One of Westland’s most dramatic engineering marvels, the Denniston Incline, is the main feature of Westport’s coalmining museum, Coaltown. In 1859, surveyor John Rochfort first discovered coal in a small creek 14km north of Westport. However, it was not until 1860 that Dr Julius von Haast found seams of prized bituminous coal high on the fog-shrouded plateau which bears Rochfort’s name.
Before it could be used to power the industrial machinery of last century, the coal had to be transported down from the plateau. The ingenious construction of the Dennis-ton Incline in 1878-79 overcame the problem by using the coal’s very height above sea level to shift it to the railhead.
Giant coal trucks attached to an endless wirerope were sent rattling down the two-kilometre railway incline using a gravity system. The weight of the full trucks descending pulled empty wagons up. Huge water-operated brakes were developed to slow the coal-laden wagons as they reached speeds of up to 70 kph. With slopes of 47 degrees on the steepest stretches of the incline it was not uncommon for a laden truck to jump the rails and career through the bush. Some of them crashed off the bottom with such force that they were never recovered. Others were written off as tangled wrecks.
By 1895 Denniston was the largest coal producer in New Zealand. Two hundred and fifty men sweated below ground to retrieve the coal. They were paid an average weekly wage of two pounds five shillings, about $4.50. When the incline was closed in 1967 it had carried an estimated 12.6 million tons of coal enough coal to fill a train stretched from Invercargill to Blenheim six times over.
Little remains of this remarkable piece of engineering. However, what has survived from Denniston’s heyday are memories, and these have been rekindled through an impressive display of old coalmining relics at Coaltown.
The actual museum building is interesting in that for some years before Coaltown was opened in 1977 the old Morley’s brewery was housed there.
A major attraction is a Q-class wagon, number 1066, full of coal and mounted on a section of rail poised at the steepest incline angle of 1 in 1.1. Not far away is the massive 20-ton brake drum from ‘Middle Brake’ which eased wagons down the final stretch of the incline to Conns Creek. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the Coaltown tour is the visit inside the almost true-to-life mine,complete with sound effects, deep from within the bowels of the earth.
Retired Denniston miner Andy Kerr, who now lives down the Hi in Waimangaroa, admits that the walk-in mine is “pretty authentic”. Kerr should know, he spent 50 years of his life underground at Denniston. Now 75, Andy Kerr was born on the plateau and brought up in the settlement of Coalbrookdale. According to Kerr it was situated down a small gully, “where the fog swept over you”. At nearby Denniston “you wouldn’t see your neighbour for a month”
When Andy Kerr started in the mines in 1928 he looked after the roperoad, sitting on the curve of the endless rope carrying full tubs from the mine and watching to see that none derailed. He retired a full miner, “on the coal” at the face itself. Standing at the entrance to Coaltown’s `mine’, Kerr describes the underground world he spent much of his life in.
“At first your eyes couldn’t adjust to the gloom; you stumbled around over the rough floor finding your feet. Water used to flow nine or ten inches deep. You couldn’t sit down. Up at the face shoveling with a banjo (shovel) you worked for yourself with only short breaks. Crib time (lunch) was 20 minutes and more often than not you had to stand. It was hard work all right, but in general we enjoyed it.”
Coaltown, which started as a modest community project, is now rated one of the top attractions in the South Island. Its establishment has firmly put in place a record of the toil and fiery union struggles that have fanned through Denniston over the last 100 years.
The museum is controlled by a board of trustees, and director Peter Harker is enthusiastic about expanding to incorporate a maritime history wing.
But Coaltown is more than just a museum; it’s a working, living record of the past, when Westland was a thriving coalmining region.
Today there is little to show of the thriving communities of the Denniston Plateau, barely a sign that 1500 hardy souls lived there. Stunted trees and scrub share the landscape with the litter of rocks and hearths of the now vanished houses. It is very quiet, but the fog is still there. The bush is moving in on the old incline and the songs of bellbirds replace the heavy sounds of coal wagons.