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Pine Creek, NT

Small town created to service the Overland Telegraph Line.

Pine Creek is essentially a gold mining town which stumbled into existence when the teams building the Overland Telegraph Line in 1870 dug up some gold while digging holes for posts. Since 1870 it has had a variety of gold rushes with, at one time, over 2,000 Chinese miners working in the area and over 15 mines all being dug in the hope of finding gold. Today it is a remnant of a past time. A quiet community where tourism, particularly interest in the Northern Railway (1889-1976) and in the mining relics, attracts people who are fascinated by the simplicity, hardship and tenacity of the miners. Of particular interest is the corrugated iron shed known as the Ah Toy Bakery.

Location

Pine Creek is located 226 km south-east of Darwin and 90 km north-west of Katherine on the Stuart Highway.

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Origin of Name

Demonstrating that popular opinion with always triumph, Pine Creek was named in 1870 by the teams constructing the Overland Telegraph Line. One worker, Sydney Herbert, observed "This creek was by no means large, but was remarkable for the pines growing there". This, however, didn't stop the South Australian government, who were in charge of the Northern Territory at the time, from naming it Playford on 24 January, 1889 after Thomas Playford, the South Australian Commissioner of Crown Lands. This achieved little beyond confusion. The locals insisted on calling the town Pine Creek. Amusingly, it was not officially gazetted as Pine Creek until 20 September 1973.

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Things to See and Do

Railway Station Museum
The railway buildings in Miller Terrace were built in 1888-1889 and served as the town's communication centre (it was the local post office for a time). The buildings, now the Railway Station Museum, include a station building, water tank, residence, weigh bridge and goods shed. The Railway Museum, located in the old station building, has displays which give a detailed history of the district. Adjacent to the Railway Museum (just across the line to the north) is a mining equipment display.

The railway was a vital link for the town. It was most important for the transportation of cattle and goods. By 1930 the mixed goods and passenger train, also known as Leaping Lena, had a regular timetable. It left Darwin at 8.00 am on Wednesdays and was scheduled to arrive at Pine Creek at 4.46 pm the same day. Those travelling to Katherine had to spend the night in PIne Creek as the train continued south at 8.00 am the next morning arriving in Katherine at 11.00 am. After an hour's stop the train continued on to Burdam (the end of the line south of Larrimah) arriving at 5.51 pm. It was notoriously unreliable. Located next to the station is the 1877 Beyer Peacock steam locomotive which operated between Darwin and Pine Creek from 1915-1945. It was restored in 2000 as part of the Centenary of Federation celebrations.

Walk Through Time
Departing from the Railway Station Museum is an historic "Walk Through Time" footpath which records, through a series of nine bays of tiles, a history of the district through people ranging from indigenous inhabitants to miners and pastoralists.

National Trust Museum
The National Trust Museum, which was built at Burrundie in 1888 and transferred to PIne Creek in 1913, is located in a building which has variously been a doctor's residence, a military hospital (during World War II), a post office, a telephone exchange and the home of a mining warden. It has displays which relate to the history, mining and the Chinese in the area. There are interesting displays of old bottles, a display of Chinese artefacts from the area, and an excellent display of the rocks of the area including a piece of yellow cake and some superb fossils of shrimps.

The Ah Toy Bakery
At the peak of the mining boom the town's population included over 2,000 Chinese. The Ah Toy Bakery, which is an old corrugated iron shed, is a reminder of what life must have been like in the town around 1900. The building started life in Mount Diamond in 1908 as Jimmy Ah You's Butcher's Shop. When he moved to Pine Creek he brought the shop with him and rebuilt it using local timber. To bake bread he used ant bed mortar from the bush to build the ovens (they date from 1922) which are still standing today. Jimmy Ah You and his son Jimmy Ah Toy baked bread in the ovens until World War II. During the war the Army commandeered the bakery to supply the troops. Sadly, after 1945 bread from Darwin suppliers was trucked into the town and bakery closed. Members of the Ah Toy family still live in the town.

Mine Lookout
The Enterprise Pit began life as the Enterprise Shaft in 1906. It was converted to an open cut mine in 1985 and over a ten year period yielded 764,000 ounces of gold (23,760.4 kg). It is now filled with water and, at its deepest point, is 135 metres deep. The lookout is located at the south-western end of Moule Street.

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Other Attractions in the Area

Grove Hill Historic Hotel and the Northern Goldfields Loop
Located 63 km north of Pine Creek and only 16 km east of the Stuart Highway, is the Grove Hill Historic Hotel. It is positioned on the old Northern Railway line and has an exhibition of artefacts relating to mining in the area. It is also a good place to stop for a meal and, for twitchers, it is an outstanding location for birdwatching. It is also part of a loop through an area where mines have been cut into the Pine Creek geosyncline which is the reason for the large deposits of gold in the area.

Lake Copperfield and Umbrawarra Gorge Nature Park
South of Pine Creek a road heads south-west to Lake Copperfield (a pleasant lake which is suitable for swimming and has picnic facilities) and, 29 km from the town (the turnoff is 3 km south of Pine Creek on the Stuart Highway), to Umbrawarra Gorge Nature Park which is a delightful waterhole edged by red gorge walls and with a sandy beach. For more information there is a downloadable brochure at http://www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0012/10236/UmbrawarraGorgeNaturePark_11.pdf. There is a 1 km walk from the car park to a rockhole but people wanting to go further into the gorge have to rock hop and swim.

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History

* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area around Pine Creek had been occupied by the Wagiman Aboriginal language group for at least 40,000 years.

* In 1862 John McDouall Stuart passed through the area on his journey from the Flinders Ranges to the coast of the Northern Territory.

* The first Europeans to settle in the area were workers on the Overland Telegraph Line who worked built the line in late 1870 - early 1871.

* In 1871 workers digging postholes while building the Overland Telegraph discovered alluvial gold near Yam Creek.

* By 1872 miners were prospecting along Pine Creek and, in spite of warnings about the harsh conditions and advice that it "would be foolish for people to come running here", miners rushed to the district. Deposits of alluvial gold were discovered at Pine Creek either by the overlander D'Arcy Wentworth Uhr or by G. G. McLachlan.

* The Eleanor Gold Reef was opened in late 1872 and the following year the Union Gold Reef established the area as a major goldfield.

* In 1873 both the Pine Creek Repeater Station and the Police Camp were built.

* By 1874 the Royal Mail Hotel, the town's first, had opened.

* By 1875 a second hotel, The Standard, was competing for trade.

* The easily accessible surface gold soon ran out. Miners left the area but miners, brought in as 'coolie labour' with the South Australian government paying £20 per person, came from Singapore and Malaysia. They were followed by Chinese from Hong Kong.

* By the mid-1880s there were over 2,000 Chinese living in Pine Creek.

* In 1883 the South Australian government decided to build a railway line from Darwin to Palm Creek. The idea of a Transcontinental Rail Link had been first raised in the 1870s but had been greeted with cynicism. The English novelist and essayist Anthony Trollope, who travelled extensively in Australia, thought the whole scheme absurd: "I can't believe in the expenditure of £10 million on the construction of a railway which is run through a desert to go nowhere."

* In 1886 a contract was awarded to a Melbourne company which had underbid its competitors by demanding the right to use coolie labour. Singhalese and Indian gangs do the digging and behind them would come the Chinese laying plates and up to 1,200 metres of track a day.

* Between 1883 and 1889 (when Asian immigration was stopped) Chinese labour was used extensively. As a result of "The Wet" the rail line between Darwin and Pine Creek involved a total of 310 bridges and flood openings.

* The first train reached Pine Creek in June, 1889.

* The line was a true white elephant. By 1890 the service from Darwin had been reduced to two days per week.

* In 1899 a local school opened.

* By 1900 there were 15 mines operating in the district.

* By 1917 the line to the Katherine River had been completed. Pine Creek became an overnight stop on the journey to and from Darwin.

* By the 1930s Pine Creek was a small, unimportant stop on the line from Darwin to Larramah.

* During World War II the town become an important staging camp as thousands of service personnel moved into the area.

* Between 1942-1965 tin was mined at Mount Masson and the government built a stamper battery at Mount Wells.

* In 1942 an emergency airfield was constructed near the town.

* After World War II Pine Creek became a service centre for over 500 miners.

* In 1959 United Uranium Ltd commenced processing uranium ore at Moline Mill from their El Sharana mine on the South Alligator River.

* In 1966 the Francis Creek Iron Mining Co was formed and production of high grade iron ore commenced shortly afterwards.

* The railway line closed in 1976.

* In 1985 a joint venture between Enterprise Gold Mines NL and Renison Goldfields Consolidated Ltd commenced extensive open cut operations around the old Enterprise mine.

* Today the town is located just east of the Stuart Highway. A number of buildings, many of which are little more than corrugated iron sheds, are still standing including the Railway Museum, Old Repeater Station, and Ah Toy's Chinese Bakery.

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Visitor Information

The nearest visitor centre is the Katherine Visitor Information Centre, Stuart Highway, Katherine, tel: (08) 8972 2650. Open 8.30 am - 5.00 pm.

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Useful Websites

The best local website is http://www.visitkatherine.com.au/pages/pine-creek which is maintained by the Katherine Visitor Information Centre.

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Got something to add?

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4 suggestions
  • I believe my Great Uncle William Warman was employed as the first train driver on the Sandfly from Darwin to Pine Creek.

    Diana Boyd (nee Warman)
  • I commented that my Great Uncle was employed as the first engine driver on the Sandfly from Darwin to Pine Creek. There is a photo of the train after it hit a cow which mentions William Warman’s name. He was one of Darwin’s longest European residents. He lived there from the 1870s to 1937.

    Diana Boyd (nee Warman)
  • I worked at Fraces Creek Iron Mine in 1974 for 5 momths till August .. The mine went out of production a few months later .. The Aussie dollar was worth 1.50 US and the contract to supply iron ore had been negotiated in USD. The mine went bankrupt as a result. Hourly wage was $2. Everyone lived on site as it was 20 miles down a dirt road to main highway.
    Pine Creek consisted then of a hotel, Ah Toy’s General Store and a few houses for the familys of highway maintenace workers. There was a settlement of Aboriginal people as well. I can remember going up to a hill just outside of the camp and looking out at a gumwood forest that stretched to the horizon and not a sign anything had changed in 20,000 yrs. There was always a group of kangaroos 100 metres from bunk houses every morning at 6 as we started our day. Then they would be gone till next morning. If it was a moonless night the carpet of stars above you was magic. The reservoir for the camp was stocked with barramundi and the cook would go fishing after lunch some times and we would have the best fish and chips ever, fresh caught and out in the middle of the ‘Outback’. Some of the memories of a Canadian hitchhiker with fond memories of a time now long ago .

    Robin Nordman
  • There are many towns offering well priced camping for grey nomads and the like and the success of this initiative has been exceptional. Showgrounds and the like have been used to attract visitors. Very rarely a week passes that another town has advertised this on the web. We have stayed in plenty and supported the town while there. Jugiong in NSW is a good example. 50-60 vans in the old showgrounds the night we stayed a few weeks ago. (they ask for a donation)

    DAVE KAIR