When we think about convicts in Tasmania, the Port Arthur Historic Site springs to mind. Did you know that there’s another site of significance on the Tasman Peninsula? The Coal Mines Historic Site, near Saltwater River, is one of 11 places that comprise the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage serial listing. Today, explore the ruins on foot to discover fascinating insights into life at the site in its heyday.
The Coal Mines were established in 1833 as the state’s first operational mine, providing a much-needed local source of coal. The site once included large stone barracks which housed up to 170 prisoners, punishment cells, a chapel, bakehouse and store, as well as quarters for the commanding officer, surgeon and soldiers. By the late 1830s, the site produced most of the coal used in Van Diemen’s Land, which was widely used in government offices. However, householders weren’t so keen, as the coal emitted showers of sparks when it was first lit, setting fire to carpets and ladies’ dresses.
The Coal Mines operated as a probation station from 1833 to 1848. The site had a fearsome reputation as a place of gruelling punishment for the worst class of convicts. During the 1840s, it held up to 600 people. Prisoners worked underground extracting coal, as well as in building works, timbergetting and general station duties. Four solitary cells were built deep in the underground workings to punish those who dared to commit further crimes at the mines. It was not a place for the claustrophobic!
Visiting the Coal Mines today
The Coal Mines Historic Site is managed by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, who maintain and preserve this fragile and special place. The site is open every day, entry is free, and no bookings are necessary. You can pick up a printed guide from the Visitor Centre at the Port Arthur Historic Site.
The ruins are unstable and fragile, so stick to the paths and remain behind the barriers. A 300 metre section of the track is wheelchair accessible, and the rest is a level 2 walk. Be prepared for all weather (it is Tasmania) and wear sturdy walking shoes. Oh, and watch out for snakes in the warmer months!
Explore on foot
Exploring the site on foot is a wonderful way to learn about its history. As you wander, check out the ruins and read the stories of some of the people who lived and work there. Walks range from a few minutes to several hours.
- Walk 1 is 2 hours return, from the settlement up the hill to the Main Shaft and down the Inclined Plane to Plunkett Point, returning along the convict road to settlement.
- Walk 2 is 1 hour 20 minutes one way, and is an easy walk but steep in places. If your posse has two cars, leave one at the lower carpark, then drive up to the Main Shaft. Walk down the hill to the settlement via a short side trip down the Inclined Plane.
- Walk 3 is 50 minutes return and is an easy stroll, suitable for those with limited mobility. Start at the settlement and walk down the convict road to Plunkett Point (return by the same route). If you want more, an extra 15 minutes (30 minutes return) will take you around the coast from Plunkett Point to the convict quarry.
Stay a while
There’s heaps to discover on the Tasman Peninsula, so stay awhile and explore. Camping is available nearby in the Lime Bay State Reserve. Get a different perspective of this stunning region from the water, taste the local produce, gaze in awe at the geological wonders, visit an unzoo and chocolate factory, and enjoy your adventure.
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