Issue 37 · June 2005 · Words by Peter Gleeson · Photography by Pam Verwey
FROM BOOM TO BUST
Isolated in the hills of the Fingal Valley, at the south end of Ben Lomond, in Tasmania’s north-east, a scattering of weatherboard and corrugated-iron buildings are what remains of the one-time boom town of Rossarden.
Largely forgotten by the rest of the world, the old mining town is a hard-luck story. In its heyday in the early 1960s, Rossarden bustled with some one thousand men, women and children; miners and their families. The nearby mine provided employment and services, and despite the isolation life was considered good.
Far enough from the beaten track for wombats to be called badgers and echidnas porcupines, Rossarden was still the average town. There was a petrol station and supermarket, a butcher, a baker and a hairdresser. There was a school, a golf club, a rifle range and a football team. Even the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes had a chapter in town at one time. In those days, it was the hub of the Fingal Valley. Today, it has a population of 70.
Opened in 1931, the Aberfoyle mine produced wolfram – another name for tungsten – and tin concentrates. By 1939 it employed 117 miners, above and below ground, and at its peak this number had grown to around 250. It offered its employees a scheme for low cost housing and provided services and amenities for the town it created.
The mine continued to extract ore profitably for the next fifty years, breathing life into the busy centre. According to the Chemical Engineering and Mining Review of 1949, the Aberfoyle mine provided 47 % of Tasmania’s tin yield that year. But production declined after the 1960s and finally, under new management, and without word or warning, it closed in February, 1982, sounding a knell for the town.
The new owners cited a variety of reasons for ending the operation, including falling market prices and exhaustion of the ore deposit. They shut the doors and walked away, leaving machinery where it stood. The closure was devastating.
Bruce Johnson has spent all but nine of his sixty years in Rossarden. He began working at the mine when he was fifteen. With his wife Helen, he is one of a handful of miners still living in town and after twenty three years, still recalls the closure with acrimony. “They came in here promising the earth,” he says with obvious contempt, referring to the owners of the mine when it closed. And earth is about all they delivered. “They didn’t dig in the right place.” Bruce believes there is still plenty of tin in the ground. “They just didn’t know what they were doing.”
With no mine, Rossarden found itself without purpose or income. By October of 1982, the population had dropped from 500 to just 90, despite an offer from the mine to sell former employees their homes for just $1. That same month, buildings and equipment were put up for public auction and the town was sold. What was not bought by residents, or transported out, was demolished.
Rossarden has always had a reputation as a rough and tumble town. Unemployment and ennui in the years since the mine’s closure have contributed to recent, bad publicity. But Phil Dennis talks down the bad name. “It’s a top spot really, up here,” he says. “Quiet.”
Emigrating from England, Phil and his wife, Margaret, arrived in Rossarden in 1985 and they have lived there since. He has been the treasurer of the Progress Association and the Rossarden Friends Kids Christmas Inc. as well as the occasional Santa Claus. Margaret is one of the town’s two volunteer ambulance drivers and editor of the Rossarden Re-Echo, the local newsletter. Together, they run the town’s post office from a room at the back of their house.
Phil is keen to revive some community spirit in their neighbours. He painted the house pink, hoping to inspire others to develop a civic identity – in the ilk of Do-Town in Eagle Hawk Neck – but most of the buildings are still the sombre, brown-black colour they were in the early days when the outer walls were waterproofed with sump oil.
He was also one of the months in a proposed calendar featuring twelve of Rossarden’s finest going the full-monty. But someone forgot to load film into the camera and the calendar didn’t eventuate. Perhaps, that cold, mountain air proved too discouraging for them to bare their-all a second time.
In June, 1997, a rehabilitation project was announced for the site. For years, the mine had discharged acid and metal contaminants into nearby Aberfoyle Creek, which flows into the South Esk River. The project was part of a state and federal government-funded program to improve the water quality of Tasmania’s rivers. Attempts at revegetation on the site have largely failed.
Today, a tailings dump, a dried-up precipitate dam and several concrete foundations are all that are left of the Aberfoyle mine. A Hobart company employs two locals – the only work in town – making bricks from the tailings.
But regardless of its torpor, Rossarden is a quaint, little settlement set amid breathtaking scenery. Take a drive through the Fingal Valley and see for yourself. Several years after the mine closed, the Rossarden Progress Association built a BBQ and play-area in an effort to attract tourists, apparently without success. If you take your own sausages, you can heat up the hotplate and lunch beneath the awesome splendour of Ben Lomond.