Lithgow, NSW, provides a window to the industrial revolution that swept through Australia over a century ago.
You mightn’t notice Lithgow’s industrial heritage at first glance; it just looks like a quiet country town with a good collection of old buildings lining the main street. But there are many relics of the industrial revolution that transformed Lithgow at the start of the 20th Century.
The town happened to be surrounded by key resources like coal and iron ore, and was also on a main rail line. When it all came together, Lithgow became the Birmingham of Australia.
Central to Lithgow’s industrial development was the opening of the Main Western Railway Line in 1869. This line linked Sydney with western NSW. Where it passed through Lithgow, the grade was too steep for steam trains.
So the famous Zig Zag Railway was built, with trains being shunted backwards and forwards to get up and down the hill.
Steam trains are an integral part of the Lithgow story. Built of steel and powered by coal, they represent two of the key materials on which Lithgow was built and also provided the transport needed to move the raw materials and finished products around.
We are all familiar with more modern technology like space shuttles and nuclear submarines, but everyone still stands in awe of a fully fired up steam engine.
Today the Zig Zag Railway is a popular tourist attraction with its nostalgic steam engines. But until 1911 this was actually the main rail line through Lithgow for both freight and passengers. All trains had to go on the slow journey up and down the zig zag.
That all changed with the construction of the current rail line which goes through tunnels to avoid the steep grade.
Like diamond, coal is a form of carbon – so it is sometimes called “black diamond”. It’s not quite as valuable as diamond, but coal was another key part of the Lithgow story.
The State Coal Mine in Lithgow opened in 1916 and provided coal for railways and power stations for nearly 50 years, until its dramatic closure in 1965. Heavy rains flooded the mine, stopping further work.
Today the site has been reopened as the State Mine Heritage Park and Railway. It features a Mining Museum, a steam locomotive built in 1891 and an interesting collection of machinery and equipment scattered around the grounds.
BLAST FROM THE PAST
Perched on a small hill overlooking Lithgow are some monumental ruins, looking vaguely reminiscent of an old castle. In fact this is the Lithgow Blast Furnace, which played an important role in the early development of Australia’s iron and steel industry.
It was opened in 1907 to produce all the pig iron needed for NSW, and was the sole producer in Australia for seven years. A second blast furnace was added in 1913 and at its peak the site was producing an amazing 2000 tonnes of pig iron per week, working 24 hours a day.
The blast furnaces were about 25m tall and produced iron by melting iron ore, coke and limestone in a forced blast of preheated air. That’s why they are called blast furnaces.
Unfortunately, by 1928 the ones at Lithgow were no longer cost effective, due to increasing costs of materials and transport. The site was closed down and iron smelting was transferred to Port Kembla.
However, the huge ruins are an enduring monument to the industrial importance of Lithgow in the early 20th Century.
CALL TO ARMS
With all these materials and technology in Lithgow, the obvious next step was to put it all together and manufacture some finished products. Just a few years before the start of WWI, Lithgow was chosen as the site for a small arms factory.
The US Pratt & Whitney Corporation won the tender and opened the Government Small Arms Factory in 1912. Hailed today as Australia’s birthplace of modern manufacturing, the factory produced legendary guns like the .303 Lee-Enfield rifle and Bren light machine gun.
During WWII, the factory employed an astonishing 6000 people. Between wars, production was shifted to other items like sewing machines, golf clubs and handcuffs.
Today the staff of 120 employees continues to manufacture, service and upgrade weapons. The Lithgow Small Arms Museum is aptly located at the end of Ordnance Avenue, and has displays of the many different types of weapons, kitchen appliances and sporting goods that have been produced on-site over the past century.
So, if you think of the Blue Mountains as just a collection of pretty villages and scenic views, it’s time to think again. The resources boom started at Lithgow and the town still has plenty of heavy metal to explore.