Highlands History | May 22

By the mid-1890s a widespread financial depression was adversely impacting many local enterprises.

One such was the Box Vale Colliery Company. In 1890 it took over a coal mine operation in the Nattai Gorge, 6km northwest of Mittagong. A previous company, the Mittagong Coal-mining Company, had opened the mine in 1883 and in 1888 built a 7km, standard gauge railway to link the mine with the main Southern Line. It had won major Railway Department contracts for its high quality steaming coal, but these were cancelled in 1889 due to a mix of stone in the coal.

The new colliery owners were confident of success but trade did not improve and for the next few years only two or three men were employed for local requirements. By June 1896 the company could not pay their wages, work ceased altogether and the colliery closed. Traffic ceased on the rail line. 

EARLY TREKKERS: Bandmaster George Vincent with friends on an outing at Forty Foot Falls, near the Box Vale line, c1900. Photo: BDH&FHS.

EARLY TREKKERS: Bandmaster George Vincent with friends on an outing at Forty Foot Falls, near the Box Vale line, c1900. Photo: BDH&FHS.

To safeguard against further losses, almost immediately the plant was disposed of. On behalf of the Box Vale Company, an auction was advertised in the Scrutineer on June 24, 1896. Mining plant items up for auction included 30,000 feet of timber plus corrugated iron, blacksmith’s tools, 30 skips and 1500 steel pipes. Also for sale privately were 7,000 railway sleepers and 260 tons of steel rails.

Bearing in mind the coal’s high quality, the Box Vale Colliery and its sturdy little railway could well have continued operations, if its owners had been given more time and allowed the finance to seek new markets.

There was, however, a positive outcome eventually. 

In the late 1970s, architect Bob Head, designer of Harbison Retirement Village, headed a group of residents interested in planning within the Wingecarribee district. An advertisement caused them some consternation. It was a tender placed in local papers by the Nowra branch of the NSW Crown Lands Office for the removal of sandstone from the embankments of the disused Box Vale Railway. Once the Nowra Office was advised of the railway’s local historical significance, the advertisements were withdrawn.

The Box Vale Railway had terminated at the edge of a range of Hawkesbury sandstone, from where an inclined tramway sloped to the mine 170 metres below, located near the junction of the Nattai River and Draper’s Creek. The whole site including the mine, the incline and the railway with its cuttings and embankments was considered of significance. 

SCENIC SPLENDOUR: Early photo of Forty Foot Falls, now part of Box Vale walking track.

SCENIC SPLENDOUR: Early photo of Forty Foot Falls, now part of Box Vale walking track.

Furthermore the Wingecarribee and Wollondilly Rivers and their tributaries, including the Nattai River, flowed through an area long inhabited by Gundungurra people. They occupied most level areas near a watercourse, had open campsites and made use of rock shelters and overhangs in sections of the Nattai Gorge. Axe grinding or tool sharpening grooves are found on areas of flat, soft rock.

The Nowra Lands Office responded to the requests and set about designing a walking track. In April 1985 the Canberra Times reported: “during the past two years students of the Toombong School in Mittagong, under the supervision of Principal Trevor Bensley, have been clearing a walking trail along the old Box Vale Railway route as a ‘community service’ curriculum project.”

“The students, mostly wards of the State, slashed through heavy undergrowth, helped build small bridges over waterways, cleaned out cuttings and blazed a trail through an old rock tunnel. The trail is already attracting wide interest.”

Assistance was also provided by Wingecarribee Shire Council, the Mount Alexandra Reserve Committee and others.

In October 1991 the Highlands Post provided a description and map of the newly completed Box Vale Walking Track. It noted that the scenic track was one of a network being established throughout the State by the NSW Crown Lands Office. 

GOOD TO GO: Map of the Box Vale Walking Track.

GOOD TO GO: Map of the Box Vale Walking Track.

The Box Vale Walking track commences at a parking bay off the Old Hume Highway at the southern end of Mittagong. It follows the formation of the railway and passes through cuttings, along embankments and through an 84-metre tunnel to the top of the incline. There is also an easy 1.8km spur track through pleasant bush land to Forty Foot Falls, with a very steep track leading to a vantage point below the falls.

It is a bushwalker’s delight.

  • Berrima District Historical & Family History Society – compiled by PD Morton. Part 3 of a 3-part series.