Mike Scanlon, History: Darrel Sams recalls his career on board BHP's colliers and oil rig tenders

Heavy lift: The ‘sixty-miler’ collier Hexham Bank passes through the raised middle section of the old Hexham Bridge in this rare 1966 picture.

Heavy lift: The ‘sixty-miler’ collier Hexham Bank passes through the raised middle section of the old Hexham Bridge in this rare 1966 picture.

YOU often get a valuable insight when you least expect it.

Take some recent conversations I had with Darrel Sams, of Edgeworth.

He originally wanted to yarn about the ships in the old river port of Hexham that I wrote about in Weekender late last year.

“There was a photograph of the centre-lift span of the original (1952) Hexham Bridge being raised to allow an old ‘sixty-miler’ ship to pass through to load a coal cargo for Sydney,” Sams said.

“My bet is the collier (pictured) is the 1600-ton Hexham Bank. I’ve an interest in such matters, having been in the merchant marine for 17 years.

Memories: Former Hexham resident Darrel Sams with his model of the Pelton Bank. Picture: Mike Scanlon

Memories: Former Hexham resident Darrel Sams with his model of the Pelton Bank. Picture: Mike Scanlon

“I grew up at Hexham before going to sea to work on about 11 BHP ships, from colliers to oil rig tenders.

“And you see some strange sights over the years.

“Down at Bell Bay in Tasmania while on BHP’s Iron Knight, I remember workers having to load bulk manganese inside cargo holds very carefully as it sparked when it was ‘dropped’.

“And later, leaving there, going over the river bar and into Bass Strait the trip could take three hours. The ship always rolled so bad there I used to tie myself in my bunk.

“I was also at Yampi Sound, in WA, in the 1960s and I remember it had the highest iron ore concentration in the world. Some 90 per cent pure, I heard,” Sams said.

“Yet later, the land alongside where the ship berthed was excavated right down to a metre above high water level.”  

“But it’s Hexham I always remember best. When I first left school, it was to work on a prawn trawler there but, before that, as a school kid, I had a few trips on vessels like the Pelton Bank, another sixty-miler, going down the Hunter River then out at in the ocean, taking coal down to Mortlake Gasworks, a voyage that could take up to nine hours.

“There was always the risk of grounding down at Fern Bay for those small coastal colliers with shallower water. It depended on tides and how big a coal cargo you’d loaded up at Hexham wharf.

“But those Hunter River coal ships on the 60-nautical mile voyage from Newcastle Harbour down to Sydney are now gone forever,” he said.

The Hexham foreshore was once a very busy industrial site, with the Hexham Engineering works (which employed 320 men at its peak), the Oak butter factory and the J & A Brown (later R.W Miller) coal loader. 

The sixty-miler coastal colliers were a very familiar sight on the river at Hexham for decades.

Trade began to fall away in the 1960s, but, in its heyday, Hexham’s centre-lift bridge span was raised up to five times a day to accommodate the vessels.

The main lift-span operator for 35 years was George Budd, with his offsider Bill. But, surprisingly, it was only a second job. Sams said they both worked in the boiler house at the Hunter Valley Dairy Company’s plant (Oak) across the road from the steel bridge.

The second Hexham bridge – of concrete – opened in 1987.

Soon after, all traces of coal bins, and even the giant R.W Miller facility beside the original steel Hexham bridge, were removed, ending a 138-year era of local coal-loading.

“But what people mightn’t realise is there was a second coal loader – now also gone – which was the reason the centre-lift section of the first bridge existed,” Sams, now 73, said.

“This was the Hetton Bellbird coal plant just upriver, maybe 600metres away, near  (Purgatory) Creek. I remember it because our family lived opposite in an old two-storey house with verandahs. That’s where the floodwater came up within 3ft (90cms) of our second floor during the major 1955 Maitland flood and we all had to be rescued,” he recalled.

“No one seems to remember now how this flood totally devastated Hexham, flooding the factories and isolating homes. It became an inland sea.

“I was only 12 years at the time, but I recall that loading wharf split the Hunter River currents. The force of floodwater was reduced there, going both sides of the (1936) wharf and saving the seven boatsheds and three homes then on that section of Hexham highway.

“The flooding came up quickly. An army ‘duck’ (DUKW or amphibious vehicle) came by early on its way to Tarro. We were all standing on the verandah and they must have thought others were worse off, so it bypassed us,” Sams said.

“There were Brisbane pressmen onboard who took photographs. One later appeared on a newspaper front page.

“They asked us what our rented place was called and my father, for a joke, yelled out it was the ‘House of Joseph’ because Old Joe lived on the ground floor.

“Old Joe must have weighed 22 stone. As the floodwaters rose, a fibreglass dinghy was first sent up, but he yelled out it wouldn’t hold him as he’d fall through it.

“So, they sent up a surf boat just for him.

“Half of us transferred to a rescue tug, and others to an RAAF crash boat. I sometimes think about that old house, our home, that we suddenly left,” Sams said.

“It should have been heritage-listed. I was told it was 105-years-old at the time of the 1955 flood.” 

Meanwhile, back at Edgeworth, one-time Hexham resident Darrel Sams now has constant reminders of the famous, former sixty-miler coal fleet.

For several years he’s been building impressive scale models of some of the doomed coastal colliers that once motored 16 kilometres upriver to Hexham.

“It’s a hobby that can take far too much time. I started one ship model 15 years ago, but haven’t finished it,” he admitted.

“As they’re all fairly big and intricate models, I work on them on my kitchen table where I also have my meals. I find it’s a good, suitable spot, handy to reach things close by, although people learning of this have kidded me, saying: ‘You’re not married are you?’”