A glimpse of Denniston today
Ages it took us drive up there, round and round endless tight bends.
Finally the road flattened out and we parked by the sign post.
It was a perfect afternoon on the West Coast’s Denniston plateau.
Warm wind ruffling dry grass was all the sign of life. People, cars and houses lay somewhere far out of sight, miles below, worlds away.
A hundred and forty years back it would have been as quiet on the hilltop.
Then, in April 1880 all quiet was broken, when the Denniston Incline began going for the coal.
“Incline”, suggests gradual and gentle, a silly name for the place.
It’s actually a huge scary sheer drop.
It falls - in places almost straight down - for over a mile from Banbury coal mine to Conns creek. Once coal operation was fired and running, iron wagons ran up and down at 12 to 18 every hour. Coal went down in the bins, miners, their families and their means of life went up in them. Up the cliff's face.
First miners settlement of miners was called, appropriately, ‘the camp’. Perched on a windswept ledge of rock high over the Waimangaroa river. By 1883 about a hundred residents somehow established themselves in the camp, with life’s basic necessities; a school and a brass band.
Workers soon spread further over the plateau and by 1887 Denniston was a town. Miner’s homes were serviced by three hotels, a post and telegraph office, four general stores, three butchers and three bakers.
You can still make out foundations of the mine bosses big building, relatively luxurious, fronted with the town’s only flower garden and lawn. Miners and their families existed in two roomed huts with no sewage facilities or running water. Visitors to Denniston apparently complained of the settlement’s foul smell.
Smelly or not, with little help and few resources, Denniston workers created a solid community with a hospital, sports ground, sports clubs and five churches. There were also five lodges- nescesary community assistance centres in an age of zero social welfare.
Denniston was also site of New Zealand’s first miners union, formed in 1884, just a year after coal production began.
The population on the plateau peaked in 1911 at just over 1400 people, numbers declining as mines ended their economic lives. Production reached its annual peak in 1910 when 464 underground workers hewed and hauled 348,335 tons of coal. Over all, Dennison workers and their families got over 12 million tons of black gold out of the ground and down the scary steep cliff to develop New Zealand capitalism.
There’s still a scattering of coal lying among the rusting cogs of the rail yards.
“Take a bit home with you” a voice in the wind seemed to say.
“ A reminder of the class who keep you warm and drive your engines while politicians sit spewing out their self adoration.”