Interesting ghost town near Lithgow
Newnes is an oil shale ghost town located 45 km north-east of Lithgow in the beautiful Wolgan Valley, 187 km north-west of Sydney. Only the pub, some interesting old coke ovens, piles of bricks, crumbling walls and an old railway tunnel (now alive with glow worms) serve to remind of a time when a large mining community lived here.
Although prospectors for the NSW Shale and Oil Company first investigated the Wolgan Valley in the early 1880s the first development occurred when George Anderson bought land in the valley around 1903 and began mining the shale. He was bought out by the Commonwealth Oil Corporation (COC) in 1905 as the advent of motor-car sales meant a ready market for the benzene which, till then, was a largely unwanted product of oil-shale production.
Behind the venture was London publisher, Sir George Newnes, who caught wind of a favourable report on oil shale in the Capertee Valley. His fellow company founders included Sir William Ramsay (a Nobel-prize-winning scientist) and Sir James Joicey (the proprietor of the largest colliery in England). Shale reserves were estimated at 20 million tons.
A railway line was essential to render production economical and to serve what would be an isolated working community and the Wolgan Valley was found to be more railway friendly than the Capertee. It was constructed in 1906-1907, joining the works to Newnes Junction, 50 km south on the main western line from Sydney. The track had to negotiate a 536-metre drop from the Newnes Plateau, past the sandstone cliffs and into the Wolgan valley proper, passing through two tunnels, the largest (now the Glow Worm Tunnel) being 400 m in length.
Meanwhile a school (which opened in 1907 with 52 pupils), a general store, shops, a billiard hall, a butcher's shop, a newsagency and a hairdressing salon were built. 32 retorts were built which fired the shale and drew off the crude oil as vapour for further processing. However, these retorts were incapable of handling the high-grade shale at Newnes and much was wasted. A brickyard was established for local construction and successful coalmining soon got under way.
However the employees went on strike over rates of pay at the end of 1908. Even though they returned to work late in 1909 industrial unrest continued and another major strike took place in 1911. At the beginning of 1912 the works were shut down due to the financial state of the company. The inadequacy of the retorts was a contributing factor.
A major revamp of the operations followed with the kilns and retorts being reconstructed and improved. Operations gradually recommenced from 1914 with much-improved levels of extraction (in a 19-month period the company produced 4.4 million gallons of crude oil, 3.9 million gallons of refined oil and 300 000 gallons of benzene.
However, the works again ran into trouble. Industrial discontent continued, production costs were too high, cheap kerosene imports from Standard Oil in America were damaging and the Australian government spent vast sums in searching for oil supplies while doing nothing to assist the richest shale field in the world. The plant was closed down in 1927. It was sold and reopened in 1929 but that venture lasted only six months.
The government took up the development of the works in 1931 and the school reopened but the venture failed again in 1932.
The railway line was dismantled in 1940 and sent to the Middle East to serve as beach defences. The locomotives were cut up for scrap in the 1950s.
Tourist information is available from the Lithgow Visitors' Centre, tel: (02) 6353 1859.
Access to Newnes is along the 32-km Wolgan Valley Rd which branches north-east from the Mudgee Rd at Lidsdale leading into the beautiful Wolgan Valley at the western edge of the Blue Mountains. The views of the valley and its sandstone escarpments from the road are outstanding. There are plenty of natural picnic areas alongside the Wolgan River.
To reach the ruins of the old Newnes mining works, cross the river at the ford downstream from the Newnes Kiosk, which is housed in the old Newnes Hotel (built in 1906). You can walk across the causeway or, if there have been no heavy rains, you can drive but check the water level first. From the other side of the river just follow the well-defined path which follows the route of the original railway line a short distance to the mining ruins. The highlight of Newnes are the coke ovens. They are one of only two remaining sets of shale oil coke ovens in NSW. They still stand in two neat rows of twelve. There are a total of 24 ovens each with elegant domes.
Fishing in the Wolgan River is limited (enquire at Newnes Kiosk). Car-based camping areas are provided without a fee at Little Capertee camping area, 400 metres past the hotel, near the confluence of the Wolgan River and Little Capertee Creek. There are also a limited number of sites on the opposite bank of the river. You will need to bring firewood or a gas/fuel stove. Generators, chainsaws, pets and firearms are not permitted. Water from the river must be boiled for at least three minutes (best to take your own).
Campsites can be scarce during school holidays and long weekends and they are allocated on a first-come first-served basis.
A brochure outlining bushwalks around Newnes is available from the Lithgow Visitors' Centre. One for the more ambitious is the 22-km return trip to Glen Davis.
Glow Worm Tunnel
The Glow Worm Tunnel was built in 1906-07 as part of the 50-km railway line joining the works at Newnes to Newnes Junction on the Main Western Line from Sydney. 400 metres in length, it curves through almost 180 degrees and is consequently very dark.
It is now home to thousands of glow worms. These worms (4 cm when fully grown) are the larval stage of a fly which develops from eggs planted on the cave wall. The larvae drop sticky threads that trap small insects drawn by the light which is produced by the combination of body products with a regulated oxygen supply. The larvae shed their skin and become luminescent pupae which hang from the cave walls for about 12 days before emerging as adult flies, which also glow and live for no more than four days. The glow worms become more apparent the further into the tunnel you proceed.
There are two approach routes to the tunnel: from Lithgow or from Clarence. Both roads intersect. From Lithgow, turn left from Inch St into Atkinson St, which passes the State Mine Heritage Park and becomes Glow Worm Tunnel Rd (dirt surface). Alternatively, turn off the Bells Line of Road at Clarence and following the gravel road through Newnes State Forest for about 12 km until it joins up with the road from Lithgow.
About 3 km past the junction of these two roads you will come to Bungleboorl Picnic Area on the right. Continue for about 20 more kilometres. Just before the first railway tunnel there is a carpark and an information shelter outlining the walking tracks, picnic areas and campsites in the area. From here you can follow the old railway line for 5 km to the Glow Worm Tunnel. This is an easy and pleasant stroll past interesting rock formations, large tree ferns, creepers and an abundance of birdlife and other fauna.
If 5 km seems too much, just drive through the first tunnel (blow your horn and turn your lights on before entering and don't forget to turn them off when you're through the tunnel) and proceed to the second carpark at the very end of the road. From this point it is but a half-hour walk to Glow Worm Tunnel.
If you wish, walk through the tunnel and follow the old railway line to Newnes (11 km). To return, either retrace your steps or follow the Old Coach Road and the Pagoda Track (11 km). Alternatively, there is a shorter 7.5-km loop track which also leads through the tunnel and along the old railway but it turns off at 'The Junction' and returns via the Old Coach Road and Pagoda Track.
A mud map of the approach road is available from the Lithgow Information Centre.