Culture and heritage
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Prior to European settlement, the Wonthaggi area was inhabited by the indigenous Bunurong people, who travelled to the coast seeking shellfish and stone for tool making. Explorer William Hovell discovered black coal in the cliffs at nearby Cape Paterson in 1826. Small and isolated mining operations followed in the 1840s-1860s.
From the 1880s onwards exploratory drilling operation commenced in the scrub-covered Wonthaggi area. Although small private coal mines had opened in the Korumburra area in the 1880s-1890s, Victoria was still dependant on New South Wales for vital coal supplies.
In 1909, a miners' strike starved the Victorian Railways and Melbourne's coal industry, forcing a hasty development of the Wonthaggi mines as a public enterprise.
Emergency shaft sinking operations began in November 1909. In a primitive process, coal was lifted up the shaft in wicker baskets, then hauled by bullock wagon to Inverloch, to be conveyed by sea to Melbourne.
By February 1910 a direct rail link had been made to Wonthaggi. Increasing numbers of miners, business and tradespeople were accommodated in tents for a period of 6 months. Realising the future potential for the coal mines, the township of Wonthaggi was surveyed, and one hundred miners cottages constructed by mid-1910.
Expansion of the coal field followed through the 1910s and 1920s, with the establishment of a powerhouse and workshops complex, a brickworks and nine well equipped mines. The town of Wonthaggi grew to a population of up to 10,000 during this period. Employment and production reached its peak in 1929-30, with over 1,800 men employed in mining 660,000 tons of coal in that financial year.
The 1930s depression severely affected the State Coal Mine. A significant number of men were laid off in 1932. Industrial unrest followed, with a 5 month strike ensuing in 1934. Three years later, an underground explosion in No. 20 Shaft killed thirteen men. Union/management animosity reached its peak following this disaster.
The mine ran at a financial loss to the Government from the 1930s onwards. Two further mines were opened, but failed to slow the decline. Through the 1950s, steam trains were being replaced by diesel and electric locomotives, resulting in reduced demand for black coal. From 1958, no new workers were employed, and early retirement was introduced for the older mine employees. When the last mine closed in 1968, only 100 men remained. The town of Wonthaggi survived by encouraging the establishment of other industries.