Kristen Scott explains exactly why Blackwater has earned its title of being Queensland’s coal capital.
At first glance, Blackwater appears to be little more than a smouldering ghost town with a few petrol stations and motels – but dig a little deeper, and the visitor soon discovers that it is a town rich in history, coal deposits, and native wildlife. Adding to its ghostly charm, it is said that the waters of Blackwater Creek once ran black: an eerie, but natural occurrence, caused by a combination of dark sands and decaying tree branches lining the banks. With a smaller population than was originally conceived for the area, Blackwater is a close-knit community of around 5,000 people. But despite its humble population number, Blackwater remains a major town of a significant coal mining area.
Located on the Capricorn Highway in Queensland’s Central Highlands, Blackwater is approximately 836 kilometres from Brisbane and 74 kilometres east of Emerald. The Prussian naturalist and explorer, Ludwig Leichhardt, discovered significant “beds of coal” in the region in 1845, en route to Port Essington in the Northern Territory. According to Leichhardt, these coal deposits were “indistinguishable from those on the Hunter at Newcastle”. Although these observations were well documented, it was some 32 years later that Europeans established a settlement there. This was largely due to the 1877 extension of the Great Western railway line from Rockhampton.
The town was gazetted in 1886, and by the swinging 1920s, the town’s population had reached 80 people – many of whom worked at the Mount Morgan Mines. The sweltering heat and work conditions during this period certainly impelled a lot of sweaty men, with scratchy beards, to demand the construction of a swimming pool for workers. But the men would have to wait until Utah Mining financed a pool development in the 1970s – just a little too late for the men of the 1920s. Whilst the 1920s and 1930s saw numerous industrial progressions for the town of Blackwater, it really was not until the 1960s that the town started to develop.
The first open-cut mine began operation in 1967, which sparked the expansion of Blackwater’s mining industry. The Cook Colliery mine opened in 1970, followed by the Gregory and Oakey mines in 1979. Ironically, there were only 25 people living in Blackwater in 1962 when coking coal was first discovered. But by the mid-1980s, around 8,000 people had moved to Blackwater.
These days, there are six major open-cut coal mines that surround Blackwater – the largest being Blackwater Coal Mine. This mine is also one of the largest in Australia and is owned by BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA). Annually, it produces around 14 million tonnes of coking and thermal coal for foreign markets, exporting product to Japan, South America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Fourteen kilometres north-west of Blackwater, the Curragh Mine covers a whopping 12,600 hectares of the Bowen Basin. It was opened in 1983, and is operated by independent coal producers, Wesfarmers Curragh Pty Ltd. It exports about 6.5 million tonnes of coal annually to Asia, Europe and South America. The mine was threatened by the 2011 Queensland floods, but survived largely undamaged. Its production levels will enable it to supply coal until 2025. Other mining companies in the area include Cook Resources Mining Pty Ltd, Jellinbah Mining Pty Ltd, Kenmare and Yarrabee Coal Company Ltd. The coal is exported to Europe, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Chile, whilst steaming coal is used to generate power within Queensland. Together, these mines produce more tonnes of coal than anywhere else in Queensland, which is why it is endearingly referred to as the Coal Capital.
Luckily for the townsfolk of Blackwater, coal is transported to Gladstone via train, on a line that was electrified in 1988. There are no trucks clogging the roads and expelling coal dust into the air, which considerably shields residents from the grime of coal mining.
Things to do in Blackwater
Blackwater International Coal Centre
This building stands out like a sore thumb on the Capricorn Highway. You cannot miss it – it is like an Egyptian palace on a horizon of sand and dust. Well, not quite. But it is a $9 million development, so one would expect it to be grand. The idea of the centre arose from discussions by the Duaringa Shire Council in 2003, and was developed and financially supported by BMA and Wesfarmers Curragh Coal. The centre has more than 20 exhibits, showcasing coal mining history across the region. There are many educational facilities to “celebrate the humble black rock that powers Australia”, and open-cut coal mining tours operate every weekday at 1pm.
For entertainment purposes, there is a 3D cinema – yes, even Harry Potter can travel to the country. The centre also features two beautiful garden areas: the Timeless Garden and the Japanese Garden. The Timeless Garden can be booked for weddings or gatherings, and has unique plant species from around the world – some plants cannot be found anywhere else in Australia. The Japanese Garden, on the other hand, symbolises the cooperation between sister cities Blackwater and Fujisawa in Japan, and is designed to venerate the elements of earth, fire, wind, water, and spirit. There is a relaxing pond to sit by here – indeed, it is a nice place to read a book or feed the fishes.
Perhaps the most tranquil and aweinspiring escape from mining is a trip to the Blackdown Tablelands. Located 35 kilometres west of Blackwater, this national park is exquisite and bursting with wildlife, waterfalls and endemic plant species. The vast plains and rugged cliffs surrounding the area protect a sandstone plateau, which is sacred to indigenous Australians. This is the traditional home of the Ghugalu peoples, and stencil paintings and petroglyphs can be found on the rocks here. The land is characterised by deep gorges, waterholes, and the ever-present chirping of birds. There are walking tracks for the energetic, and also the Munall camping grounds. If you drive up to Horseshoe lookout, you really should be in a four-wheel drive as the road is unstable and slippery at the best of times.
Located near the District Workers Club in Blackwater, two tall pine trees stand. The trees grew from seeds, which came from the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey.
For excellent Barramundi fishing and camping amid lush, natural surroundings, a visit to the Bedford Weir is a must. It is situated 26 kilometres north of Blackwater and is a man-made impoundment on the Mackenzie River. It is a decent place for bird watching and children’s play areas are set in the shade. Every year, there is a Saratoga fishing competition held in September. Anglers from all over Australia come down for a beer, competitive fishing, and to experience the great Australian sun.
Just outside Emerald, this famous lake is a restful location for swimming, water skiing and catching stocks of Red Claw Crayfish. There are also greater shopping opportunities in Emerald, so make it a day trip.
After a few hard hours of play in the sun, find a nice spot to eat some tucker, and watch the Blackwater sunset. If it’s a clear night, the stars look brighter than a diamond that might have developed from a lump of Blackwater coal.
Blackwater and District Workers Club
Arthur Street Blackwater QLD 4717 Telephone: (07) 4982 5590
Railway Street Blackwater QLD 4717 Telephone: (07) 4982 5133 Blackwater Country Club Mulga Street Blackwater QLD 4717 Telephone: (07) 4982 527
Taurus Street Blackwater QLD 4717 Telephone: (07) 4982 5466