The discovery of coal was a defining moment for the little settlement of Bicheno. Although all mining attempts ended in disaster the mining industry created the town that still exists today.
Coal was discovered south of the Douglas River in 1843, and in May 1849 the Douglas River Coal Company was formed to mine on a lease north of Bicheno. In a flurry of activity shafts were sunk and adits dug, close to the Denison Rivulet. Further valuable coal seams were then located in the area known today as Douglas Apsley National Park including the surrounding ridgelines and mountains.
The Douglas River Coal project appeared doomed from the beginning with the Government relinquishing initial works on a tramway that would transport coal from the pits to the purpose built granite wharf, tipping table, and schute at the Gulch in Bicheno. Convicts were bought in to finish the project and were housed in movable huts along the route. During this time there were a number of escapes with the most spectacular taking place on 21 May 1852 when five armed convicts seized the HMAS Gratitude, anchored in Waubs Bay and made off with her. A reward of £2 a head was offered. Despite extensive searches the boat was never recovered and only two convicts were recaptured.
The settlement’s only inhabitants up to this point had been whalers, hunters, fishermen and trappers, but despite the setbacks the township started to flourish. 39 skilled Colliers and their families were sourced from the coal districts of Scotland and South Wales. Unfortunately, of the first 18 men 11 absconded on arrival. Nevertheless, the town continued to grow with the Company sending out a clergyman, a schoolmaster and other servants from Wales. A courthouse, church, school and police station were constructed to maintain law and order.
By the end of 1855 between 40-50 men were working underground. Cottages were built for these workmen on a half acre of land. Transporting coal 5 kilometres by horse drawn tram was a slow and expensive process. A 20 horsepower steam engine was imported from England but the purpose built rope required to operate the engine was not sent out from England with the engine, rendering it useless. At this time questions were being asked about the management of the Douglas River Coal Company’s funds and its failure to appoint skilled Managers despite the substantial investment.
Production was small and costly and eventually in 1858 the company folded and mining in the area ceased until 1914 when the Dalmayne Collieries Company entered the scene.
The Dalmayne coal beds are located 11 kilometers south of St Mary’s and although they were discovered in 1861 it wasn’t until 1914 that a feasibility study was undertaken identifying reserves of over 28 million tonnes of high quality coal.
These coal beds were located in steep inhospitable terrain so rather than transport the coal to Bicheno a sophisticated flying fox was designed to remove the coal along a five kilometer aerial ropeway. 42 Ironbark pylons supporting huge cables capable of carrying 50 tonnes of coal an hour was constructed. This innovative construction could be seen rising out of the forestry making its way down the steep mountains transporting coal down to the ill-fated Picaninny Point wharf.
Ignoring local warnings that the Picaninny Point site was too exposed to the sea the 180 metre long Picaninny Point wharf and loading Hopper was completed in 1917, only to discover that the water was too shallow for the large coal loading ships to berth. The colliery chartered a smaller ship Wiena but halfway through loading for the first time a storm erupted crashing the Wiena on to the sea floor causing flooding and engine damage resulting in her eventually sinking off Maria Island.
The wharf was extended by 50 meters in August 1918 enabling the first 200 tonnes of coal to be successfully loaded on the S.S. Hillmeads sailing to Victoria. Tragically, the ship never made it, sinking in a ferocious storm that lasted several days that also completely destroyed the Picaninny Point wharf and hopper.
With all capital exhausted the Dalmayne Collieries Company closed the mine for good.
Today Picaninny Point is located on private land and there is nothing left of the wharf or hopper. Bushfires wiped out the ropeway in the early 1930’s, but the cutting for the aerial ropeway is still clear rising up through the hinterland.
The cable was recycled and used for steel guard ropes on St Mary’s and Elephant Passess which is still in use in some parts of the passes today.
In Bicheno you will find remnants of the granite wharf as well as the huge iron rings used by ships to tether to in foul weather while loading coal.
The original school, gaol and court house are National Trust listed and located James Street. Click here for more information