We had a quick look at Zeehan before leaving for Queenstown this morning. Zeehan is a classic “mining boom” town. Down the main street it has a run of half a dozen buildings which show its past mining affluence. Sadly the former grandeur of the town has now been been diluted with new buildings and the knowledge that once you have wandered down the main street and explored the few historic buildings remaining, you have seen everything of significance that Zeehan has to offer.
Successful mining towns, particularly after their years of glory have a faded glamour all of their own. At the height of the mining boom, in the late nineteenth century, the Gaiety Theatre was the largest concert hall and theatre in Australia. It had a seating capacity for over 1,000 patrons. Constructed in 1898 the building, which housed both the Gaiety Theatre and the Grand Hotel cost a staggering £7075, It was made from locally produced bricks. It was the venue for regular touring company performances by the J.C. Williamson company. They brought successful shows across from Melbourne and the miners filled the theatre.
Legend has it that Lola Montez (the Taylor Swift of the day), performed here. Her real name was Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert, an Irish dancer and actress who became famous as a “Spanish dancer” in the 1800’s. She became a worldwide sensation and the love desire of many. Lola was a performer. She was a strong self-determined woman who caused excitement and controversy wherever she went. She was a very intelligent. This along with her captivating beauty made her a strikingly attractive figure. She was fatal to any man who dared to love her.
Queenstown was our first stop for the day as we had an 1130 appointment with the West Coast Wilderness Railway. We arrived an hour early as it only took about forty minutes to drive from Zeehan. By good fortune, we first headed to the Iron Blow Lookout to the east of the town. As we arrived, some drizzle started to set in and the view was obscured until it cleared again much later in the day.
Gold was discovered in the hills of this area of Tasmania’s west coast back in 1883 at this site dubbed the Iron Blow. Miners descended on the site to discover much more profitable deposits of copper. They then wrought destruction on the land to strip it bare before deserting the nearby mining ghost towns of Gormanston and Linda. The Iron Blow is the site of the earliest major mining venture at Mount Lyell, back in 1883. The lookout gives a view straight down into a landscape scarred by historical mining activity. I walked out onto a cantilevered lookout that offeried fantastic views over the former open cut mine and the valley.
On the road back to Queenstown, there is a view over the town and its bare hills. These hills are starting to revegetate now but a generation ago, they were still as bald as a billiard ball. The mines had stripped them of every piece of timber to feed their hungry furnaces. Nature then completed the desolation with erosion of the bared surfaces. Decades later, threy are just starting to recuperate.
Some of Queenstown’s buildings show the glory of its past mining days. The large Empire Hotel and Art Gallery stand out. The park near the station has a nice piece of sculpture that shows a family in the remote pioneering days of this area.
In 1893, in an attempt to convince investors in London, the directors of the Mount Lyell Mining Company changed their name to the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company and planned a railway from Queenstown to the sea. The route of the track was to follow the King River and then climb around the side of the gorge before dropping at a steep gradient to the coast at Teepookana. The German-patented Abt railway system was selected as the best alternative to overcome the difficult terrain along the route. A central cog on the engine engaged the teeth of a third rail known as the ‘rack’ which was positioned midway between the two outside rails. This allowed locomotives to haul loads over sections two and a half times steeper than was possible for conventional trains..
In 1894 a total of 400 men started work on the railway and by 1896, thirty four kilometres of track had been laid. During the construction, cuttings (many of them 20 m deep) had been dug out with pick and shovel. Forty eight wooden trestle bridges had been built; and the men had worked for six shillings and six pence for an eight hour day. In 1899 the track was extended to Regatta Point, the southern point of Risby Cove at Strahan. The railway continued to operate until 1963. Lobbying from local businesses, who claimed it was an iconic part of western Tasmanian history, saw the Federal Government pour over $20 million into restoring the railway which started operating as a tourist attraction in 2002.
Today, trains run for a short distance on the line from both Queenstown and Strahan. The one from Strahen didn’t suit our travel shedule, so we opted for the very short five kilometre trip out of Queenstown., The service was excellent with a glass of Tasmanian bubbly wine and an enormous scone with blackberry jam and cream but the distance was hardily woirth the ticket price. Only a part of the journey was through wilderness with the other part being through built up aeas of Queenstown, including rhe local sewerage plant.
The train stopped at the Lynchford station before returning. Lynchford was a stopping place on the Mount Lyell Railway to Strahan as it was, in its early days, a gold mining location.
The distance from Queenstown to Strahan is a litle over fifty Kilometres on a road that barely has a strait stretch. It winds its way through dense forest. We found our accommadtion easily and checked out the location of the restaurant that we had booked for tonight’s dinner.
We had a little time to fill in during the afternoon, so we drove thirteen kilometres out to Macquarie Heads which we will see more of on our Gordon River Cruise tomorrow. We included a stop at the ocean beach. The tide was out so we saw a wide stretch of sand with waves rolling onto the beach continuously.
Our dinner tonight was a seafood buffet at the 40 Degrees Restaurant. They looked after us well and served us delicious food.