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Wonthaggi, VIC

Historic Gippsland coal mining town

Wonthaggi is known throughout Australia as one of the country's great coal mining centres. Over one million tonnes of coal were mined in the area between 1919 and 1931. Today it is making investing in changes which will result in a radical modernisation of the town's economy. It nods towards renewable energy with a wind farm; has a very sophisticated and environmentally friendly salination plant; and has turned an old railway line into the hugely popular Bass Coast Rail Track. These changes, and the remarkably comprehensive State Coal Mine Historic Reserve, mean that this substantial rural service centre has a lot of activities - including excellent beaches - to offer the visitor and the traveller.


Wonthaggi is located 137 km south-east of Melbourne and 40 metres above sea level.


Origin of Name

Wonthaggi is reputedly a local Aboriginal word meaning either "home" or "to pull along".


Things to See and Do

Taberners Hotel (Wonthaggi Hotel)
Located at 2 McBride Avenue, the Taberners Hotel, licensed in 1914, is registered with the National Trust. It is registered as a largely intact example of a Federation Freestyle hotel. The land was first sold to Charles Taberner in 1914 at a cost of £2000. It was ideally located opposite the Wonthaggi Railway Station and consequently the hotel acquired a liquor licence in 1915 and the new hotel was built for £5,000. The huge jawbones at the front are from a 74-foot whale which washed up upon the beach on Wreck Beach in 1923. An unemployed butcher boiled it down for £450 and sold the jaws to the hotelier for £25. For more information check out http://www.basscoast.vic.gov.au/getmedia/3a041a41-a678-4727-8d5b-176b7c939f54/HO165_2_McBride_Avenue_Wonthaggi_-_Wonthaggi_Hotel.PDF.aspx.

Old Poppet Head
Located in Apex Park, over the road from Taberners Hotel, is the Poppet Head which contains the whistle which once echoed across the town and signalled a change of shifts for all the local coal miners. The Poppet Head was relocated in the 1950s. The mine whistle still blows at midday. The Poppet Head is the remaining one from a time when there were 24 Poppet Heads spread across the Wonthaggi coal mining area.


Other Attractions in the Area

State Coal Mine Historic Reserve
Located off Garden Street (it runs off Cape Paterson Road to the south of the city centre) is Wonthaggi's former East Area coal mining site which has been preserved and signposted as the State Coal Mine Historic Reserve. This is a special experience which starts at the Visitor Information centre where there is a theatrette which offers an historic film which brings Wonthaggi's mining heritage to life. Over one million tonnes of coal was mined at this location between 1919 and 1931. There is a heritage walk around the mine site which includes the Caretaker's cottage, the powder magazine, poppet head wheels, a token room and hat room, a lamp room, canary cages, a blacksmith's shop, the locomotive K192 and railway wagons, a pit pony and a winch house. There is also a pit pony and free barbecue facilities are available, as well as refreshments for sale. The historic reserve is open from 10.00 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. daily. Underground tours run daily 11.30 am and 2.00 pm. tel: 13 1963 or (03) 5672 3053. For more information, a downloadable map of the site and bookings for underground tours, check out http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/state-coal-mine-h.a.

Bass Coast Rail Trail
Described as a 16 km trail for walking, cycling and horse riding, the Bass Coast Rail Trail begins in Wonthaggi at the restored Railway Station in Murray Street and passes through open farmland and remnants of the town's coal mining history before reaching a point where there is a clear view of the Wonthaggi wind farm. The trail then crosses two small timber bridges, crosses the Bourne Creek trestle bridge, passes along the shoreline at Kilcunda and the mouth of the Powlett River until it reaches Anderson where black coal was mined as early as 1852.

Harmers Haven
Located 6 km south of Wonthaggi is Harmers Haven which was named after the first European settler. This area is suitable for fishing, snorkelling amid the submerged rock platforms and surfing. Some old tram rails indicate how the coal was transported in the 1850s from the area known as the 'Old Boilers' to Cape Paterson for loading onto seafaring vessels. Most of the railing was removed to Mitchell's Mine at Kilcunda.

Wreck Beach
Just south-east of Harmers Haven is Wreck Beach, named after the wreck of the 1155 ton, single deck, three masted barque Artisan, which foundered in 1901 with a 17-man crew on-board. It is a dramatic story: "The large wooden barque Artisan left Manila in the Phillipines in February 1901 bound for Newcastle in NSW to pick up a cargo of coal . On April 21 just off the coast of Victoria the ship was struck by a severe storm and thick weather which lasted for two days and made position fixing impossible. The gale continued and one by one, although close-reefed the gale carried the sails away and the buoyant, lightly ballasted vessel with bare poles was at the mercy of the driving wind and waves. The drama was compounded by an oil lamp igniting and setting fire to the deck of the vessel, which was bought under control by the crew. Seven hours later at about 3 am on the 23rd of April the vessel was driven ashore onto a low rock platform near the present day hamlet of Harmers Haven. Blue distress rockets had failed to draw attention to their plight, but miraculously at daylight the captain's wife and crew found they could safely step ashore. Caretakers of the Cape Paterson Coal Mine Richard Jennings and his wife lived a short distance away and looked after the crew, the Captain and his wife. The captain was critical of the delay in arranging transport for himself and the crew to Melbourne. The Newhaven-San Remo Rocket Corps made a hazardous overland voyage with lifesaving gear after spotting the wreck and later assisted the passage of the mariners to Melbourne. With its back broken and impossible to refloat the vessel was a total loss. The mate stayed behind to deter looters during the salvage operations. " For more information check out http://vhd.heritage.vic.gov.au/shipwrecks/heritage/45.
It was in this area that Richard Davis located a coal seam and walked to Melbourne with a 50 pound (22 kg) sack of coal on his back in order to qualify for a £1000 reward proposed by Governor La Trobe in 1852.

Cape Paterson
Cape Paterson is a small township located 8 km south-east of Wonthaggi which has been, for at least a century, the popular daytripper destination for local residents. There are two popular beaches - Cape Paterson Bay Beach - a 400 metre beach at the centre of the town which is popular for swimming, fishing, snorkelling and beachcombing with a rock pool for safe swimming on the rock platform and Surf Beach which, as its name suggests, is good for surfing. There are scenic walking tracks along the cliff face and the Cape Paterson Surf Lifesaving Club is located at the western end. For detailed information check out https://beachsafe.org.au/beach/vic/bass-coast/cape-paterson/cape-paterson-first-surf. The Cape was named by George Bass after Lieutenant Cornell Paterson, the second-in-command at Botany Bay. Explorer, William Hovell, carved his initials in a large cave at Browns Bay when he discovered the coal seam in 1826.

Bunurong Marine National Park and Bunerong Coastal Reserve
If you drive for 13 km south-east along the Bunurong Cliffs to Inverloch you will experience one of the hidden wonders of Victoria. The Bunurong Marine National Park covers 2100 ha and 5 km of coastline. The Parks Victoria website (http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/bunurong-marine-national-park) explains: "The intertidal sandstone reefs of the area boast the highest recorded diversity of intertidal and subtidal invertebrates in eastern Victoria. The range of seaweed species is also large and includes greens, blue-greens, browns and encrusting, coralline reds ... The diversity of habitats supports many marine animals including seastars, featherstars, crabs, snails, Port Jackson Sharks and up to 87 species of fish. If you are lucky you may see Humpback Whales, Southern Right Whales or Subantarctic Fur Seals." The best time to explore the area is in the hours on either side of low tide when access to the rocks allows for an investigation of the marine animals living in the rock pools.

Eagles Nest
About halfway between Cape Paterson and Inverloch, as part of the Bunerong Coastal Reserve, is Eagles Nest, an unusual formation which juts out and looks like the top half of Australia. It is directly adjacent to Eagles Nest Beach.

Wonthaggi Wind Farm
The wind farm can be best viewed from Campbell Street which runs to the west of Wonthaggi. It lies on the hills near Kilcundra and has 6 turbines and was constructed by REpower Australia for Wind Power Pty Ltd and completed in December 2005. The Wind Farm produces 34,400 MWh per annum (ie 12MW capacity x 8760hours x 33% capacity factor x 98% reliability) and supplies 6,400 households in Wonthaggi.  This saves greenhouse gas equivalent to 47,830 tonnes. For more information check out http://visitbasscoast.com.au/businesses/detail/wonthaggi-wind-farm.



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area around Wonthaggi was inhabited by the Boonwurrung Aborigines.

* In 1826 coal was discovered at Cape Paterson, on Bass Strait, by explorer William Hovell, while he was on an expedition from the military settlement at Corinella.

* Black coal was mined in the area, known as the Powlett River fields, between 1859 and 1864.

* As a result of heavy losses the mining operations ceased in 1864.

* From the 1870s Victoria relied heavily on coal from Newcastle.

* In 1908 coal, which had been known about for over 50 years, was rediscovered at Powlett River.

* Coal was being mined within two weeks.

* The construction of Wonthaggi began in 1910.

* In 1910 the railway from Nyora reached Wonthaggi. A school was opened that same year. That year also saw the building of a Working Men's Club.

* A brickworks operated in the town between 1910 and 1914 to supply the building blocks of the town.

* In 1911 the council building, Methodist and Anglican churches, a workers club, a Catholic school and a Masonic Lodge were all constructed.

* The mining complex became the first electrified mining operation in the southern hemisphere when a power station was built in 1912 to run the mine and supply the town with electricity. By 1912 1,200 workers were employed in the mines.

* Wonthaggi mines operated for 59 years. During that time 17 million tonnes of coal was extracted from 12 separate mines for use by the railways, the Wonthaggi and Newport power stations and for industrial and domestic purposes. It was hauled to the shaft by pit ponies and, until the railway arrived, it was carted 12 km by bullock train to Inverloch and from there it was taken by boat to Melbourne.

* A hospital was opened in 1914.

* Prosperity peaked in the 1920s when the population hit 5,000.

* A five-month strike occurred in 1934.

* A new western area mine began operations in 1936.

* In 1937 thirteen men were killed by a methane gas explosion.

* By 1937 Wonthaggi was the sixth largest town in Victoria.

* By 1946 the Wonthaggi mines employed over 1,000 men.

* There was a long strike in 1949. The miners were defeated.

* With the introduction of diesel locomotives demand fell and local operations ceased in 1968.

* A State High School was opened in 1969.

* In 1994 the Bass Coast Shire was created with headquarters in Wonthaggi.

* In 2012 a desalination plant was opened between Kilcunda and Wonthaggi.

* Today Wonthaggi, at the centre of the fertile Bass Valley agricultural district, relies principally on the beef and dairy industries for its prosperity. In 2011 the population was 7,279.


Visitor Information

Wonthaggi ArtSpace and Visitor Information Centre, Bent Street and McKenzie Street, tel: (03) 5672 5767, Open seven days, 10.00 am - 4.00 pm.


Useful Websites

The local website, with information about accommodation and experiences, is http://visitbasscoast.com.au/phillip-island-and-bass-coast-regions/wonthaggi.

Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

6 suggestions
  • Interesting to have a commemorative list of the early coal miners names?

    paul zanuso
  • Was John Andrew Jury the last Victorian to die as a result of a mine accident on the 10th March 1954 passing away on the 18th of March .?

    Rob Leatham
  • The information centre is now on McKenzie Street, the main road into Wonthaggi from Kilcunda. It is in the Artspace building, also worth a good look as a gallery and gift shop.
    Wonthaggi now has arts, a wider variety of shops and good cafes.

    Sue B
  • The Wonthaggi Technical School opened in 1922. A Higher Elementary school was attached to the Technical school to offer High school subjects some time later (? date?). A separation occurred in 1969 when Wonthaggi High School was established on South Dudley Road. In 1988 the two schools reconnected to form the dual campus Wonthaggi Secondary College.

    Susan White
  • Are there any decent records of the Wonthaggi Powerhouse operation? I remember it supplied power for the town and steam/hot water to the Hospital via n elevated pipeline. Any information appreciated

    John McNair
  • Following along the coast line west of Cape Patterson, is a small beach, named after coal miner (James Cutler and Family) James originally came from Ararat Victoria, Chasing Black Gold, also spawn from First Fleet arrivals Nathaniel Lucas, Oliver Gascoigne.

    Graeme Rees