IT'S a brilliant autumn afternoon when the Post visits Wonthaggi’s State Coal Mine and the park-like grounds are immaculate. Before Covid, this place would have been buzzing with tourists emerging from their underground tour or hanging out at the café.
Today there are just four vehicles in the car park. One is mine and one belongs to Marg and Jim McCulley, two of the most dedicated members of the Friends of the State Coal Mine group that supports Parks Victoria staff to keep this place running.
The Friends group has called a public meeting at the Wonthaggi Workmen’s Club next Wednesday evening over their fears that Parks Victoria is winding down the tourist and historical site.
With over 120 members, the Friends are one of the largest volunteer groups in the state. They provide tour guides (including underground, when the tours were running), maintain the gardens, buildings and equipment, take tour bookings, serve in the shop and raise funds to assist with the upkeep of the site.
Marg McCulley is there every day, summer and winter. Sometimes she’s pulling weeds in the cottage garden, sometimes she’s serving in the shop, sometimes she’s greeting visitors. “I don’t work every day,” she says. “But I’m here every day for the chooks.”
Jim averages three days a week, up to four hours at a time, mowing lawns, whipper snipping, pruning and general maintenance around the six-hectare site. “There’s a team of us. You start from the front and work to the back and then you start again.”
Both their fathers were miners, as were Jim’s grandfather and uncle. “My father ended up in Kirrak. That was the last mine to close. It caught fire in ’64 and they had to climb up the ladder to get out because the cage was burnt.”
“This is Wonthaggi’s history,” Marg says. “It has to be preserved.”
The value of the work done by volunteers at the State Coal Mine has been assessed at over $500,000 a year. But Friends spokesperson Sheila Ormerod says numbers are falling due to the continuing uncertainty and a lack of communication from Parks Victoria. (She stresses that they have a great relationship with the local staff; it’s corporate Parks Victoria that is the problem.)
She says Parks Victoria’s refusal to commit to the State Coal Mine is astounding given the crucial role played by Wonthaggi and the miners in Australia’s social history and trade union movement.
“We have an attraction which is the only authentic black coal mine in Australia, if not the southern hemisphere. It’s part of Victoria’s heritage, not just Wonthaggi’s, and must be preserved to show the harsh living and working conditions the miners had to endure.”
The Post asked Parks Victoria their intentions for the State Coal Mine. They responded:
- Parks Victoria is currently considering future options for the café area.
- The Visitor Centre and souvenir shop will remain open.
- Parks Victoria is currently investigating the feasibility of recommencing underground tours.
- There is still plenty to see and do at the State Coal Mine with above ground tours available, open grassy areas for family picnics, an onsite museum telling stories from the mine’s operational days, an information centre with a 3D model of the mine and a mini village to explore to build an understanding of historical living conditions.
While that’s true, it was the underground tours that brought visitors from all over Australia and many other parts of the world. As Parks Victoria notes on its website, this is the only historical coal mine experience in the Southern Hemisphere. Tourists rode a custom-made skip down the tunnel (named for former Wonthaggi mine manager Lou Storti, who played a crucial role in establishing the state park) where they heard stories of life underground from the Friends, many of them sons, daughters, grandchildren and neighbours of the miners.
Various Friends shake their head at this. Wonthaggi has its own extremely skilled engineers, including some trained by the mine engineers themselves, who would have had the skip up and running in a couple of days for bugger-all.
If there’s a villain in the story, it’s Covid, which also smashed the popular on-site café run by Vicki Emery and her daughter Georgina. 2022 was supposed to be the recovery year but their lease ran out last July. They were working seven days a week and the continuing uncertainty got too much. They served their last coffees in late January.
Having reluctantly walked away from the cafe, Vicki and Georgina remain committed Friends of the SCM, going underground every second Tuesday night to help with maintenance.
Just talking about the future of the State Coal Mine brings Vicki close to tears. “I think everyone is feeling emotional,” she says. “Just not knowing what’s going on.
Sheila Ormerod says it’s vital that local residents show their support for the State Coal Mine.
“We need them to come along to the meeting on Wednesday. And join the Friends group.”
Subscriptions are just $10 a year or $5 pro rata. You can sign up at the State Coal Mine or Wrench’s Footwear in Graham Street.
Friends of the State Coal Mine, public meeting, Wonthaggi Workmen’s Club. Wednesday, March 29, 7pm