Latitude -33.176956, Longitude 150.236154
Located in the scenic Wolgan Valley on the western edge of the Blue Mountains, north of Lithgow, NSW
Special thanks to Allan Watson for allowing use of his research material.
Set in a deep, steep sided valley with towering sandstone cliffs, Newnes is a fascinating site. The ruins are all that's left of a large-scale industrial complex that operated between 1906 and 1932, and finally closed down in 1937 when the works were transferred to Glen Davis, on the other side of the mountain to the north of Newnes. It was one of the largest shale oil production schemes in Australia and encompassed mining, processing, distillation and associated manufacturing industries. The ruins include the coke ovens complex, paraffin sheds, oil washing tanks and the distillation area, as well as the former railway line.
The oil-shale rock at Newnes, Torbanite, contained about 350 litres of shale oil per tonne, which is quite a high grade for oil shale. Torbanite was mined and processed by the Commonwealth Oil Corporation Ltd into a range of oil products including intermediate products like crude oil and blue oil as well as paraffin for candles, benzene (motor spirit), naphtha and kerosene and various grades of lubricating oils and greases. Coke was produced and used on-site and was marketed in Lithgow as well. There are myths that the plant did not make petrol but poured it into the local creek - such stories are not true.
When the plant last operated in 1932, products were: 10% motor spirit, 10% kerosene, 20% loss and the remaining unprocessed 60% was sold as gas oil to gas companies. At this stage the plant was incomplete as the company had moved some equipment to Clyde in 1923 and this prevented further processing. Technology used at Newnes was essentially 19th Century, and the Newnes plant needed replacing which was one reason for the eventual move to Glen Davis.
National Parkes and Wildlife Service manage this site now and have provided tracks and information signs as well as a camping area. You should allow at least 2 hours to follow the marked walking track through the ruins which starts at the ruins car park. Cross the Wolgan River at the 4WD ford 200 metres north of the old Newnes Hotel (present kiosk). Turn left and pass several camping sites before reaching the car park. The sign posted track begins at the locked gate. Be mindful that this is a bush site populated by snakes and other wildlife and some of the ruins are dangerous to walk on as they are undermined so stick to the track.
The oil-shale rock was converted into oil by "destructive distillation"; the rock being heated until it broke down to form an oily vapour and an ash residue. This was done in a bench of 64 retorts of the Scottish "Pumpherston" type; each retort being a vertical tube, the upper part made of iron, the lower of firebricks. These retorts were intended for continuous operation, being fed from the top, the oil being drawn off from the side and the ash being removed from the bottom. The company had trouble with the Pumpherston retorts; 32 were modified in 1914 with extra offtakes and this design was called the "Fell" retort.
On-site you can see the remains of 90 coke ovens which were used to fuel the boiler plants and shale retorts. These beehive-shaped kilns were built before 1907 and in use until 1911. The firebricks used in the Newnes ovens came from the Illawarra Region.
As well as being used on-site, the coke was exported along the railway line to the Hoskins Steelworks and Cobar Smelters in Lithgow. Coal was hand-mined uphill from the ruins immediately behind the coke ovens and mine development spread out to just under the cliff line. When the works first closed in early 1912, the contracts with Hoskins Steelworks and Cobar Smelters were lost. Cobar Smelters moved to Cobar at about this time and coal was then sourced from the Newcastle district.
A series of retaining walls are evidence of the challenge raised by the steep site. From the top of one of the retainer walls you can see the foundations of the exhauster house and the remains of atmospheric condensers used to distill the crude oil.
One of the largest relics is a five-room complex where paraffin was produced. The heavy oil was cooled to form solid paraffin, filtered and pressed into cakes. These cakes were then treated in a sweating plant and refinery, and finally made into candles.
To produce the different types of oil, the shale oil went through a series of chemical washes including sulphuric acid and caustic soda to remove impurities, followed by a distillation process. A long, brick stairway takes you down to the distillation area, where you can see the remains of four distillation benches and the brick-lined flues that carried the gases from the stills to the chimneys. The flues are unstable and should not be entered.
You can follow the route of the old railway line to the Glow-worm tunnel in Penrose Gorge. Allow at least 3 to 4 hours to walk the 9km circuit starting at a weir over the Wolgan River 6.5km south of the Newnes Kiosk (former hotel). You can also drive within a kilometre of the other end of the glow worm tunnel. Leave the Bells Line of Road at Clarence (Zig Zag Railway), and follow the gravel road through Newnes State Forest until you reach the vehicle barrier, and from there the walk is only 1km. Parking is limited near the vehicle barrier and if you fancy a longer walk you can stop at the car park at the Wollemi National Park boundary and stroll the 5km to the tunnel along the old rail track.
When you get to the tunnel you will need a torch to navigate as it is quite dark and the floor has been washed out in sections. Don't shine torches on the glow worms as they are sensitive to light. At the Newnes end of the tunnel you will walk into Penrose Gorge, a beautiful glade of tree ferns. You can follow this glade out to the cliff face and marvel at the skills of Henry Deane the Chief Construction Engineer who negotiated this route up the valley and through the tunnel. The steam locomotives that worked this track were of the Shay Type which could negotiate tight corners and climb steep grades, (a maximum of 1 in 25 in the steepest section), and haul around 180 tons gross up the route from the shale works. The difference in levels from the summit and the line in the valley was 670 metres.
Newnes township at its peak probably housed around 2000 people. It originally extended up the slope on the hotel side of the river and included the main camping flat. There is very little left at the site as most of the building materials were removed and re-used during and after World War II.
Two brick chimneys are the relics of a schoolhouse built in 1910, (closed in 1940), to cater for the miner's children. Some concrete remains near the road are all that are left of the main group of shops, located along the Wolgan Road in the clearing to the south of the NPWS information bay.
The location of the Newnes railway station is marked by the stone-faced platform across the river from the main road. The railway was constructed in an impressive 18 months by Henry Deane, who overcame such obstacles as 100 to 200m cliffs, tight curves and steep grades. At its height the station consisted of a timber-faced platform constructed in 1907, a ticket office and waiting room and a wooden footbridge for crossing the river which was washed away in 1910. The stations stonework facing was built in the early 1930s to replace the worn-out timber facing. There was also a goods shed and siding. The railway closed in 1932.
The Newnes Hotel was originally located near the existing ford on the river, and moved to its current location soon after massive erosion of the riverbank in 1986.
Newnes is located in the scenic Wolgan Valley, in Wollemi National Park, on the western edge of the Blue Mountains, north of Lithgow, NSW. From Sydney, head across the Blue Mountains to Lithgow, continue west and take the Mudgee exit. The Newnes turn-off is signposted just past the Wallerawang Power Station at Lidsdale. The first 10km to the bottom of Wolgan Gap is bitumen. The road in the valley is unsealed and care is needed, particularly when wet. There is a National Parks and Wildlife camping area at Newnes plus the kiosk which is open on Saturday, Sunday and Long Weekends. For more information contact www.environment.nsw.gov.au/nationalparks/parkhome.aspx?id=N0051