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

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Rae, LG (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)
Copyright Information:

Copyright 2005 the Author - The University is continuing to endeavour to trace the copyright owner(s) and in the meantime this item has been reproduced here in good faith. We would be pleased to hear from the copyright owner(s).

Date Deposited: 23 Jun 2012 12:52
Last Modified: 19 Apr 2016 03:28
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