Famous historic coal mining town
Wonthaggi, with a name said to derive from a local Aboriginal language and mean either 'home' or 'to pull along', is located 132 kilometres south-east of Melbourne via the South Gippsland and Bass Highways and 40 metres above sea level.
The history of the town is inseparable from the discovery, in 1826, of coal at Cape Paterson, on Bass Strait, by explorer William Hovell, while he was on an expedition from the military settlement at Corinella. Black coal was mined in the area, known as the Powlett River fields, between 1859 and 1864. A total of 2000 tons of coal were bagged and taken to whale boats on the coast which, in turn, carried the fuel to larger ships out on Bass Strait for shipment to Melbourne. However, the venture proved costly and the absence of safe anchorage was a major problem. As a result of heavy losses the mining operations ceased in 1864.
From the 1870s Victoria relied heavily on coal from Newcastle. However, when the Newcastle miners embarked on a major strike in 1909 the dependence on the Hunter Valley coalfields proved disastrous for Victoria's railways which were all powered by steam trains. Unable to get coal from Newcastle the trains ran on wood and coal had to be imported from India and Japan. It was clear that a more permanent solution was needed and, virtually overnight, a large shanty town appeared in the area that is now Wonthaggi to extract the coal discovered in the vicinity in the 1850s.
The fuel was being mined within two weeks and construction of the town began in 1910, the year the railway from Nyora arrived. A brickworks operated between 1910 and 1914 to supply the building blocks of the town and the mining complex became the first electrified mining operation in the southern hemisphere when a power station was built in 1912 to run the mine and supply the town with electricity.
In the 59 years that the Wonthaggi mines operated, 17 million tonnes of coal was extracted from 12 separate mines for use by the railways, the Wonthaggi and Newport power stations and for industrial and domestic purposes. It was hauled to the shaft by pit ponies and, until the railway arrived, it was carted 12 km by bullock train to Inverloch and from there it was taken by boat to Melbourne.
Prosperity peaked in the 1920s when the population hit 5000 but the Depression caused a fall in profits from which the mine never fully recovered. A five-month strike occurred in 1934 and a new western area began operations in 1936. The following year thirteen men were killed by a methane gas explosion so powerful it catapulted a 2-ton iron cage 60 feet from the mouth of the shaft to the top of the poppet head. This incident became the subject of a contemporary play, called The Thirteen Dead, written and performed by a radical theatre group.
With the introduction of diesel locomotives demand fell and local operations ceased altogether in 1968. Today Wonthaggi, at the centre of the fertile Bass Valley agricultural district, relies principally on the beef and dairy industries for its prosperity.