In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were small mines all over Southland where local companies mined lignite. PETER OWENS visits one of these old mine sites, Ashers Lignite Pit, which has been transformed into a much-visited gardens and tourist attraction.
LIGNITE IS FOUND all over the southern districts and makes up about 80 percent of this country’s coal reserves.
While there is still a demand in Southland for lignite as a fuel, mining is restricted to a couple of sites near Gore. The smaller private mines are no longer worked and while the Resource Management Act requires mine operators to return workings to a satisfactory state after mining ceases, this was not always the case.
All over the country disused mines have been a blot on the landscape until nature takes over.
One site that has been transformed is at Ashers Road near Invercargill, which is now a gardens and tourist attraction. Mining began here in 1904 after lignite deposits were found on farm land. The deposit was at the convenient depth of about one metre and was situated close to the railway line that ran between Invercargill and The Catlins. This was the first open cast mine in Southland.
The topsoil was removed by Fred Bowden with a team of 12 men and horses and the lignite was transported to Invercargill on the nearby railway. While it operated, many Southlanders travelled to the mine to buy small amounts of lignite as it was a preferred cheap source of heating. Lignite is still favoured as a source of less expensive heating for the homes of Southland and there is an almost permanent smell from this distinctive coal in the less expensive suburbs of Invercargill and Gore over winter months.
New Zealand Railways for some time carried lignite to markets in Invercargill free of charge in a move to encourage people to burn this type of coal from the pit.
The operation at Ashers Road also survived a major fire which wiped out valuable equipment and set fire to the coal to the extent it could only be extinguished by flooding the pit and then dewatering it.
The fire also devastated a wide area and destroyed a number of houses and at least five operating sawmills. The railway itself was affected by the fire and a significant number of lines and sleepers had to be replaced.
Like most businesses in New Zealand the Ashers Road lignite mine was hit hard by the effects of the Great Economic Depression of the 1930s. This resulted in the mine’s operation switching from open cast to traditional tunnelling. The tunnel itself was not long and ran from the existing pit for about a chain. A tram line was laid to convey the mined lignite to the adjacent railway siding.
Local man Bill Monk bought the mine in the late 1940s and introduced bulldozers into the mining operations. Later, a subsequent owner, Bill Holland, used explosives to break up the face. Holland also introduced a modified front end loader. This machine screened the dross as it loaded the trucks. The loader had been modified by the installation of a bucket that could carry half a cubic yard per scoop, or the equivalent of a quarter of a tonne.
The lignite pit at Ashers Road had been a carefully conducted business, but was not highly profitable. As the 1960s and 1970s progressed it became less and less profitable until 1971 when it was unprofitable.
Typical of the day, management simply stopped work, disposed of what plant it could, turned off the pumps, which for years had kept water out of the pit and the mine, and simply walked away. The pit gradually filled with water and it became a popular swimming hole for local kids.
Nothing else happened for over 30 years. Then in 2004, new owners Dave and Maria Sanderson started on the massive task of tidying and cleaning up the property. They brought in a mechanical digger and bulldozer to remove accumulated rubbish from the flooded pit, which included abandoned motor vehicles and home appliances.
After the rubbish had been removed from the pit, the entire Sanderson family set about landscaping and replanting the four hectares of the former mine premises. The pond, which was the former pit, is now connected to the Gorge Road Creek, which is a tributary of the Mataura River.
The work took about seven years to complete and now the former derelict mine is a nature reserve and beauty spot visited by people from all over the world. Local people were so impressed with the transformation that in 2006 they nominated the Sandersons for an Environmental Award in the Southland Environmental Innovators’ Award – and they won it!
The next year, the Sandersons opened a cafe on the site, which has become a popular wedding venue.
However, the Sandersons found they were spending long hours in maintaining the property and wanted to spend more time with their family. Now the property is owned and managed by Barry and Maree Keen, who have added several aviaries.
The former derelict pond is now home to a flock of domesticated ducks which enjoy being fed wheat supplied to visitors by the Keens.
However, the past has not been forgotten and an old mining truck stands on its rails at the entrance of a replica mine. While the Sandersons and the Keens have beautified the property, visitors are directed to parts of the gardens where lignite deposits stand – now enhanced with many types of climbing plants.