HistoryChampions of the undergroundMike Scanlon

Tireless: Two Hunter Valley coal miners with a typical, hard-working pit horse. Picture: University of Newcastle Cultural CollectionsONE of these days an impressive statue honouring the Hunter Valley’s faithful, hard-working pit ponies seems likely at suburban Kahibah.

But erecting a statue there in Kahibah’s Pit Pony Park will probably have to wait a while. And the reason will probably be money.

Formerly called “the park with no name”, the recreation ground was finally officially gazetted as Pit Pony Park less than six months ago. This is despite Lake Macquarie City Council approving the name change in 2015.

That’s because the land – on the corner of Waratah and Redhead streets – had always been associated with the local coal mining and the industry’s pit ponies (horses, really). There was even a colliery railroad nearby. Today, that closed rail line has become the popular Fernleigh Track.

For the versatile pit horses were essential for decades, being a cheap, efficient way to haul huge coal carts and equipment around underground. The loyal equines were finally replaced by tractors. Horses were so reliable and important that, as late as 1949, it was claimed mine management prized the pit ponies more than their men.

Hidden: Yvonne Griffin at a popular bronze memorial recalling bygone days of miners working with pit ponies. Photo: Supplied.

And the Kurri-Weston-Cessnock region has reasons better than most to remember these unsung heroes. In Kurri’s main street is a mining memorial, a statue of a miner with news of the Cessnock district once being home to 28 pits, employing 11,000 men.

By August 1992, however, when the miner’s statue was unveiled, there was only one pit left.

Keeping with the times and historical tourism trends, however, a Pit Horse Statue Project is under way in the Coalfields. But with a probable price tag of $100,000 to erect a statue, it’s likely to be a long, hard slug, so you’ve got to wish them every success.

Meanwhile, since 2015, there’s been a giant bronze pit horse in Collinsville, North Queensland, but it reputedly took 18 years of crowd funding to raise the $150,000 needed.

HARD WORK: A pit pony at Richmond Main colliery. Photo courtesy the Jim Comerford Collection, University of Newcastle Cultural Collections.

With the statue of a Clydesdale called Warrior(retired 1990), the mining township now has billboards on nearby highways proudly proclaiming it as the state’s “pit pony capital’.

While on the subject of horse statues, let’s not forget the NSW one that’s so obvious that it tends to slip everyone’s memory.

It’s actually ‘hidden away’ almost at the base of a 200 metre cliff drop in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. Yes, it’s the one below the Katoomba Scenic Railway. With a terrifying 52 degree incline, it’s regarded as the steepest cable railway in the world. Overcome your vertigo and let’s see what’s down there.

At the bottom, a short stroll away from the cable rail terminus are old, small, shuttered mine workings from a century ago. The quickest way to find them is to follow a group of inquisitive Japanese tourists.

But the metal ‘pit pony’ memorial of miner and horse hauling a coal skip also inspires many curious Aussies to learn more about this type of hard yakka mine work that has now long gone. One was Weekender reader Yvonne Griffin who also supplied today’s picture.

“Mike, your earlier (September 2017) story on the pit ponies resonated deeply for me,” she emailed.

“My dad Ronald Roach (Pingo) started in Burwood Colliery at around 16 years of age and worked there until his retirement at 57 years of age.

“One of his first jobs was to care for the pit ponies and it has remained a strong theme in many of his stories to children and grandchildren.

“Even today, at 89 years, he speaks very affectionately of the ponies and their wonderful personalities.

“As a child, I lived and played in Waratah Street, Kahibah, including in the park which has now been appropriately named Pit Pony Park. We could hear the pit whistle from home.

“I recently visited the old Katoomba coal mine and have attached a photo of me on a statue dedicated to the hardworking miners and, of course, the invaluable, much-loved pit pony,” Griffin wrote.

Soon after, another reader, Bruce Kingsford, gave me an interesting insight into that bygone era.

“During the 1980s I worked for Coal & Allied at their Hexham office. Stockrington No.2 mine was to be upgraded with a drift conveyor in the mid 1980s,” he wrote.

“This was to replace the ‘trolly wire system’ of electric locomotives which hauled the ‘black diamonds’ (coal) in wagons, to the surface up the inclined drift.

“I purposely made sure I investigated this system before it was removed as it was the last of its kind in the Hunter Valley.

“I also then wanted to say hello to ‘Tiger’, a pit pony still employed at the pit bottom to pull out the wire which pulled the coal wagons under the underground loading point.

“Ponies at this mine were known to walk themselves out of the mine at the end of a week’s work up to the pit paddock for the weekend before returning, by themselves, to the underground stables on Sunday afternoon to be ready for the Monday shift.”

Pit pony ‘Tiger’ was later also one of that era’s survivors when their working life was over. The region’s last 10 horses were being sent to the knackery, but their last-minute rescue is a story for another day.

More rail talesFollowing a recent Weekender yarn about old Lower Hunter rail lines, yet more rail yarns emerged.

Reader John Olsen remembered there was a rail line put into the Tooth brewery at Cardiff in 1974.

“We used to get a train in every morning with beer from Sydney and it would come back in the afternoon and take away all the empty bottles,” John wrote.

“A free beer was there for the driver and crew each morning and afternoon.”

Robert Green, another reader, had his own taleof lost rail lines. It reminded me of stories I’d heard of the earlier 1930 Depression days in the Hunter.

“In the 1950s and 1960s we lived in Turton Road, being the last house in Waratah before what was then the aerodrome and is now the (Knights) football stadium,” he wrote.

“A train line ran along Turton Road from Broadmeadow’s Gully Line where it joined up with a line crossing Turton Road where Griffiths Road is now.

“The train drivers on this line would regularly, deliberately shunt across Turton Road, spilling lots of coal onto the road.

“My family and many others would race out and fill our coal scuttles as we couldn’t afford to buy coal. Thank you drivers.”

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