South Australia's Coal Mining Industry.
In March 1892, the first of many tests was carried out using Leigh Creek coal on steam trains. This most important trial was held on the Pichi Richi Line between Port Augusta and Quorn using a locomotive with one water tank, two brake-vans and twenty trucks. Many years later, when the Pichi Richi line had become a tourist attraction, Leigh Creek Management was approached by the operators to supply coal for their steam trains. Unfortunately, by that time it was uneconomical for Leigh Creek to supply them with coal.
After the first successful test, numerous other tests would follow during the next fifty years. One successful trial run, watched by Reid, was later made on the Adelaide-Glenelg Railway line. After the test the Leigh's Creek Coal Company called for tenders to sink a new shaft of at least one hundred metres. Specifications were displayed at Duck's Leigh's Creek store, Samuel Gason's Hotel in Beltana, William's store in Blinman and the Exchange Hotel in Farina. Notices were also displayed at Port Augusta, Moonta, Kadina, Broken Hill and at company's office in Adelaide. Twenty-eight tenders were interested and all were considered including those from Victoria and New South Wales. In the end it was the lowest tender from W.C. Martin & Co from Leigh's Creek which was accepted.
They started on 8 June 1892, about 350 metres South West from the first bore and shaft, (Lobe B) watched by Reid and many of the locals. When a depth of five feet was reached every one stopped for the official part of the job, the 'wetting' of the shaft. This was much appreciated by the men who drank in 'bumpers'. I. Hocart, of the local firm Duck and Hocart, christened the shaft 'Reid's Coal Shaft' after which he congratulated Reid for his persistence and wished every one good luck. Within a few days Reid was superintending the laying of the foundations for the engine and boiler.
Newspapers advised that those people who had bought shares in the Leigh's Creek mine would be fully justified 'in sticking like leeches to them for as sure as the sun shines the day will come when they will be rewarded'. Unfortunately for them, and South Australia as a whole, they were not rewarded. Even so, Gason's Hotel in Beltana kept the interest in coal alive. His hotel was visited not only by people who needed a drink or somewhere to stay the night, but many also came to see his Museum. This contained several petrified Mussel shells and samples of coal, shale and other interesting items of the Leigh Creek coalfield.
Many difficulties were encountered with the lower than usual quality coal and few industrial users were convinced that it was suitable for their plant. However coal was sold for private use, along the railway line, as far away as Adelaide, Farina, Beltana, Peterborough and Broken Hill. Some was processed in a briquetting machine but in almost all cases it was found to be unsuitable. The cost of transporting the briquettes to Adelaide increased the price of the product even more and made the whole venture uneconomical. During question time in parliament, Richard Foster still wanted to know if the Commissioner of Public Works would take steps to alter the fire bars in one of the locomotives so that fair tests might be conducted. This was promised by Holder, but two years later it was decided that the trials had not been considered sufficiently satisfactory to justify Leigh's Creek coal being used on the Northern Railway Line. The cost of transporting the coal to its different customers added even more to the many set-backs.
Hope of finding better quality coal, with a lower moisture content, was not abandoned. During the first week of August 1892 the coalfield was visited by the government geologist, the Inspector of Mines and Drew Williams, one of the company's directors. After several sites were studied, a new position was fixed for fresh boring activity, and the building of a manufacturing plant to produce briquettes for the Adelaide market was also proposed. In January 1893 it was decided to conduct further testing, this time it would be a comparative test between Leigh Creek coal and Newcastle coal to be held at Islington.
Even though stationary boilers were used, the Leigh Creek coal proved to be inferior. While these tests were in progress, further boring by the Leigh's Creek North Coal Mining Company had also been unsuccessful, and on 10 February 1893 it was decided to wind up that company. All was not bad news though. The Leigh's Creek South Coal Mining Company had received £95 in 1893, from a recently started government subsidy program, and was able to carry on with its work. Even more important was the work started by the South Australian government on the building of the Telford Railway siding to facilitate the loading of the coal.
Much development was completed during that year, and the year after. A badly needed dam, holding nearly twenty million litres, was dug and James Martin's Engineering Works of Gawler built and delivered a poppet head, pulley wheels, engine house and boiler. When all this equipment was installed, a briquetting machine was added, and within a short time everything was operating. The following year these briquettes were successfully used in locomotives operating on the Northern Line between Beltana and Farina.
During 1897 several more railway trials, extending over a period of eight weeks, were held with Leigh Creek coal. This time they were held between Port Augusta and Hergott Springs. During the whole of these trials every man worked very hard to make sure that the train would run on time and make the experiment a success, but the results were once again disappointing. Difficulties encountered this time were an increase in coal consumption, decrease in speed, especially uphill, and the emission of sparks. At times 'they were thrown up in showers' and, said the locomotive inspector, 'although small, they do not go out like sparks from Newcastle coal when they fall'. He concluded 'I can see no possibility of it being used with any success under existing conditions'.
At the Leigh's Creek Coal mine, where Captain Peter Neven had been in charge since 1896, work was still in progress. All that was needed were customers to buy the coal to keep production going. Mining at that time was carried out underground at two different levels, to which the miners descended in a steam powered kibble, controlled by Jack Carter. Captain Neven, who had gained experience in the Glasgow coal and iron mines, and held a first class certificate as a coalmine manager from the English government, was convinced that the coal was suitable for house coal, stationary engines and for smelting purposes.
To prove its suitability for smelting purposes he had built a small smelter at the mine and successfully treated some ores from the surrounding copper mines. There were several other people who were convinced of the suitability of the Leigh Creek coal for this and other purposes. The coal had already been used successfully in the parlour of the Beltana Hotel to keep the customers warm on winter nights. In Port Augusta, Frank Montague, manager of the Honey and Company timber mill, had used the coal in his stationary boiler plant with good results.
If coal could have been used for railway purposes, or for generating electricity, as suggested in 1901, it would have been assured of a large and continuous outlet. Further drilling was carried out in the hope of locating better quality coal. This being rather costly, the company was again forced to call upon its shareholders for more money. As most shareholders were unwilling to part with their money, little work could be carried out at the mine, apart from keeping it clear of water and maintaining all the machinery in working order.
During 1903 no work was carried out at all. After unsuccessful attempts to obtain finance, the Company tried to sell the mine. Unfortunately no one offered to buy. A fresh set of trials was held after the mine passed into the hands of John Darling, a director of BHP, in January 1906. Darling in turn transferred it on 1 July 1906 to the Tasmanian Copper Company. As this company was in the process of building smelters at Leigh's Creek, it was hoped that one day it would be possible, by means of converters, 'to extract the gas from the coal' to make it possible for smelting to be done by gas. It was found to be unsuitable for smelting purposes, but it was used in stationary engines.
Finally the mine was acquired by the South Australian government, which tried for some years to work it. Being unsuccessful in its attempts, the government soon gave up hope that the venture would ever amount to anything at all. There was still great concern about the state's total dependence on Newcastle coal, or when that was unavailable, on imported coal from England or India. To overcome this unsatisfactory and very costly dependence on inter-state or overseas suppliers, the possibility of leasing, or even buying, a mine in New South Wales was investigated.
Later that year the Coal Mine Bill, which would give the government power to buy and operate a mine in New South Wales was introduced. When this bill was rejected by the Legislative Council in December 1908, on the principle 'that the government should not be actively involved in the conduct of mining operations attention turned once more to Leigh Creek. Ten years later all this seemed to have been forgotten, when the Government again investigated the possibilities of buying its own mine. This time it was the Dalmayne coal mine in Tasmania.
Early in September 1910, members of a government party, travelling the northern parts of South Australia, visited the mining site and went underground in an effort to see for themselves the state of their property. Upon arrival they found that both the winding engine and the Cornish boiler were still operational, although some modifications would have to be made. The only equipment needing major repairs was the poppet head. It was estimated that all this work would take about three weeks.
Underground though, it was a different story. Most of the workings, which had not been used for some time now, were under water and could not be viewed. Even so, it was estimated that dewatering the lowest parts of the mine would take at least three months. The descent, and later ascent, proved to be very trying for most of the parliamentarians who were not used to this kind of physical effort. However they were satisfied with all they had seen. The dry parts of the mine were thoroughly explored under the guidance of inspector Henry Jones. When asked what the government intended to do with the property, the Minister of Mines replied; 'We intend to develop it with a view to testing whether the coal improves at greater depth'.
This was the kind of answer the people of Leigh's Creek and surrounding area wanted to hear. During later experimental drilling it was revealed that there was a sufficiently large reserve of good quality coal to start open cut mining. This would be much more efficient, and cheaper, than underground mining. Unfortunately for the locals, who had such high hopes about secure and lasting employment, the government decided in July 1911 that work was to cease, as there was no need to waste any more money. Naturally this was also a disappointment to the residents of Port Augusta. They had hoped that additional work would have become available in their town catering for some of the needs of Leigh's Creek, and that the government would give the field one more trial before abandoning it altogether. Even the member for Flinders, Thomas Burgoyne, who had tried many times before to further the Leigh's Creek cause, was unsuccessful in his attempt to interest the government in having some further tests conducted for the purpose of making briquettes.
Six years later, in 1917, the mine reopened under the direction of Henry Jones. Timber on the poppet head was replaced, water bailed out and machinery put in place. A winch and vertical boiler, ex Nuccaleena mine, was also installed. Several tests were conducted, encouraged by the Minister of Industry's promise that he would do anything possible to assist the development of the coalfield. These tests were repeated three years later, and a sum of £5,000 was allocated for experimental work on pulverised coal. Everything possible was tried to solve the problems of making the coal available for consumption. The making of briquettes from the coal was also tried once more.
This time it was quite successful and more than seven hundred tons of coal were raised from the underground workings. However, as a coal-tar binder had to be used, this became unattractive from an economic point of view. At the same time it was proposed that the government should open a coal yard in Adelaide and sell Leigh's Creek coal to the people, as it was good household coal. Having a coal yard in the main centre of population would be a great boon, for the householders, small steam users, and small businesses in Adelaide. All of them had to pay high prices for Newcastle coal and firewood was expensive and becoming scarce.
Nothing came of the Adelaide coal yard idea. After all the talk by the government, few real efforts were made to bring the mine into production. The only action in relation to Leigh Creek, taken by the government was in 1918, when it changed the name of Leigh's Creek to Copley. That same year the Leigh Creek Coal Committee, made up of Professor R.W. Chapman, Keith Ward, James McGuire, Sir William Goodman, Dr W.A. Hargreaves and J.P. Burnside brought out its report. This committee, appointed in 1916, made some special investigations during the next two years on 'the commercial availability and economic utilisation of the Leigh Creek coal deposit'.
It also conducted tests on locomotive and stationary boilers, as well as on gas producers, for carbonising and for the manufacturing of briquettes. It tried hard to find a use for the coal but in the end the Committee had to report that Leigh Creek coal had no commercial use. Even so, C. Duffield, engineer for boring, continued his drilling to test the Leigh Creek coalfield between the mine workings and Copley. During 1919 some of this coal was tested at the Adelaide Cement Company at Birkenhead but its manager, Paul Evans, was not at all impressed with the quality of the coal.
Few people seemed to have bothered at that time about coal, or any other mineral in the North of South Australia. Dr Basedow MP, who was aware of the poor state of mining in 1927, pointed out that South Australia did not have a single mine operating at that time. His question to the treasurer on how much money had been spent during the last fifteen years on commissions and research work connected with the economic utilisation of South Australia's brown coal deposits remained unanswered. Very few people who could remember the early coal mining efforts in the north would be alive when the Leigh Creek coal mine was re-opened during the Second World War and became the supplier of fuel for Adelaide, and eventually the Port Augusta Power Stations.
None of these people were to see the prophecy of the Port Augusta Dispatch, which had referred to the Leigh's Creek mine as one of the largest things in South Australia, fulfilled. John Henry Reid died in 1924, when the mine and its open shafts had become a playground for the Copley children. He now lies peacefully in West Terrace Cemetery, almost forgotten, with only a few people realising that he discovered one of the biggest and most profitable mines ever worked in South Australia. A hundred years after Reid's original discovery the existence of enormous coal reserves within South Australia had indeed been proved.
But, why not get your own copy of Leigh Creek, an oasis in the desert. It is a hard-covered book of 640 pages, with 245 pages of photographs and documents. It has a comprehensive bibliography, index and a chronology of the period.
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