Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 2, 1988
[the puponga coal mine]
In March 1895 Joseph Taylor, a mining engineer, and James Walker, a mine manager from Ferntown, successfully applied for a coal mining lease over a large area at Puponga, in the Onetaua survey district. By August of that year they had discovered a seam of coal varying from 3 to 7 feet in depth.
By April 1898 the partnership had been dissolved with Taylor becoming sole proprietor of the enterprise. Preparations at the mine continued. By August 1898 2 miles of temporary wooden tramline connecting the mine with Puponga Inlet had been completed. (1). On March 8, 1900 the Golden Bay Argus reported that the mine was beginning to assume "practical shape". The miners, the Argus went on to remark:
"… have unearthed some really good seams of first class coal of late. … the tramway is completed all the way to the point of shipment where a pier and coal bunker have been constructed … the first shipment is to be made on the "Lady Barkly" next spring tide.page 4
A company has been formed, called the Puponga Coal and Gold Mining Company, by which English capital is being brought in for the working of the mine on a considerable scale. The advent of another company to our district under such encouraging prospects should be a matter of congratulation to both the district and the company concerned".
Mr McKay, of the government Geological Department, visited the mine in early 1900. He formed a "very high opinion of the potentialities of the field" and remarked on the "vast quantity" of coal existing on the Company's lease (2). McKay's opinions, which tended to support Taylor's optimistic view of the mine's potential profitability, no doubt helped convince the Company's English backers that further expenditure on mine development was warranted.
In December 1900 Taylor called for tenders for the supply of Cedar or Yellow Pine piles to be used in the construction of a new and more substantial wharf. (3). Taylor had received, according to the Argus, "a very large amount of capital amounting to about 12,000 pounds "which was to pay for not only the new pier but also"…additional plant, a steel tramway, shipping … and opening up further levels and drives". (4).
By September 1901 the Company had laid 2 miles of 24" gauge steel tramline and had purchased 2 scows. Taylor was at this time boldly asserting in the Argus that Puponga Coal was "equal for all purposes to the best in the colony". (5).
The enterprise did not, however, proceed without problems. The building of the tramway from mine to wharf led to a series of disagreements and litigation with the local Roads Board. (6). A much more serious problem arose in September 1902 when Taylor was convicted on a charge of misuse of Company funds and sentenced to 2 years imprisonment. Taylor seems to have been highly thought of by the miners at Puponga. On his dismissal they unanimously expressed their appreciation of him "as a manager and a man". A petition circulated on his behalf in Nelson in April 1903 and was "largely signed". (7).
It also seems that Taylor had allowed the mine to run down somewhat in the months leading up to his conviction. A government observer visiting the area during this low period in the company's fortunes remarked that:
"The dilatory system of development adopted by the management of this property is not consistent with the modern practice of mining engineering. The condition of these neglected premises, viewed from a practical standpoint, proves that laxity of effort is not an effective element in establishing a legitimate industry. Construction of the tramway … drags slowly along" (8).
The Company, under new management, (9) seems, however, to have overcome most of its difficulties by the end of 1903. In April of that year 40 men were at work in and around the mine and, according to the Argus:
"Construction of the tramway was progressing with commendable despatch under the able control of Messrs Sutherland and Son, contractors."
The Argus went on to note that production of coal was limited pending completion of the tramway and wharf. (10).
Work on the pier had recommenced in mid-1903. In 1905 the Inspector of Mines (submitting a report for 1904) was able to announce that a loading jetty, 39 chains long complete with storage bins, had been "satisfactorily completed", as had the tramway. (11).
Completion of the tramway and pier enabled the Company to increase production and expand. In April 1904, the lease of the neighbouring Cape Coal Company was purchased. (12) Later in the year a syndicate was formed, which acquired a number of vessels to carry Puponga Coal to Wellington and Nelson, where a wholesale agency page 5was established at Wilkins and Field. By the end of the year, according to the Argus, it became "quite an ordinary sight to see steamers and sailors making their way Pupongawards". (13) Puponga was also, by now, beginning to assume the appearance of a settled area, with a store and a boardinghouse. (14).
The shallowness of water round the Company's wharf remained a major problem, the maximum depth at high spring tide being only 14 feet. (15) Taylor had perceived the problem in May 1901 (16) but, in his usual dilatory fashion, had nothing about it. In October 1904, arrangements were made for dredging the channel. It was hoped that this measure would enable coal output to be increased from 600, to somewhere in the vicinity of 2000–3000 tons per week. (17).
During 1905 several labour disputes arose at the mine. According to some local observers, these troubles were caused by "a few agitators who have chronic grievances …and look upon all employers of labour as natural enemies"(18) Otherwise, operations seem to have progressed satisfactorily. Early in 1906, tenders were called for the construction of a school at Puponga, and the Commissioner of Crown Lands began advertising business sites and sections in the expanding little town. This solved a problem which had long plagued the area, as the miners, according to the New Zealand Mining Handbook of 1906, had been experiencing "great hardship and inconvenience", due to the difficulty of securing ground for house sites.
In April 1907, a reporter from the Argus was given a guided tour of the mine by Mr Hayes, the Company's Mining Engineer and General Manager. The Argus subsequently printed a very favourable report.
The paper remarked that the dredging work now in progress would soon allow steamers of up to 1000 tons capacity to load coal at the Company's wharf. "Puponga coal", the Argus went on to note, "is now admitted to be, without question, the finest household coal in the Colony and the demand is greater than the present supply … the works now in hand … show that in a comparatively short time Puponga will become a very important centre of the coal mining industry". (20).
Good progress was made during subsequent years. On January 11, 1911, the Argus reported that, "notwithstanding its past troubles and difficulties resulting from mismangement and other causes", the fortunes of the mine had brightened considerably. During 1910 the mine had been idle for only 3 days, due to poor weather and equipment failure. Over 30,000 tons of coal had been shipped in the year, almost double the output of 1909. A total of 73 men, under the energetic direction of Mr R. McEwan, the new manager, were by now employed at the mine. The Argus went on to note that the company could now confidently look forward" … to an extended period of prosperity, which we are sure everyone in the district who has watched the career of this energetic Company for the past few years will recognise is richly deserved". (21).
Despite such hopeful prospects, mismangement was once again to play its part in the history of this unhappy enterprise. In 1913, in contravention of a written order from the Inspector of Mines, coal pillars were extracted from under the Wiriki Creek. This resulted in a considerable volume of water entering the mine. The cost of production was consequently increased to such an extent as to render future large-scale operations unprofitable. (22).
Other companies continued to operate the mine, on a somewhat diminished scale, on and off until 1954, when it was cleared of water. The mine than produced 11–12 tons of coal per year until 1974, when it was finally closed for good, due to unfavourable economic circumstances. (23).
The only readily visible remains of the once-thriving venture are the dredge buckets, near Abel Head, and the remains of the wharf. Puponga is now a popular site for baches and a resort of holidaymakers. (24).