Opal mining heritage

Miner working a windlass, Lightning Ridge, 1962. Photo: Bob Pelchen.

Miner working a windlass, Lightning Ridge, 1962.
Photo: Bob Pelchen.

The Brady Boys hand sinking a shaft in 1908.

The Brady Boys hand sinking a shaft in 1908.

Australia’s harsh outback environment, rough conditions and dreams of fabled gems have produced unique multicultural opal mining communities – resilient, inventive and fiercely independent. The small scale of opal mining operations and the characteristics of the opal resource have contributed to a unique industrial and cultural heritage. Entire opal mining landscapes, created under severe conditions by exceptional communities of people, are an aspect of mining heritage that is unique to Australia. Each opal mining region has generated its own particular equipment, mining methods and way of life.

…lifestyles of hope, courage and ingenuity, tall tales and free spirits.

The landscape of Lightning Ridge is alive with mining heritage: hand-built machinery, miners’ camps, old rumblers, hoists and windlasses, shafts sunk by hand through metres of hard earth, and piles of opal dirt, brought up from deep below, still peppered with opal and precious fossil relics.

“Mining has been a major contributor to the development of Australian society and the economy since our first mining boom in the 1840s. There is considerable public interest in our mining heritage, which includes not only mines and associated machinery but also mining landscapes of mullock heaps and miners’ housing.” Australian Council of National Trust and Australian Heritage Commission, Mining Heritage Places Assessment Manual, 2000

Miners’ processing dams, their earthworks and machinery are emblematic of the technical skill, ingenuity and inventiveness of the opal mining community, and they also function as important wildlife refuges and habitats. Lightning Ridge is the only place on earth where opal-bearing claystones are processed in this way. These are spectacular and mythic sites of social, cultural and scientific significance.

Miner's camp circa 1924: Bark, hessian, corrugated iron, flattened kerosene tins, galvanised pipe and sticks.

Miner’s camp circa 1924: Bark, hessian, corrugated iron, flattened kerosene tins, galvanised pipe and sticks.

Much of Lightning Ridge’s physical heritage has been lost, due partly to the ephemeral nature of the materials in a harsh environment and partly due to re-use of materials. Recently, government policies intended to promote environmental rehabilitation have also had the unfortunate side-effect of destroying significant sites and items of opal field heritage. All of which makes the remaining heritage all the more precious. Older areas of the Lightning Ridge opal fields have been designated ‘Preserved Fields,’ recognising that their appearance should be maintained for heritage and social reasons.   The opal fields of Lightning Ridge are a living landscape that is created and recreated on a daily basis by human activity. They are a much-loved tapestry that is woven and repaired every day, in a thousand ways. It is this constant, ongoing creativity that keeps the heritage of the opal fields alive.

"Whilst many areas throughout Australia could certainly do with a good 'clean-up,' I submit that it is the remnants of the hundreds of miners' dreams, both broken and realised, which make Lightning Ridge a truly historic village, the likes of which councils spend millions of dollars trying to create." Bob Pelchen, plein air watercolour artist. Morwell, Victoria, June 2006.

“Whilst many areas throughout Australia could certainly do with a good ‘clean-up,’ I submit that it is the remnants of the hundreds of miners’ dreams, both broken and realised, which make Lightning Ridge a truly historic village, the likes of which councils spend millions of dollars trying to create.”
Bob Pelchen, plein air watercolour artist. Morwell, Victoria, June 2006.

Residents of the opal fields regard these places and objects with respect and affection. For them, the machines, mineshafts, corner posts, signposts, pudding dams, dwellings and earthworks are intimate parts of their landscape – as fundamental to their sense of place as are the land, earth and sky. They know who made things or who brought them there; what work they have done and where; which great opals they helped to find. And the places: what good or bad fortunes were made, who worked the ground, which legendary parties shook the walls or which marvellous inventions emerged from within. Even if the places and things were there before them, people know their meanings in their own lives and times.

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Sometimes locals re-use or recycle items with heritage values, although the oldest and most significant items are untouched except in veneration. It’s part of the cycle of creativity and rebirth on the opal fields. These are people who know the value of the materials and skills required to build and transport machinery, tools and building materials. It is actually a very modern, ‘green’ way of treating materials and energy.