(header photographs by Harry Waite 1912-2011)

The Myth of the Sacred Brumby








BY R. ELSE MITCHEEL (The Warrigal Club of N.S.W.)

ONE day, many years ago, so the legend says, a man from the outlying districts beyond Mittagong wandered into a hotel in that town during one of his monthly visits. In the bar conversation switched from the weather to crops and wool and all manner of things, and eventually centred on a candle which was burning in the bar. Our friend from outback drew a small piece of dark stone from his pocket and commented that, "these are the only candles we use out my way." He held the stone over the candle flame, and, to the amazement of all, it spluttered and burned. "Witches," and "the devil," several murmured, but our friend took it as a matter of course and, extinguishing the lighted stone, laid it on the bar counter. Curious hands fingered it and voices buzzed and rose to a crescendo while a stranger strolled over and addressed our friend. "Excuse me," he said, picking up the curiosity, "but where did you get this stuff?" "Oh," our friend replied, "there's plenty of that near where I live—out by the Wingecarribee." "Thanks; much obliged," said the stranger, and, pocketing the specimen, he departed. Needless to say, the stone was none other than oil-bearing shale, the richest in Australia, and in it the stranger saw the vision of a new industry.

And there the legend ends, for legend it is to all save the local inhabitants, and notwithstanding that it was published in a newspaper of the time as an authentic record of the finding of kerosene shale at Joadja Creek.

The Birth of an Industry

When the shale was located, with seams of coal, below the sandstone escarpments which crown the valley slopes of Joadja Creek, samples were taken, and by analysis estimated to yield 100 gallons of crude oil to the ton—a most remarkable result. This news was like a magnet—a company was formed to exploit the deposits and ample capital subscribed. Commercial activity soon made its presence felt in the district, and plant and buildings were put under construction. Carpenters, stone masons, labourers and others came to add their quota, and the valley, once peaceful and secluded, resounded to the ring of the axe, the clang of the blacksmith's anvil, and the thud of the mason's chisel and mallet.

A tent village sprang up almost overnight, but gradually gave way to more orderly and dignified habitations. No pains were spared in the planning of the project. It would be a model city in the bush and it would be laid out properly. In this site just near the creek the residential section would be built, and the streets would be planted with ornamental English trees; and, so that the houses would be decent dwellings, a brick-making plant was erected to manufacture bricks locally. Across the stream on a slight eminence, would be the manager's house, and beyond that the school, post office and other semi-official buildings. In the feverish excitement and enthusiasm the plant for the industry itself was not neglected. The retorts were established in another corner of the valley, and chimney stacks and furnaces built nearby. Two bridges were built across the creek, one for ordinary traffic and the other to accommodate the tramway which ' was to'-carry the shale from the mine to the retorts. This was extended up the southern 'side of the valley to the top of the sandstone scarp, so that the refined products could be hauled out by a windlass in wheeled tanks.

Success and Failure

Some time elapsed before the works were ready for production because some of the machinery and other essential plant had to be imported from abroad. Finally, in 1880, production was begun and carried on very efficiently for some years, the coal with which the shale occurs being used to stoke the furnaces. No doubt it was a grand project. Even transport problems fell beneath its momentous and impetuous rush; the 16 miles to Mittagong, .the nearest railway town, was spanned by a railway specially constructed in 1882 to carry the finished products to Sydney, and bring back any other goods and merchandise. The industry was hailed by critics of Australia's isolated position as the nation's salvation, and there seemed nothing to hinder its progress. The settlement grew in size, reaching a thousand souls, and all the amenities of town life were provided; the town thrived and men came from all directions looking for work in that busy little valley which a few short years before had been immune from the influences of civilization.

But this industry of dreams was doomed to failure—the activity was short lived. In 1889 the refining works were demolished and moved, but the mining of shale continued till 1899, when industrial troubles caused a temporary closure. Finally in 1904 the mine closed down indefinitely, as the shale was said to be worked out, and the model township was abandoned. And so Joadja faded into the gloomy past and became a place of ghosts where these thirty years the hum and smoke of industry have not been heard or seen.

One or two attempts were made to re-establish the shale oil industry at Joadja, but none of them was on a large scale and all have been abandoned almost as soon as they started. At the present day the valley is a pitiful sight of economic desolation—the influences of nature are beginning to regain their hold, and the chimney stacks poke starkly into the azure sky surrounded by tall graceful gums and unchecked blackberry bushes. The ornamental trees in the residential section have run riot and, as if in shame, hide from worldly gaze the ruined dwellings, no longer neat and tidy, but dilapidated and unkempt. Most of the buildings have weathered and are in ruins; brick walls have collapsed, and roofs blown away, but the chimney stacks still stand as solitary monuments to a lost industry. Recently all iron work and other materials, even to the bell in the school house, were salvaged and taken away, and the outward signs of industry will soon have vanished. Then at last the beauteous silence of nature will reign supreme once more.