Katoomba’s aerial ropeway: The mission

If, like me, you love off-track bushwalking, it’s fair to say you’re always up for a challenge. Sure there are the physical demands: long days, thick scrub, hard scrambles, and of course that most evil of plants, lawyer vine. But what brings real joy is the mental stuff: the tricky navigation, difficult route finding, the scouring of cliffs for a weak point promising a pass and just generally keeping your shit together whatever obstacles arise.

So when an email popped into my inbox, completely out of the blue, promising a trip that not only guaranteed some hard walking — across the heart of the spectacular Jamison Valley — but also a real workout for the brain, I jumped at it. Not only that, I pledged to share the challenge and throw out an invitation for others to join the crack** team. (** Okay, so the team will probably end up being pretty average, but that only adds to the fun).

“Get to the point,” I hear you scream. But like a good bushwalk, this post is all about the journey…

Looking north across the Jamison from the Ruined Castle end of the aerial ropeway

The history:

Gazing across the Jamison, all you see is pristine, untamed, pure wilderness. In fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine a time — more than a century ago — when a huge swathe across the valley was cleared, a then state-of-the-art aerial ropeway built across it, and thousands of tonnes of high-grade oil shale dug out from mines on the other side.

But that mining history, while mostly reclaimed by nature, is inextricably linked to the present-day experiences of bushwalkers. Whether the day-walking crowd, riding down the Scenic Railway, or the weekend warriors trudging up the old mining pass that is the Golden Stairs following a trip out to Mt Solitary or the Ruined Castle along the path of the old shale tramway, most of the steps walkers take in this valley have been influenced by the early miners.

In the early 1880’s, two mines were opened up in the Valley: the well known one next to the Scenic Railway; and a little-known mine at Wentworth Falls, close to the Valley of the Waters, known as Gladstone Colliery.

At the first mine, one of the steepest incline railways in the world was built to haul the mineral riches to the escarpment above, but at the second an even more revolutionary engineering solution was proposed: an aerial ropeway, stretching more than two kilometres, dropping down the cliffs into the valley.

Wilf Hilder walking past the remains of a fallen support tower (photo Philip Hammon)

Amazingly, this ropeway, built by a Sydney-based engineer who had recently emigrated from Germany, used a system developed just six years earlier by Adolf Bleichert & Co. in Leipzig. While it was to become the technology of choice around the world for decades to come, it was the first of its type seen by Australian eyes.

While the ropeway worked, the mine didn’t, and after extracting just a few hundred tonnes of coal it was forced to shut down.

Back up the valley, the Katoomba Colliery was having more luck, but while coal was making alright money, the owners saw that the real cash was in oil shale. Of course, there was none of that in their seems, but just across the valley, under the Ruined Castle, lay a good supply.

So just a couple years after Gladstone closed, the Katoomba Colliery raised some capital, bought the still-hanging cables and buckets, hired the same engineer, and sent an order off to Germany for additional equipment to install an even more audacious cableway stretching 3.2 kilometres — via 47 wooden towers — across the rugged terrain.

“I think you might like to look at this Phil” (photo Philip Hammon)

The ropeway was built, and by 1889 it was operating nicely, moving something like 20,000 tonnes of oil shale across the valley. But the good times didn’t last long.

The steep angle up the high cliffs on the northern end put serious strains on the whole operation, leading to regular shut-downs and repairs. Even with these on-site modifications, the operation was doomed, with the entire cable coming crashing down into the valley just nine months after operations began.

Eventually mining restarted — and it continued on and off for four more decades around Katoomba, Narrow Neck and the Ruined Castle — but the aerial ropeway was forgotten, left to return to the bush, a failed industrial folly.

(If you want to learn more about Katoomba’s mining past, I highly recommend picking up a copy of “The Burning Mists of Time” from Megalong Books in Leura.)

Wilf with the remains of another, still-standing tower (photo Philip Hammon)

The research:

Philip Hammon — whose family built and continues to run Scenic World — has been researching the Bleichert Ropeway for close to four decades. His first traverse of the valley in search of it occurred in 1976.

“I knew little about the structure and layout of it then, it was just a case of following the ropes as best we could, losing them frequently. After that I bought a Radio Shack metal detector with the idea that it would help follow the buried ropes. That didn’t work!”

A year later, a hazard reduction burn cleared the undergrowth, allowing Philip the chance for a return trip. Then again in 1982 — this time with the assistance of legendary bushwalker Wilf Hilder — he traversed the valley. (It is this trip that the photos on this page come from, and it was in response to our article on the memorial service for Wilf that inspired Philip to get in touch.)

Also on this exploration was Joachim Goller, the Australian representative of a German company called PHB that sold, among other things, passenger ropeways. His interest? Well the “B” in PHB stood for Bleichert, and Joachim was keen to find out a bit more about his company’s early Australian ropeway.

The Jamison Valley provides some challenging bushwalking (photo Philip Hammon)

On that trip Wilf demonstrated the benefits of the well-trained eyes of an experienced bushwalker. After the others walked past a leaning tree Wilf called out to them in his slow voice. “I think you might like to look at this Phil”. Sure enough, he was leaning against a still-standing ropeway tower!

Leaping ahead to 2000, an engineer working on the replacement cable needed for the aerial counterweight for the Scenic Railway was forced to polish up on his catenary curve knowledge. The result of this was that suddenly Philip had the man, the software, and the high resolution aerial photographs of the valley that were needed to reverse engineer the Bleichert Ropeway.

Philip break tested samples of the outbound and inbound track ropes (the things that carried the weight of the buckets), to discover their tensile strength. With a bucket and carrier, rescued from the valley, the team ascertained the weight and bucket capacity. From historical sources they uncovered the speed of the ropeway. Together that provided the information to work out the loads on the haulage rope. They also knew, from the towers that had been located, that they were usually about 8 to 10 metres high — a fact driven by the availability of local timber.

The 47 towers in the original ropeway needed to be positioned in a way that ensured that, fully loaded, the buckets didn’t drag on the ground. This meant taking into account the amount of rope slip, the uneven bucket weights (caused by the fact that oil shale usually comes in large lumps which don’t pack well), as well as the uneven terrain it needed to move over.

So with all this information at hand, the numbers were crunched and a list of the best tower locations plotted. Now all that was needed was to find the remains of the towers on the ground…

Having a rest down on the creek during the 1982 traverse (photo Philip Hammon)

The mission:

So back to the challenge. Late Spring. A traverse of the Jamison Valley. Thick scrub that, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t been burnt in more than 30 years. A few pairs of sharp eyes. And a hit-list of 47 likely spot’s that a 19th century German engineer might have plonked down a support tower if they were planning to erect an aerial ropeway.

The mission is to locate every tower for the first time, using a GPS to record its exact location. While following what is hopefully the precise route of the ropeway, we should also be able to find, and photograph, each of the crashed buckets along the route. With that physical information, the boffins hope to discover the circumstances of each derailment based on the damage to the carrier and the grip mount plate.

The benefit? Well, if a great walk through hard terrain isn’t enough incentive, surely rediscovering the precise route of the only 19th century aerial ropeway built in Australia is? And knowing you’ll be adding to the industrial and cultural knowledge of the Blue Mountains doesn’t hurt either.

Our attempt will take place in the next couple months. If you’re up for the challenge, get in touch!

Wilf Hilder during the traverse (photo Philip Hammon)

8 Replies to “Katoomba’s aerial ropeway: The mission

  1. Tim, count me in – it sounds fascinating and a great challenge. I might be an “old man” but pretty fit from all my walking. I’m away Nov 12-28 but otherwise in your hands. Regards

  2. Interesting article in tele this year about gladstone mine by Marea Donnelly, have you seen it?
    Good luck with your search.

    1. Thanks for that. I found it. It ran on 7 January 2012, but doesn’t seem to be online. The story is below for those interested:
      Marea Donnelly
      IN July 1885, a train left Redfern station carrying 250 tourists almost to Katoomba to explore a new coalmine.
      They disembarked at a railway siding and travelled south to lunch on the escarpment at what is now Leura’s Fairmont Resort.
      More energetic visitors then descended a 300m ladder to the Gladstone Coal Mine.
      “Tourists acquainted with the wild and truly savage grandeur of the mountain country between Wentworth Falls and Katoomba will comprehend what labour must have entailed in opening out a coalmine nearly 1500 feet below the level of the railway, in raising coals to the edge of the precipice, and hauling them across the ridges to the trucks,” newspapers noted.
      The Gladstone Coal Company, established by John North and Robert Reynolds, owned 350ha with mining leases between Wentworth Falls and Katoomba. Their Gladstone mine worked one of three coal seams shared by Blue Mountains collieries.
      In 1884, the Gladstone company had contracted engineer Oscar Schulze to construct a pendant railway to shift coal up the cliff. The winding house was in the southeast corner of Fairmont Resort and apparently descended via the Lawtons Creek gorge.
      But the venture was short-lived. In 1887, Schulze took legal action in the Banco Court, claiming pound stg. 5000 damages for a breach of agreement on his work. The cableway equipment was moved to Katoomba and strung across the Jamison Valley to the Ruined Castle shale mine.
      The Gladstone railway siding opened as Leura railway station in 1891. The platform and waiting room were built and paid for by land developer William Eyre, who a decade earlier held the first auction of land on Leura Estate.
      Ashfield alderman and entrepreneur Frederick Clissold, who also had an interest in the estate, is believed to have named the village after two Queensland sheep-grazing properties, Leura and Lurline, with which he had extensive business dealings.
      In 1891, Sydney and Katoomba businessmen engaged architect Ernest Bonney and builder Henry Weine to design and build a grand guesthouse on a large block of land on Leura Mall. The Leura Coffee Palace used the finest Australian timbers in a dining room that seated 120. The Palace, later the Ritz, had a gala opening on Christmas Eve, 1892. The annual Leura Shakespeare Festival returns this month with productions of Macbeth and The Taming Of The Shrew.

  3. I believe Wilf led the Katoomba Aerial Tramway trip several times over the years. He invited me on one (SBW?) on 7/3/87. Don’t remember too much about the trip, but he did give me a copy of the 11 pages of notes and sketches he had for the walk. Don’t think there was much on finding the towers though. I say “think” because I lent out the notes a while back and I’m not sure whether they’ve come back. I will make some enquiries. I’ve been assured that the notes are not Wilf’s writing, so it would be interesting to know who was the author.

    1. Graeme, thanks for that. I’d love to see those notes if you manage to track down who you lent them to! I’ll ask Philip if he knows who the author of those notes may be.
      And sorry to hear you’re injured at the moment. We really need to do a walk together once you’re mended!

  4. Mr Tim Vollmer
    I am from Greece running a non profit organisation dealing with industrial herritage in Greece and i would like to have your mail for some questions
    Is it possible ?
    We are VIDA (vault of industrial archives) : vidaomada.gr

    thanks in advance
    best regards

    Hercules Fassourakis

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