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‘Very rare chance’: Wollemi bushfires reveal ruins of shale boom town

Mr Fox said: “We realised if this wasn’t done straight away, the vegetation would grow back up, and it would be lost. It was a very rare chance. Who knows whether an opportunity like this will ever come again.”

Bushfires that tore through the region in December have revealed the ruins of a shale industry, amid the stunning backdrop of the Wollemi National Park.

Bushfires that tore through the region in December have revealed the ruins of a shale industry, amid the stunning backdrop of the Wollemi National Park.Credit:Wolter Peeters

From1906, miners began flocking to mining camps “situated at the foot of mountains of stupendous height and having precipitous sides”, according to an account contained in one of the books written by Mr Fox and Mr Bolotin.

At its peak prior to 1920, Newnes boasted schools, churches, shops and even a cricket ground with a makeshift horse racing track around its boundary.

The town was connected by a road “fit for a motor to pass over it” and a railway out to Sydney. Both routes negotiated a deep gorge to exit the Wolgan Valley.

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Mr Bolotin said: “They built it at huge expense.” The railway itself “was a miracle of engineering”.

The town’s largest population is hard to assess now. A 1911 census put the number at 1652 but probably omitted many people living rough on the town’s fringes. At least one manager’s house had 10 bedrooms and recreation activities ranged from tennis and two-up to “stepping 50 yards for ladies”, and dances.

“It was not just a harsh single man’s mining camp,” Mr Fox said. “It would have had women in big frocks trying to eke out a living in a harsh environment with their children and putting up with the smell and smoke of an industrial site.”

Government signage already identifies some of the remains of the rail line, as well as the popular Glowworm Tunnel.

Yuri Bolotin (left) records details of the ruins while Brian Fox takes a measurement.

Yuri Bolotin (left) records details of the ruins while Brian Fox takes a measurement.Credit:Wolter Peeters

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What the fires have revealed, though, include the foundations of many of the houses as well as the scale of the works, ranging from giant ore crushers to the 80-odd coke ovens used to process the extracted fuel.

Glass and porcelain shards offer reminders of past lives, as do personal objects such as a tiny doll’s saucer that must have once been part of a set, or the black slates students would have used to chalk up their daily lessons.

Strikes and the arrival of cheaper American oil imports contributed to Newnes’ bust. Even World War II, with its disruption of trade, failed to revive the town because of the construction of pipeline to Glen Davis in the nearby Capertee Valley tapped a richer source of fuel.

Workers dismantled the houses, save for the sturdy chimneys that remain and used the materials to build homes in Lithgow and elsewhere. Some of the railway even made its way to Tobruk in north Africa to shore up Diggers’ defences.

Still, hints of those distant boom times can be seen a little clearer at least for a while.

“A lot of these places will again be consumed by the bush; some of them already are,” Mr Bolotin said. “It’s one silver lining of these bushfires.”

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