From the time of the first goldrush wood was in great demand on the goldfields. It was used as fuel for the steam driven winders that hauled ore to the surface, the generators that provided electricity, the pumps that brought essential water from Mundaring and to support the hundreds of kilometres of shafts and stopes under the ground.
Before long the area within a 15 kilometre radius of the mines was cut out. From 1903 railways were utilised to bring in the wood. These were known as ‘woodlines’. The main camp for the woodlines was at Cave Hill, just east of Widgiemooltha. It was in operation until 1938. The area around Victoria Rock was cut out around 1921.
At their peak, the timber companies employed 1500 men and supplied over 500,000 tonnes of firewood and mining timber each year.
The largest of three firewood supply companies, the WA Goldfields Firewood Supply, colloquially known as Kurrawang Firewood Supply, began operations in 1899. By 1937 they had cut from Coolgardie 160 kilometrres to the north west, 160 kilometres west to Darrine, 190 kilometres south-west to Cave Hill and beyond and south of Kalgoorlie Boulder to the Eyre Highway. Being uneconomical to continue southward of Cave Hill, the company’s headquarters at Kurrawang was relocated to Lakewood near Boulder in 1937-1939.
The life of woodline workers at the end of the line was bleak. Typically, they lived in a tent or at best a hessian walled shack that had a corrugated iron roof and an earthen floor. The camps were primitive, unbearably hot in summer and freezing cold in winter.
The Main Camp was the centre of company operations in the bush and was where most bush workers lived. Cutters would cut wood; horse drivers would load drays and deliver the cut wood to the spur line. Loaders would load rail wagons with firewood ready for carting to Kalgoorlie. When the area surrounding a Main Camp was cut out the operation was moved to a new location and the Main Camp re-established.
More than 20 million tons of firewood and timber was cut and delivered between 1899 and 1964. The woodland area clear felled by the woodline companies to supply firewood and timber to the Kalgoorlie Boulder mines and businesses was more than three million hectares – about half the land mass of Tasmania.
In the early 1950s the switch to coal powered boilers and diesel powered generators greatly reduced the demand for wood. New underground techniques of leaving rock columns to support the stopes also drastically reduced the demand for structural timber. Woodlines continued to the south and east of Kalgoorlie until 1965 when they ceased operation.
Phil Bianchi, Woodlines of Western Australia. A comprehensive history of the Goldfields woodlines. Hesperian Press, 2019.
Phil Bianchi and Ray Tovey, The Lakewood Woodline, 1937 – 1964. Hesperian Press, 2010.
Phil Bianchi, et al (eds), Early Woodlines of the Goldfields. The untold story of the Woodlines to World War II, Hesperian Press, 2008.
© Kim Epton 2018-2022
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