Saltwater River

Saltwater River
Fascinating penal colony ruin - as interesting as Port Arthur
'Westward from Eaglehawk Neck and Woody Island lay the dreaded Coal Mines. Sixty of the 'marked men' were stationed here under a strong guard. At the Coal Mines was the northernmost of those ingenious series of semaphores which rendered escape almost impossible', such was Marcus Clarke's description of the penal settlement at Saltwater River in his famous book For the Term of his Natural Life.

Located 106 km south east of Hobart and 23 km from Port Arthur, there is little doubt that Saltwater River is the hidden treasure of the Tasman Peninsula. It is certainly as interesting as Port Arthur and given that it is common to visit the ruins and be on your own for hours (something which never occurs at Port Arthur) it has a sense of desolation and isolation which makes the experience powerful and poignant.

Two penal outstations were established at Saltwater River. The first, which was a rather pleasant option, was an agricultural farm supplying food for Port Arthur and other outstations on the Peninsula. The second, the coal mine, was widely regarded as 'hell on earth'.

Today Saltwater River itself is little more than a hamlet.

Things to see:

Getting There
It is necessary to drive beyond the small settlement on a dirt road through the bush until you reach a fork in the road. Both the signs at the fork are less than welcoming. One sign reads 'Dangerous Ruins and Disused Mines' and this leads to the major convict ruins and the coal mine.

If, however, you take the road indicated by the sign 'Vehicles including Trail Bikes must keep to formed roads' it winds through the bush to the Penitentiary and the Convict Ruins and continues on to a number of pleasant bush locations overlooking Ironstone Bay which are suitable places for picnics.

The 'Dangerous Ruins and Disused Mines' road winds for a short distance through the bush before reaching the Underground Cells which were restored in 1977. These cells must surely be one of the most horrific examples of penal life anywhere in Australia. They are totally without light, the air is fetid, they are small, harsh and inhospitable.

Beyond the cells are remnants of the larger penitentiary with constant warnings announcing 'Danger. Keep Out'. It is obvious that the ruins are collapsing and while the buildings are as substantial as those at Port Arthur they have been allowed to deteriorate to a point where the bricks are flaking away with decay.

Further up the track (it is almost 4WD territory although it is only a short walk from the Underground Cells) is the old convict coal mine shaft which is now nothing more than a deep hole surrounded by a large fence. A sign nearby notes 'This large excavation is all that remains of the main shaft of the coal mines of Plunkett Point. Mining was commenced in 1834 during the regime of Captain Charles O'Hara Booth. It was designed primarily to supply the convict and military departments. For a convict work in the coal mines was a form of punishment. The original works were near the main building on the foreshore. Following a survey of the area this shaft was sunk in 1842. At the peak of production some 500 tonnes of coal per year were sent to Hobart. It was of inferior quality and sold for 10 shillings per ton. A steam engine was located at the edge of the shaft and was used to haul coal and water from the mine. It was the first mechanical device used in coal mining in Australia. The stone blocks of the engine mountings can still be seen. The cost of operating the mine was considered excessive. Operations eventually discontinued in 1848. The mine was leased to a private company but by 1867 supply of coal was exhausted and the mine closed down. Subsequently in the interest of public safety the shaft was sealed.'

There is neither accommodation nor eating facilities at Saltwater River.