Ghost Towns: Newnes
Newnes is an abandoned oil shale mining site of the Wolgan Valley north of Lithgow, located in the Central Tablelands region of New South Wales. The site that was operational in the early 20th century is now partly surrounded by Wollemi National Park. The settlement was originally built by the Commonwealth Oil Corporation. Set within beautiful mountain scenery, a collection of shanties, huts and buildings for the mining process were built. Today the ruins of the site are all that remains.
- Visitor Information
Camping: Camping is available on both sides of the Wolgan River; only pit toilets are provided. Most of the camping is in the National Park, at no charge, so pets are not permitted. Wood should not be collected for wood fires. As of 2015 there was wood available from the Newnes Hotel. There is a very small amount of private land remaining in Newnes, where camping is available for a fee and pets are permitted. Information available from the former Newnes Hotel, which is open as a kiosk on most weekends.
Walks and hikes: There are several walks in the Newnes area, apart from walking through the ruins. Walks include:
Pipeline Pass - This is a medium to hard walk that goes from Newnes to the oil shale operations at Glen Davis. The walk takes around 10 hours and is normally completed as an overnight walk. There are lyrebirds, cycads, banksia serrata and assorted eucalyptus trees.
Wolgan River to Rocky Creek. This route follows the Wolgan River downstream to Rocky Creek. The route is hard to find in many places, but the walking grade is fairly moderate and most people can complete it in a full day return.
Wolgan River to Annie Rowan Creek. Two day (overnight at Annie Rowan Creek) or three day (two nights at junction of Rocky Creek and Deanes Creek) return. Note that the track beyond Rocky Creek is mostly on the north side of the Wolgan River.
European settlement began in the Newnes area in the 1840s when James Walker of Wallerawang set up a pastoral out-station in the Wolgan Valley. More land was taken up in the 1860s and 70s, particularly by Walker's son-in-law, Edwin Barton. These included several isolated blocks in the Newnes area, including the present hotel site. Prospectors had located oil-shale in the Wolgan Valley in the 1860s and by the turn of the century several individuals and companies had started work (of sorts) on the main Capertee-Wolgan deposit. Most of these were actually located in the Capertee Valley, north of the Wolgan. However, very little was actually accomplished until the Commonwealth Oil Corporation, Ltd. started work in 1906.
The Commonwealth Oil Corporation, Ltd (C.O.C.) was formed in London in December 1905 and started work on a grand scale. They acquired mining leases covering most of the Capertee-Wolgan oil-shale deposit and, based on the Wolgan Valley rather than the Capertee Valley, developed mines, works and associated plant. A major oil-shale mine with two headings was started on the north side of the river, opposite the works. It was intended to tunnel through the mountain to meet up with some earlier workings in the Capertee Valley as mining conditions in the Capertee were regarded as being much better than in the Wolgan. However, mining difficulties and the generally low quality of the shale in this area meant that mining became concentrated on the No.2 mine and work on the No.1 mine was eventually abandoned. Although construction of a tunnel linking the Wolgan Valley with the Capertee was proposed on numerous subsequent occasions, it was to remain an elusive dream.
The No.2 mine was established on the southern side of the river, east of the works. This mine was to provide most of the oil-shale for the working life of Newnes. The main works site was established in a sweeping bend on the south bank of the Wolgan River and extending up the adjacent talus hillside. These works consisted of retorts, various distillation areas, oil storage tanks and washers, plant for the refining of the various finished products, a power station, workshops, etc., with provision for future expansion. They were built in a substantial manner, as attested by the extensive ruins that stand to this day. Although construction commenced in 1906, it was not until 1911 that the initial stage was completed and the retorts charged for the first time.
Entrance to the Glow Worm Tunnel
In the meantime, other works were under way. A town, named after Sir George Newnes, the chairman of the C.O.C., was established adjacent to the mining leases. The company built 50km of railway from the main government railway south of Newnes to their works through very difficult country, particularly where the line descended into the Wolgan Valley from the plateau above. The company established brickworks adjacent to the refinery area where most of the large number of "common" bricks used within the plant were made. (All firebricks, however, were made off-site at Torbane and Bulli.) The company also started a coal mine to provide coal for use within the plant, but since this was found to be a good coking coal, coke ovens were built and a trade in metallurgical coke was established.
However, and most importantly for the company, the C.O.C. bought out its only opposition, the New South Wales Shale and Oil Co., Ltd.. With this purchase, the C.O.C. obtained working properties at Hartley Vale and Torbane which were to prove useful for the C.O.C. during the start-up period at Newnes. The purchase price of this going concern was only £50,000 and this valuation should have signalled a warning to the C.O.C. in view of the much larger amounts that they were spending on their as yet untried properties at Newnes.
By late 1911, the C.O.C. had expended some £1.6 million in capital and debentures. But the company was experiencing trouble with their Pumpherston retorts, a Scottish retort that had been designed for treating the relatively poorer grades of oil-shales in that country. Expensive modifications were needed to correct the problem, but an attempt to raise the necessary funds by another debenture issue failed. The C.O.C. went into receivership and, with industrial unrest complicating matters, work at Newnes stopped in February 1912.
During 1914, the C.O.C. entered into a joint venture with John Fell & Co., Ltd., a family company with a background in the oil industry, including Australian oil-shales, going back into the 19th century. With Fell as the operating partner, the retorts were modified and operations resumed. Fell avoided new developments at Newnes, concentrating on using and improving what was already available. The coal mine was reopened in 1916, but the coke ovens remained idle.
In 1917 Fell decided to experiment with in situ retorting, that is, retorting the oil-shale without mining it. The old No.1 mine was prepared and an exhausting plant set up near the old No.2 adit. Although successful to a degree, there were problems and nothing further was attempted. Also the government and mining unions were unsympathetic to the whole scheme as it eliminated mining jobs. However, the concept is an interesting one and is still being investigated by modern oil-shale developments in the U.S.A.
At the end of 1922, costs forced Fell to close the oil-shale mines. In 1923, he started processing imported oils at the Newnes plant, but needed coal to work the power station and some of the plant. The mining unions promptly declared the Newnes coal mine and the refinery "black" until such time as oil shale mining also resumed. Fell had no choice but to abandon Newnes. Fell had several problems with Newnes. Work restrictions had limited the supply of oil-shale from the mine to a point that made operating the refinery uneconomic. Changing technologies and the increasing demand for motor spirit had also made the Newnes plant obsolete. After an unfruitful appeal to the C.O.C. for funds to jointly develope a modern refinery in Sydney using a cracking plant imported from the U.S.A., the joint venture between Fell and the C.O.C. was finally dissolved and assets realised. Title to most of the mining leases was allowed to lapse, although Fell, who had a mortgage over the C.O.C. property at Newnes, retained certain leases covering the works and railway.
Fell raised the extra capital he needed, by the public issue of preference shares and built his new refinery at Clyde. Some boilers and stills, notably from the fine-oil section of the Newnes plant were removed and used at Clyde. In 1927 most of the assets of John Fell & Co., Ltd. were sold to the British Imperial Oil Co. (Shell) and John Fell & Co., Ltd. was wound up. John Fell himself died in 1955. By the late 1920s, the mining leases at Newnes were held by a Mr. A.E. Broue. A company, "Shale Oil Investigations Pty. Ltd." which was backed by several Broken Hill mining companies, was formed about this time and acquired title to the oil-shale works. However, it soon became apparent that the new company was mainly interested in "investigations", rather than actual production. As a result, Broue, who had to fulfil labour conditions to retain his mining leases, decided to go it alone. Unfortunately he had no capital base and quickly got into financial trouble after only a short period of mining.
This was the time of the Great Depression and pressure was mounting on the Commonwealth Government of the day to do something about unemployment. A bill was passed out of which £93,000 was set aside to support unemployed miners in New South Wales. It was decided to use £43,000 of this appropriation to reopen Newnes. This work was undertaken by the Shale Oil Investigation Committee and its incorporated successor the Shale Oil Development Committee Ltd. Work commenced in mid 1931 using the No.2 mine and the workable sections of the oil refinery. The bulk of production appears to have been sold as a gas oil to gas companies, although both motor spirit and kerosene were extracted and sold separately.
Following a change in government, emphasis changed back to "investigation" rather than production and yet another committee, the "Newnes Investigation Committee" was formed. Work ceased at Newnes in March 1932, although an attempt was made to transfer the operation to private enterprise. Unfortunately, Messrs. Treganowan and Chambers, the successful tenderers, were unable to secure sufficient financial backing and this attempt failed.
The Newnes Investigation Committee's comprehensive report appeared in 1934. Among other things, it recommended the abandonment of Newnes and the establishment of new mines, works and town in the Capertee Valley. Although it did consider using parts of the Newnes works and railway, it suggested that new works in the Capertee Valley and a pipeline to transport the main finished oil product - motor spirit - would be more cost effective in the long term. After some delays, work commenced on these recommendations in 1938 at what came to be called Glen Davis.
With the decision to establish Glen Davis, most of those people who still lived at Newnes finally left. Many parts of the Newnes works, particularly tanks and machinery, were recovered and shipped to Glen Davis for re-use. The Newnes railway was pulled up and a petrol pipeline laid in its place. In 1946, what was left of the works was sold for scrap. Most of the privately owned buildings had been removed by their owners, while the old company buildings were readily sold due to the short supply of building materials during and after World War II. Buildings were removed to Lidsdale, Portland, Lithgow and elsewhere where some can still be seen today. Recovery of material continued into the 1950s, while a few buildings still stood until the early 1960s. The old Newnes Hotel is the last surviving building at Newnes belonging to the mining period.
During the 1940s, the Newnes Hotel carried on business with some of its trade coming from weekend visitors from Glen Davis who had hiked "over the hill". The abandoned town was also used as a set for at least two films made in this period. By the late 1950s, increased usage of the motor car and better roads led to more visitors coming to Newnes from Sydney and elsewhere, particularly at weekends. Newnes, with its quaint, old-time "pub" was becoming a popular camping spot.
Unfortunately the hotel was located on the bank of the Wolgan River and was flood prone. Over the years, a number of floods had damaged the area, but in 1986 during a large flood, the river changed course and undermined the hotel structure. To survive, the building was moved by voluntary helpers in 1987, but it sold its last beer in October, 1988 and since then has been operating as a kiosk open only on weekends. In 1978, Wollemi National Park was formed. This included most of the land surrounding Newnes, including all the old mining leases, the mines and the works. In 1994, extensions to the park saw further areas at Newnes taken up, although the hotel and some land north and south are still privately owned. The existence and expansion of the park only serves to emphasise that Newnes is slowly returning to the bush from whence it came.
Source: Allan Watson.
To service Newnes oil-shale industrial development, it was deemed necessary to construct a standard gauge railway into the Wolgan valley to connect the works at Newnes with the nearest main railway to Sydney. The resulting railway connected with the Western Main Line at Newnes Junction, some 50 kms south of Newnes. To get from the Newnes Plateau, past the sandstone cliffs and into the Wolgan valley proper, the railway had to be built with steep grades and sharp curves and squeeze through the narrow gorge of what is now known as Tunnel Creek. The line opened in late 1906, while the last regular train ran in the 1930s. The line was dismantled in 1940, following the transfer of the Newnes operation to Glen Davis, north of Newnes.
The Glow Worm Tunnel is one of two now abandoned tunnels on this railway. This tunnel curves through almost 180 degrees and consequently it is very dark. In normal weather a small creek flows through it. These conditions are ideal for certain "glow worms" which inhabit the walls and roof of the tunnel. While glow worms occur in other dark, damp places in the Blue Mountains, the Glow Worm Tunnel is probably the best place for the visitor to see them. The glow worms are however, very sensitive to habitat disturbance, in particular: noise, lights, touching and smoke fumes.