Waratah: the town at the top of a waterfall

Tasmania’s rugged and remote west coast wilderness is at the mercy of winds that batter the landscape nearly every day. Despite the wildness of these parts, deep down in remote canyons and valleys there are picuresque little towns that play critical roles in the shape of Tasmania’s history and identity. Waratah is one of these towns.

The area was ‘found’ by a gentleman by the name of James Smith back in 1871 when he went walk about from Devonport looking for a better life as a prospector. The scrub out in the west coast is thick with interlocking branches, the heath plains are wet and the moss can sometimes float on bog holes. Some call it the Savage Country.

But he set out on foot and after several weeks he passed the Cradle Mountain area and eventually came to the head of a river where he needed to make a decision; head to the extreme north where areas had not been prospected, or turn south and explore down past the Mount Bischoff area. His head told him to push on south and as he followed the headwaters of the Arthur River he discovered a huge waterfall. ‘One of the best I have ever seen’ he remarked on the now-named Philosopher Falls.

Apparently just downstream he followed a small tributary looking for gold but instead found little bits of tin in its raw form, and after scouring the area he eventually found the source of the tin. The story goes that he was in desperate need of some food and sent his trusty hunting dog out to get a wild animal for a decent meal. When the dog brought back an echidna, Smith was too hungry to argue so the echidna filled his hungry belly.

His discovery of tin shaped this part of the island as it began attracting many others to explore the outer reaches looking for their fame and fortune. By 1873 a mine company was formed back in Launceston, and five years later a horse-driven tramway was cut through the thick forest from Burnie to Waratah, a distance of around 100km.

Innovation at Waratah reached new heights in the 1880s when a chap by the name of Dudley Kenworthy recognised the potential to harness the huge amount of water that flowed through the town all year round. He used channels to direct the flow to a water wheel where it could operate other machines. The mine started to harvest the power of the wheel, initially powering a single 500lb stamper to crush the rock before it was sent away for processing. At its peak, the mine had an incredible 40 x 1000lb stampers operating to keep up with production. At that time it was both Australia’s richest metal mine and the world’s biggest tin mine.

All this hydro-power soon saw the mine producing Australia’s first industrial lighting. Receiving nearly two metres of water a year, several dams were built to ensure a constant and reliable flow to the turbines. Channels, called ‘races’, were dug by pick and shovel from the wet areas to mines. Every day an inspector had to walk the channels to make sure they were clear and flowing freely.

As 1900 rolled on the town grew with hotels, a movie theatre, schools, general store and the population grew to nearly 1500 with families moving to the district. A proper tram replaced the horses to cart the ore back to Burnie and in 1905 the Mount Bischoff mine was operating at full steam, mining 65,000 tonnes of ore worth a good two million pounds at the time, which went back into the town. But things went downhill in 1930 and the mine struggled. Twenty years later when the mine was closed, the population dwindled to 300. In 2007 a new company reopened the mine using new technology and has picked up where the old timers left off.

All this history brings tourists flocking to the town, where they can revisit the past and enjoy the natural wonders of this remote area. Philosophers Falls is the go-to spot for the latter. The walk takes you a long a moss-lined track, through ancient forest full of tree ferns and huge Huon pines. Interestingly, part of the walk follows the old water race that was dug by hand, often in cold, wet conditions, through solid rock. Back in town there’s also an easy walk to Waratah Falls where you can see the old stonework and massive boulders that form the retaining wall.

There’s a little heritage walk around town too, with a life-size shack that displays the life of James Smith. Up the road, the Waratah Hotel has been lovingly restored back to its 1900 Queen Anne style design after the original hotel burnt down in 1878.

Across the road in a reconstructed shed, the original stamper has been set up as a proper working display. Back in 2006 the original shanty shed that housed the stamper and other gear was slowly pulled apart and transported to the heart of town for preservation. It has now been set up exactly as it was from back in its day, complete with a push button to make the stamper and separator work. It’s a rough and raw demonstration, the ground shakes and the stamper heads hitting rock make a bit of a racket, but this is how it was.

Just next door is the Athenaeum Hall built for the workers and families. This place of learning was like a library for the townsfolk and later became the town hall and cinema. Today it is a great reminder of a past life, and is still in use for functions.

Waratah was Tasmania’s first dedicated mining town on the entire island. Today it’s a beautiful scenic place on the edge of the Tarkine wilderness where mining burst into the area thanks to James Smith, a great bushman and prospector who is now regarded as a great pioneer of early Tasmanian industry.

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