by Ian Matthews had devised a route via a rough dirt track and, with the help of chainsaws, a newly cut a path through the forest to make possible our approach to the mine. Ian and local historian Leon Kohl led us in a scramble over difficult terrain but it was well worth it as it soon revealed rusting machinery amongst the lush growth, the remains of a waterwheel and a bank of stampers (I.E.E. Salisbury of Launceston (Tas) 1883) all rapidly being reclaimed by nature.

From there a drive over the pass and we were meeting Mike Cooke another of our local guides. In his “ute”, the standard means of transport, he led us down another track to the site of the Moorina hydro electric station. This is the location of the first rock filled, concrete faced dam in the southern hemisphere, and the second oldest in the world. Opened in 1908 the station ran for 100 years using the original AEG equipment housed in its timber framed building clad in rusting corrugated iron.

Mike also took us to view the Mount Paris dam east of Ringarooma in the Break O'Day municipality which has been added to the Tasmanian Heritage Register. Built in 1936 for the Mount Paris Mining Company it supplied water for hydraulic tin mining. The dam is the only one of its type in Tasmania and is a good example of a reinforced concrete slab-and-buttress design. It was built almost entirely by hand. The only mechanical assistance was provided by petrol-driven concrete mixers and some tip trucks which delivered materials to the site. The dam operated until 1961 when the mine closed and was drained in 1970. To prevent build up of water at times of peak flow in the river large holes have been cut into it (with diamond drills) which we were able to inspect at close quarters.

In 1798 George Bass and Matthew Flinders circumnavigated Van Diemen's Land in the tiny sloop Norfolk proving for the first time that it was an island. In George Town, at the mouth of the River Tamar we were welcomed at the Bass & Flinders Centre, heard the story and viewed a beautiful replica of the tiny ship they used. Thence to Low Head Point to see the convict built pilot station of 1835, the lighthouse and the ear-splitting fog horn, powered by a twin cylinder Gardner kerosene engine & compressor, sounded at midday on Sundays. Also hereabouts are the points where the first telegraph cable came ashore in 1858, and where the 400kv DC electricity link now runs to mainland Australia. Our journey continued over the Batman bridge - named after John Batman, Launceston businessman and co-founder of Melbourne. This modern bridge is of unusual design because the ground on the east bank of the Tamar River is soft clay not capable of supporting a bridge. The ground on the west side however is hard dolerite rock. This lead to the building, in 1966, of the first cable-stayed bridge in Australia. The main span is 260m long, suspended from a 91m high steel A-frame tower on the west bank which carries 78% of the weight of the main span. The length of the bridge is 432m between abutments. On the east side a causeway carries the highway supported by four piers built on piles driven 18 m into the clay.
Steam enthusiasts were catered for next at the Don River Railway at Devonport. The original railway had almost a century of very mixed fortunes running mostly freight and bulk ore but also passenger services up until final closure in 1963 (there are no passenger rail services in Tasmania now). The present volunteer operation concentrates on preservation of locomotives and rolling stock and after a short ride behind a steam loco built in 1951 at the Robert Stephenson works in Darlington we had a tour of what must be the tidiest workshops of this type I’ve seen in a long time. There were a number of ongoing projects and our guide explained how they also perform maintenance work for other preserved railways.
Our next stop was at Deloraine which might be characterised as a town of mills. On the way into town we stopped at the beautifully preserved Bowerbank mill of 1853 – initially water but later steam as a more reliable power source.

In the town there were once five more mills and a hydro-electric station of 1905 on the Meander River which used an Otto Crossley gas engine when the water was low.
Hydro electric was again to the fore at the three Miena dams, respectively: concrete gravity in 1916, concrete arch and buttress in 1922 and rock filled in 1982, each was higher than the last and the first now can only be seen in severe drought. All this water was to provide around 1100 feet of head for the Waddamana power station. Opened in 1916 to great acclaim the “A” station had just two generating sets of 3.5MW each from Metropolitan Vickers but gained seven more of 6MW from General Electric of the US in 1922. It is open now only as a museum. In 1944 the English Electric Co supplied four further generating sets from their Stafford and Rugby works of 15MW each for the “B” station. Also now decommissioned it was opened on this occasion specially for our group to inspect.
And so to Bothwell and the Nant mill. Built in 1823 as a water-driven flour mill its French Burr millstones answered the district’s needs for flour until 1897. The buildings were then used for agricultural purposes and you can still see the marks on the wall in the barn where sheep-shearers counted each fleece as it was shorn.

But in the 21st century the mill has come alive again as a grist mill and the buildings have been converted to a distillery. And what a very fine product it is too!
Almost back in Hobart our attention turned to paper. Norske Skog were sponsors for the Engineering Heritage Conference and were pleased to welcome our group for a tour of the Boyer plant on the Derwent River North West of Hobart.

The plant was well known as a producer of newsprint from re-growth eucalypt hardwood using a cold caustic soda pulping process, which was quite unusual in the paper business. However a recent conversion, welcomed by environmental groups, has seen the process switched to the use of plantation Radiata Pine.

The whole process is covered on the site: tree trunks arrive at one end and paper goes out at the other. There are two lines, one of which was shut down for maintenance so we were able to get up close and inspect the various rollers and the labyrinthine path through the machinery as the pulp (about 90% water) was transformed into paper with about 6% water.

The second line was in full production however, producing 6m wide paper at a rate of 60km/hr. The plant produces about 40% of Australia’s requirement for newsprint.
The group went on to join the Engineering Heritage Australia tour visiting amongst other places: the a restored windmill at Callington, the Queen Victoria Museum at Launceston, the Beaconsfield Gold and Heritage Museum, the Redwater Creek Railway, the 100m high Cethana Dam, the West Coast Wilderness Railway (a scenically fantastic trip), the West Coast Pioneer Museum at Zeehan and the 1916 Lake Margaret hydro-electric power station. Bruce Cole and Bram Knoop gave an invaluable commentary on the many sites of interest which we passed on the way.
Three days of conference then followed with a series of high quality presentations ranging from reconstruction of a pier on Norfolk Island to Heritage Apps for the iPhone. The most moving for me being a presentation by Andrew Marriott on the devastating effect of the “earthquake swarm” in the Christchurch area of New Zealand. Without forgetting the many who lost their lives, his presentation concentrated on heritage buildings. During the most severe shocks upward accelerations of 2g were measured. He said “buildings were jumping up in the air”. He was assessing the damage on a building when another quake hit. Scaffolding around an adjacent building collapsed “I was lucky not to be killed”. Never say that conference presentations are boring!

Words and pictures: Copyright © Bill Barksfield 2011