On the Hill


The assistant in the Westport I-site looked pleased to see us as we rolled up early on a foggy Tuesday morning. We paid our 10 dollars and looked round the Coaltown Museum. Here is told the story of the miners and their families who settled in the area. First they came for gold, but afterwards for black gold – high grade West Coast coal. The first mine was opened in the 1880s on the inhospitable Denniston Plateau which is 600m above sea level in the Papahaua mountain range. There were no roads and the miners commuted to work on a rope walkway up a steep incline. Gradually a rough and ready community gathered around the mine. First there was a camp, and then a small township where miners and their families lived in wooden houses with chimneys and roofs made of corrugated iron, and no running water. In 1883 there were 109 residents, a school and a brass band. The only way in and out for people and goods was riding in the coal wagons that went up and down the Incline at terrifying speed. This included people who had died because the ground was too hard on the plateau to make a cemetery. Nevertheless the township grew and became a close-knit community. In the 1920s one woman was asked why she had gone away and left her house unlocked. She replied: “well, one of my neighbours might need something.”

We also read about the postmistress (an extraordinarily powerful person in the days when all communication came through the Post and Telegraph Office), who knew everybody’s business in the township. One story concerns a girl from the village who found herself pregnant and was sent away by her family. She informed them about the arrival of her baby boy via a coded telegram – which was swiftly decoded and circulated by word of mouth. The message said: “parcel arrived safely, with string attached.”

Our interest piqued by this industrial heritage, we took the drive out of town and up to Denniston. Luckily there is now a road, although it was a steep climb up into the clouds. We caught glimpses of the magnificent view over the Karamea Bight through the forested slopes cloaked in cloud.

Through the cloud

Having made it to the plateau we explored the site at Brakehead. This is where the coal used to be brought up from the mines in railway hopper wagons and sent on a track to the steep incline where they hurtled over the edge and down the mountainside to Conns Creek to be loaded onto steam trains.

Track to the incline at Brakehead

The pulley system used the force of gravity of the falling wagons to haul the empty ones back to top. They could lower 10 or 12 wagons per hour and the Brakeman had the crucial job of controlling the machinery.

The Brakeman

Accidents did happen, and several wagons still lie wrecked on the Middle Brake half way down. The site now belongs to the Department of Conservation and is watched over by the “Friends of the Hill”. It has been mostly preserved as it was and is littered with the remains of machinery. The fog made the place eerie and atmospheric, an experience not to be missed in spite of the lack of views.

Coal wagon

On my reading list now is a historical novel called “The Rose Of Denniston” by Jenny Patrick. This is a story about a child in 1880s Denniston – a best seller in New Zealand.

We headed back down the mountain road, some of which was single track due to landslips (a continual hazard) and found that on the coast the sun was now shining. We set off on Highway 6 through the Buller Gorge and onwards to Nelson.



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