The historic site of Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula is famous for its significance in the story of Australia’s settlement.
As a penal station and convict settlement Port Arthur was home to thousands of soldiers, convicts and farmers, and their families. But Port Arthur is only one of eleven historic sites that make up the Australian Convicts Sites World Heritage property. Most of the others are lesser known, but have their own fascinating stories to tell.Take the road 25 minutes northwest of Port Arthur to the Coal Mines Historic Site near Saltwater and you will find a place of isolation and desolation.
The discovery of coal in the Saltwater area in 1833 guaranteed a cheap, local supply for the colony of Van Diemen’s Land, and a mine provided convenient employment for those convicts who were difficult to manage or repeat offenders. Over time the mine and its overseers came to have a reputation for being harsh and unforgiving. At the peak of production there were more than 600 prisoners working in the mines, along with the soldiers who guarded them, administrators, their wives and children. The coal proved to be poor in quality and eventually the mine was leased in 1848. The convicts were removed to other penal stations and the mine was privately worked until 1877 when it was closed permanently.
As well as the stone barracks which housed prisoners and soldiers, a chapel, bakehouse, store, and residences for the commanding officer and the surgeon were built on a hill overlooking Norfolk Bay. When the mine closed the buildings were left to the ravages of nature and the ruins are all that remain.
Entry to the site is free and visitors are able to explore the ruins at their leisure, often without anyone else around. There are walking paths to the closed mine shafts, and the tracks of the tramway from the shafts to the jetty are still clearly visible.
Stop for a moment and you might feel the presence of those prisoners and hear their stories echoing in the breeze and the lapping of the waves on the shore.