Jul 16, 2017

A pioneer in open-cut coal mining

A pioneer in open-cut coal mining Blair Athol Coal and Timber Company operations in 1946.

Blair Athol coal mine is poised to enter a new chapter under its latest owners, TerraCom subsidiary Orion Mining.

But its story has some age and the operation has a claim to fame as the first mine in Australia to adopt open-cut methods.

The region’s coal was discovered by accident in 1864 on Robert McMaster’s grazing run, Blair Athol, says Clermont Historical Centre co-ordinator Deb Alvoen of Isaac Regional Council.

A coal seam was penetrated when sinking a well on the homestead.

In June 1909, the Blair Athol Coal and Timber Company became the first large company to undertake coal mining operations in the area, absorbing smaller collieries and preparing for the day when steam shovels could remove the overburden of between 15-30m.

On May 18, 1922 Queensland Governor Matthew Nathan officially opened Australia’s first open-cut mine at Blair Athol.

The Ruston steam shovel before restoration.

Modern machinery such as the Ruston steam shovel was used, with a bucket capacity of 1.5 cubic metres.

“We have that steam shovel that came out of Blair Athol mine at the front of the Clermont museum complex,” Ms Alvoen said.

She said the steam shovel and other heavy machinery from the early years of the mine attracted keen interest at the museum.

They include a Jacques diesel-powered shovel, a Euclid haul truck and Mack truck with Keystone mounted drill.

By the 1970s it became apparent that there were significant coal seams under the town of Blair Athol.

The school closed on December 31, 1974 and buildings that were commercially salvageable were dismantled and relocated, mostly to nearby Clermont.

After Rio Tinto started production at Blair Athol Mine in May 1984 about $60 million was spent on the provision of accommodation and facilities.

Ms Alvoen said nearly 200 houses had been constructed in Clermont as well as single-person quarters, additional town power supplies and a new workshop complex for the shire council.

Streets were upgraded and a 50m six-lane swimming pool established along with tennis and basketball courts as well as a turf wicket for cricket.

The mining company also made substantial contributions to a new showgrounds/sporting complex and new land was released for sale to the public.

“It was during the Bjelke-Petersen era and his expectation was that mining would be the way these communities would grow and develop,” she said.

“To see the company invest those millions of dollars in the town saw significant change, population growth, families being located here (Clermont) and having a very long connection with the town.

“So it certainly did change the face of the community.”

In 2012 Rio Tinto formally announced the closure of the Blair Athol Mine after almost 30 years of production.  At its peak the mine employed 400 people.

Ms Alvoen said the company had donated many items to the local museum as it wound up operations, including all of the gifts received from joint venture partners over the years.

“I have an absolutely wonderful eclectic collection of everything from Japanese dolls to fine ceramics and silks – amazing stuff,” she said.

Blair Athol mining operations. Credit: Dean Whitling Photography.