City foreshore has always been a site of great change

PEAK HOUR: Timber coal loaders crammed Newcastle's foreshore west of Market Street in 1875. Pictures: Mike Scanlon
PEAK HOUR: Timber coal loaders crammed Newcastle's foreshore west of Market Street in 1875. Pictures: Mike Scanlon

MOTORISTS tend to rely on familiar urban landscapes not changing much. Otherwise it can get confusing, unsettling even, especially when travelling about and looking for landmarks to guide you.

Some structures you may have grown up with are suddenly no more. Often, traffic chaos comes with it, particularly if there is a lot of development happening all at once. But, as the old quote goes: “Nothing is constant, except change”.

Inner-city Newcastle has seen an awful lot of change lately, from the end of the heavy rail line direct into Newcastle station, light-rail construction closing it seems virtually almost all of Hunter Street and the major demolition of the David Jones’ building and its multi-storey car park. 

The often derided Queens Wharf tower is also on the chopping block it would appear, and the Honeysuckle precinct is losing almost all of its car parks.

Change is always happening, whether we like it or not. Major change seems to be generational, happening about every 30 years. Newcastle, however, missed the building booms of the 1960s and 1970s. Now, there seems to be almost too much change – about 100 years worth of change all at once.

Recent significant inner-city changes made me look back to re-discover a remarkable historical drawing of Newcastle city and harbour (pictured in part here today) from 1875. It was a special Newcastle supplement when it appeared in The Sydney Illustrated News in April 1875. It was an interesting featured news item when it appeared, but today it is a valuable historical print record from the days before weekly movie newsreels of the 1940s and 1950s, and later TV news reports.

It’s like the way we were. On close examination of artwork detail, it’s surprising how different the present foreshore is, especially from Market Street, off the Hunter Street Mall, going west to Crown Street near the present Frontline Hobbies and The Lucky (Country) hotel.

Our prime waterfront land was once an ugly thicket of huge, timber coal loaders called coal staiths, or shutes, designed to store, then dump tiny eight-ton coal wagons full of “black diamonds” into the bellies of waiting coal schooners.

There were four major elevated coal staiths belonging to the Great Northern Railway – to which it connected – and another five just westward that once belonged to the Australian Agricultural Company (or AACo) which in the 19th century was the equivalent to what BHP was to be to Newcastle decades later.

Formed in England in 1824, the AACo’s original estate of 2000 acres stretched from today’s Brown Street out to Broadmeadow and south to Glebe Road. The company had five pits in the Cooks Hill/The Hill area alone, and more at Hamilton. It helped the growth of suburbs such as Cooks Hill, Merewether and Hamilton.

Further east on the waterfront map, heading towards Nobbys, but not included in today’s artwork, was more coal loading, but mainly wool facilities at the original, long timber Queens Wharf (now demolished) stretching to the present pilot station on Wharf Road. It then became known as Kings Wharf after Queen Victoria died in 1901 and, maybe 20 years ago, briefly hosted the port’s tugboats.

What made the 1875 artwork pertinent to me was last month’s news of the decision by Port Waratah Coal Services (PWCS) to formally kill off the controversial T4 coal loader at Kooragang, near the Tourle Street bridge.

Despite formal approval in 2015 after six years of planning, the decision by PWCS not to go ahead was prompted by a variety of factors, including that the port has more than 20 per cent spare capacity at the existing three coal loaders.

Then there was the fact that if the company did not scrap the proposed terminal 4, it would have cost $100million over a decade to keep leasing the site.

This was on top of PWCS already having spent about $90million on T4, money that would now have to be “written off”. Designed to handle 70 million tonnes of coal a year, T4’s final cost had been estimated at $3.5billion, including $1billion to dredge to Hunter River almost up to Tourle Street, according to Herald reports.    

Turn back time: A wall plaque opposite Crown Street highlights a rare surviving brick pier from Hunter Street’s 1865 iron bridge, which carried coal trains.

Turn back time: A wall plaque opposite Crown Street highlights a rare surviving brick pier from Hunter Street’s 1865 iron bridge, which carried coal trains.

Coal exports are reported stable at near record levels, so Newcastle Harbour expects to continue its role as the world’s largest coal export port.

Demand for coal from Newcastle has been strong for more than 200 years, ever since the first commercial coal cargo was shipped from Newcastle, then known as Coal River, to Bengal, India, in 1799. In the 200 years since, there have been at least seven different coal export locations around the port, including the eyesore of the forest of piers on today’s prime city waterfront.

Coal loading began at the bottom of Watt Street. Coal was later loaded along the Newcastle waterfront, then at Bullock Island (Carrington), The Basin and finally, in 1984, a Kooragang coal loader was built. 

Our first coal export cargoes were from convict miners hauling baskets, then later wheelbarrows, down Watt Street to a wharf from 1804. Coal was then loaded by steam cranes along the Newcastle waterfront from 1861.

By 1878, hydraulic cranes were commissioned at Dyke Point, Carrington (near the old State dockyard site). A little distance north was the ill-fated McMyler Hoist coal loader, which operated from 1908 to 1916.

The last Dyke Point cranes were dismantled in 1967, the same year The Basin coal loader probably came into operation. The Steelworks Channel loader then came along about 1976, from memory.   

All coal loading on the city side of the harbour seemed to have finally ceased in 1921, freeing up valuable land from simple industrial use, much like the old railway yards at Honeysuckle have being transformed into apartments and an entertainment venue.

The AACo’s prominent foreshore coal staiths had all relied on a double track iron bridge from Crown Street over Hunter Street to bring coal from its Hamilton pits through what is now Civic Park. Built on solid brick piers, it was a city feature until 1923 when it was demolished.

This iron bridge was built in 1865 to replace a lower timber bridge built in 1831. This carried Australia’s first railway line from Australia’s first private mine to the AACo’s wharfside loader from its initial A Pit, just above, off Church Street, The Hill.

A rare relic of this early industrial age survives, however (pictured). It’s one of the brick piers supporting the 1865 iron bridge. It has been cut down to about a metre high, and is part of a former railway line wall. A plaque was attached to it years later opposite Crown Street to mark its significance.