Beautiful disconnection

Deep in Ringtail Gully, south of Waratah, lie the remains of the Waratah Powerhouse. Last operated in the 1950s and now abandoned, it is one of the last standing relics of the West Coast mining boom of last century.

The powerhouse was owned and operated by the Mount Bishoff Tin Mining Company. It was commissioned in 1907 and was built by Noyes Brothers of Melbourne. It operated until June, 1952.

The approximately 2.5-kilometre track down to the powerhouse was closed a few years ago and warning signs advise that the unfit and elderly should not use it. This warning should be heeded as the track, although well defined, is steep and slippery in places and is subject to fallen trees and scrub. The building itself is in a perilous state and there is danger here for the unwary.

With those caveats, to venture here is to find an engineering marvel – a power station built in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet.

The building has been benched into a hill in a rainforest. Man-ferns are abundant around, and now within, the building, the whole site almost reclaimed by myrtle rainforest.

Visitors entering through the huge double doors are greeted by an Aladdin's cave of rusting machinery. Four turbines and alternators are set out in a complex, cast-cement floor. The timber-lined iron building is about seven metres high and 20 metres long, and stands defiantly despite no maintenance in the past 70 years.

Vandals and souvenir hunters have stripped the copper windings and smashed the exquisite marble control panels, but there is still beauty here. Light pours in from the missing windows and roof, man-ferns have staked claims inside the building, and everything is in a state of decay, covered in rust, flaking paint and moss. A magnificent timber-lined roof is hidden until illuminated by the camera flashes.

Despite the years of disuse, some of the turbines still turn over, a testament to the Swiss manufacturer. It is no small irony that copper and brass thieves have lifted most of the bearing caps only to find a dull white metal bearing, not the shiny brass they desired. This white metal is composed mainly of tin, the very thing that established the need for and enabled the building of the station. The powerhouse was totally dependent on the high-quality white metal bearings for long life and reliability.

The quality of the workmanship is evident in the exquisite castings and symmetry in the installation of the turbines. The building is made to the highest standards. All joints and noggins are housed and large timber beams with tensioning bars bear up under the decaying timer and iron.

Outside lies the main shutoff valve and manifold pipe, which feeds each turbine. There are no welded parts here. All pipe work is fully riveted. At the end of the main pipe is a massive concrete stanchion block to support the end load of the pipework.

There were no electric welders and no electricity on site in these pioneer times; there were no modern electronics and no helicopters when the powerhouse was built. A decline on rails was constructed and the whole structure lowered bit by bit and built on what now seems an impossible location. The only clues are the two rails still in the ground in front of the main doors.

On coming upon this treasure in the forest and stepping through the main doors, one is taken back in time to Tasmania's mining and pioneer heritage. It is surely worth preserving for future generations and is waiting to be saved from its imminent collapse.

. . .

Robert Seaton has been exploring Tasmania on foot for about 45 years. A keen amateur photographer, his favourite subjects are creeks, waterfalls and tarns in areas of Tasmania's wilderness which are difficult to access, as well as old buildings and churches.

Equipment used on location for the Waratah Powerhouse images included a Fuji X camera and various lenses, a three-metre tripod with a home-built panorama head, a step ladder and16 flash guns – in all more than 40kg of gear transported down to the site on several occasions.

Some pictures comprise between four and 30 shots, individually focused and then joined together.

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