Showing posts with label Grey River. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Grey River. Show all posts

Monday, 23 September 2019

At the Brunner Mine Heritage Area, March 2019

A history of coal mining on the West Coast

 Karen and I visited the West Coast of the South Island back in March, we stayed in Greymouth and went for some day trips around the area. One of our trips was to the Brunner Mine Heritage Area about 30 minutes drive up the Grey River. This was an early industrial site for coal, firebricks and coke and also the site of one of the worst mining disasters in New Zealand history. 

The Brunner Bridge and Brunner Mine Heritage Area in 2019

Up to the 1990's living on the West Coast was all about extractive industry...forestry, coal, gold and other minerals, seafood and pounamu/greenstone/jade. The most important industry was mining...the region from Westport to Hokitka is a labyrinth of mines, pits and open top strip mines.

Brunner Mine and coke works, circa 1900 from Te Ara website

Brunner coke/brick works, circa 1900 from the Te Ara website 

In early Colonial New Zealand coal was king and wresting it from the ground provided a living for many workers. It was a hard, dirty and extremely dangerous job but the relatively high wages made it attractive to many men and young boys. 

Coal Mining meant mine disasters.....

Unfortunately where you have mines you have mining disasters.... the Coast is scattered with closed mine sites and memorials to those who died extracting minerals...Brunner, Strongman, Dobson and Pike River are names most Kiwis will know.

Strongman Mine disaster memorial obliesk

Brunner was the worst disaster with 65 men and boys killed, this makes it the worst industrial accident in New Zealand history. It caused major changes to how mines were regulated in New Zealand and strengthened the power of the nascent miners unions. 

Mass burial of Brunner Mine Disaster victims at Stillwater, image from Christchurch City Libraries

Mining disasters don't just happen on the West Coast but world wide.In fact one of the worst mining disasters of all time happened where I was was the Cherry Mine Disaster in Illinois, USA where over 250 men and boys died when an underground mine exploded in the early 1900's.

The Brunner Mine Disaster Site

The Brunner mine disaster occurred on the morning of 26 March 1896, there was a series of underground explosions which killed all 65 men and boys working in the mine. A later Court of Inquiry found that the explosion occurred when a blasting charge was set off. People at the time and since believe it was a deadly build up of methane and coal dust in the inadequately ventilated mine that caused the explosion.

If you know anything about the Pike River explosion you will recognise that this is exactly what happened in that mine...

Removing the victims of the Brunner Mine Disaster, image from Christchurch City Libraries

The Department of Conservation and the local Regional Council have spent quite a lot of time, money and energy restoring the Brunner Mine Heritage Area. There are a number of short tracks around the site as well as interpretive panels, reconstructed industrial works, toilets and information kiosk's so you can get out of the usually miserable West Coast rain.

Brunner Mine Heritage Area: information panel showing location of north bank features

Map: Brunner Mine Heritage Area, Grey River Valley, West Coast

Brunner Mine Heritage Area: DOC shelter, left bank Grey River

DOC Brunner Mine Heritage Area interpretive panel on the true left bank of the Grey river

The old mine workings spread over both sides of the Grey River, on the southern side is one of the old brick-work chimneys with panels describing the brick making industry in the area. There is a covered shelter with some excellent views of the north can clearly see the old mine workings and coke ovens.

Looking down on the Brunner Mine Heritage Area from the true left bank of the Grey River

Photo of 'Brunnerton' in the DOC shelter, Brunner Mine Heritage Area

You can actually see an exposed seam of coal running along the north bank of the Grey River, this is how Brunner discovered that there was coal in the neighbouring hills. The seams of coal on the West Coast are unusually thick...up to 30 meters in places while around the world most coal seams are around 3-5 meters. This makes them especially lucrative....

Inside the Brunner Mine memorial shelter on the Grey River, Brunner Mine Heritage Area

Brunner Mine Heritage Area: a period coal waggon as used in the Brunner Mine

There is a path from the shelter down to the bridge and some old mining equipment on a river terrace. You can walk down to the bridge and cross over to the north bank of the river but we actually drove around to that side by crossing the bridge over the Grey River at Stillwater 10 kms east of the Brunner site.

On the north bank of the grey river

There is a car park at the site of the Miners Memorial just above the old Brunner mine workings, with a nice 20 minute path down and around the ruins. You cannot get to the mouth of the old Brunner Mine as it was blocked off when the mine went out of use.

Brunner Bridge and Shelter, right bank Grey River, Brunner Mine Heritage Area 

Map of the Brunner Mine Heritage Area remains on the right bank of the Grey River

The tunnel below is one of the ventilation shafts from the now defunct Brunner Mine, this would have led into the main mine gallery and provided air circulation. There is a metal gate over the entrance to stop people going into dangerous areas.

The Brunner Mine was not closed after the disaster in fact it was worked for several years afterwards. They simply cleared the bodies, closed some blast affected galleries and kept mining the coal seam.

As I said before..King Coal was the most important consideration at that time....matters of decency and respect for the dead did not come into play...

One of the Brunner Mine ventilation galleries, Brunner Mine Site Track

The Brunner Bridge was built to access the railway line between Stillwater and Greymouth. While most of the coal was used on-site the bricks and coke produced needed to be transported to distant markets.

In the 1890's the rail link to Christchurch did not exist so all the produce of the West Coast needed to be shipped from either Greymouth or Westport.

Coking works and view of the Brunner Bridge from the Brunner Mine Site Track

Brick making requires clay and sand...these are often found close to coal seams. The Brunner mine had a separate shaft for mining these vital materials, you can still see the entrance way to the fire clay shaft as you walk along the track. It is also boarded up to stop people entering what would be a very dangerous area.

Fire Clay Mine shaft, Brunner Mine Site Track

Up to the 1980's the coke ovens were in a state of extreme disrepair, but with the centenary of the mine disaster approaching DOC and the local councils had some work done on site. They rebuilt some of the old coke kilns and covered them with a large open sided shelter to protect the historic site and so people could stay dry while visiting.

On the Brunner Mine Disaster site track, northern bank of Grey River

Most of the coke was exported as it is a vital ingredient when producing iron and steel but a small amount was used by an iron works in Greymouth.

The re constructed coke kilns at the Brunner Mine Heritage Area

Brunner Mine Heritage Area: detail of the reconstructed coke kilns
We walked down to the bridge and crossed over to the southern side of the Grey River. The bridge had also become decrepit over the years so some of the restoration work was on the bridge structure. From the bridge there are good views of the Grey River in both directions and you can clearly see the seams of coal running through the bluffs along the both banks of the river.

On the Brunner Bridge, Brunner Mine Site Track

View up river from the Brunner Bridge, Brunner Mine Site Track

Memorial Shelter, Brunner Bridge and distant left bank mine workings, Brunner Mine Heritage Area

All up it takes about 30-40 minutes to walk around the whole of the Brunner Mine Heritage Area, I would park on the southern side of the site and walk down and over the bridge to the old workings on the north bank of the Grey River.

For more information see the DOC Brunner Mine pamphlet

The mines disaster memorial at Brunner Mine Heritage Area

The Bruner Mine site is also the location for the West Coast Mine Disaster Memorial, on the northern bank of the Grey River. It can be accessed from both banks and has memorial panels listing every worker lost in a mine disaster on the West Coast.

The refurbished Mines Disaster Memorial at the Brunner Mine Heritage Area

The entrance portal for the old Brunner mine is more or less right under the memorial so in a way it is the most fitting location to remember the victims of mine accidents. There is also a seperate Brunner Mine memorial in the Stillwater Cemetery which is where 55 of the 65 victims of the disaster were laid to rest in a mass grave. 

The Brunner Mine Disaster Memorial at Stillwater Cemetery

The memorial takes the form of a miner from the turn of the century wielding a classic coal miners shovel. He is also carrying a mining torch in one hand and has the weary look of a miner finishing his shift for the day and heading home.

Detail of the refurbished Mines Disaster Memorial at the Brunner Mine Site

I think that is quite a poignant symbol...the life of the miner might involve more technology today but it is still a dangerous, back breaking and dirty job of work just as it has always been. 

Detail of the Mines Disaster Memorial at Brunner Mine Heritage Area

There is a panel about the Brunner Mine Disaster itself, but also panels with the names of all the miners lost in that mine explosion. There are also panels for the workers lost in the Strongman, Dobson and Pike River mine accidents.

Memorial panel for the Pike River victims, Brunner Mine Heritage Area

Memorial panel for various mine accidents, Brunner Mine Heritage Area

The Mines Disaster Memorial at Brunner Mine Heritage Area

The whole Brunner Mine Heritage Area is well worth a visit so I would encourage you to go have a look. If you are travelling between Lake Brunner and Greymouth you will pass right by the southern part of the site on SH 7. Stop and have a read of the information panels or go down and walk over the Brunner Bridge to the miners memorial and old coke kilns.

Access:The Brunner Mine Heritage Area is 11km east of Greymouth on SH7 and the main carpark is on that highway just before Dobson. It can also be accesed from Taylorville Road which runs between SH 6 and SH7 on the north bank of the Grey River. There is limited parking here. You can walk across Brunner Bridge to access both sides of the river
Track Times: 30-40 minutes to explore both sides of the site
Miscellaneous: There are toilets located on site, limited parking on both banks of the Grey River.