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The lost province : exploration, isolation, innovation and domination in the Mount Lyell region 1859-1935

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Rae, L (2005) The lost province : exploration, isolation, innovation and domination in the Mount Lyell region 1859-1935. PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Abstract

The thesis evolves around four principal themes, those of exploration, isolation, innovation and domination. The Lyell region's rugged landforms, harsh climate, luxurious vegetation and difficult access by land and sea proved significant barriers for the early explorers, prospectors and settlers. Despite the numerous challenges and privations, the land was eventually opened up to industry and permanent settlement. The region's relative isolation from bureaucratic supervision, general "outside" contact and distant metal markets all combined to foster a high degree of resourcefulness and innovation amongst individuals, communities and companies alike. Through inspired leadership and the adoption of innovative practices the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company grew to dominate the region, to the extent that in 193 5 it was the single most important industrial operation in Tasmania. The period of study begins in 1859 with the first serious mineral expeditionto; the Mount Lyell region by Charles Gould. Despite great expectations, Gould failed to find payable deposits of gold. Travel to and about the Mount Lyell area was extremely arduous, the rugged terrain, wet climate and dense vegetation combining to make life very difficult for those venturing into the region. Over the next two decades the area attracted little interest. It was not until mineral discoveries occurred elsewhere on the West Coast that prospectors returned to the creeks and rivers about Mount Lyell. Eventually, encouraging gold discoveries followed but the sheer isolation and the lack of an adequate means of transport thwarted development of the field. By 1892 a number of gold mining ventures had failed through the lack of capital, inappropriate recovery methods and an inability to resolve the transport issue. An ambitious proposal the year before to improve access into Macquarie Harbour had been rejected by Parliament. It was feared the larger steamers would divert West Coast trade away from Tasmania and local industries and shipping services would inevitably suffer. Melbourne stood to prosper through the capture of the West Coast produce. The region was very much at the crossroads. It required major innovation to overcome its inherent difficulties. Chapter Two covers the roles played by executives from the Broken Hill Proprietary mine who had shown great interest in the apparent large deposits of copper which had been overlooked by all and sundry. Through importing skilled experts to examine and report on the orebody, the true potential of the Mount Lyell region began to be realised. Under the guidance of its first two managers, Robert Sticht and Russell Murray, the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company blossomed. Many difficulties and challenges were encountered along the way, which required significant innovation and a certain amount of good luck. Unfortunately, the unchecked development came at a cost, the environment being substantially degraded by the large-scale mining, smelting and timber cutting activities. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 deal with access to and about the region. The first of the transport issues needing to be resolved was the improvement of shipping to Macquarie Harbour, the only all-weather port on the West Coast. Government procrastination, competition from ambitious railway consortia and a lack of understanding of the size of the problem saw ad hoc improvements generally fail to cope with the region's shipping needs. Eventually, substantial innovative harbour works were implemented and the area blossomed to the extent that four separate wharf facilities were developed within Macquarie Harbour. Melbourne had captured the region's trade. Tried and trusted as a practical means of opening up the other regions within the Colony, the development of an arterial network of roads about the Mount Lyell region failed dismally. Unable to cope with the difficult country and wet climate, the roads proved costly to build and maintain and could not cope with the heavy transport on offer. The Government did employ a program of cutting exploration tracks and developing packing tracks with some success, its intent both to provide prospectors with the opportunity to access the more remote districts and to enable provisions and stores to be carried in to the developing mines and towns. Motorised transport was very slow to develop on the West Coast, mainly through lack of roads and facilities. Ultimately, road construction and motor vehicle technology improved to such an extent, a road between Hobart and Queenstown was finally opened in 1932. The effect was profound, the lost province was returned to Tasmania, the stranglehold of Victorian business now capable ofbeing fully challenged. Proving to be very successful on the West Coast in the 1890's was the development of railways and lightweight steam tramways. Unfortunately, as far as the Mount Lyell Company was concerned, it was not able to build a conventional railway as the terrain between Macquarie Harbour and Mount Lyell had proven unsuitable. In an innovative approach to the problem, the Company employed an Abt System, the first of its kind in Australasia. Despite major criticism and considerable shareholder concern the railway proved to be very profitable, to the extent the Company withheld the true figures from a skeptical community and the Government. The unique railway survived competition from marine, road and other railway competition. Chapters 6 and 7 explain how the Mount Lyell Company and the vanous communities dealt with isolation and the debilitating effects of climate, pollution and lacking amenities. Throughout the many small settlements people adapted and became innovative to survive in the hostile environment. Storms and fires created significant problems but the people were resilient. It was a man's world but mining was not an easy occupation and it was initially very difficult for the Mount Lyell Company to retain reliable, skilled staff in the district. The Company had to also cope with a strong union presence and the arrival of a number of migrants, who did not readily acclimatise into the workforce or the communities. Through the introduction of a series of innovative welfare initiatives the Company was able to foster community spirit and build a strong and reliable workforce.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Date Deposited: 23 Jun 2012 12:52
Last Modified: 18 Nov 2014 04:38
URI: http://eprints.utas.edu.au/id/eprint/14509
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