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           Home >  History  > New Zealand History  :

Coal Gorge and the Brunner Suspension Bridge

Sandy Robertson and Neville Bennett - 28/05/04

The weather forecast is of prime importance when you live on the West Coast. Neville and I listen avidly to the five day forecast before making our plans to visit at the weekend. The weekend of the reopening of the Brunner Suspension Bridge was no exception. But the weather forecast was lousy! There was no incentive to cross the plains and passes in treacherous conditions except for the Bridge, being reopened on the 108th anniversary of the Brunner Mine Disaster. So we went. By the time we reached Otira to collect Christine Hennah from the hotel the clouds had receded and the day looked more promising. We crossed the Grey River at Stillwater and wound our way through land which showed few clues of the former mining town of Taylorville and the population the mine had supported.

The historic site was already thronged with people, tents, a huge heap of coal and the welcoming odours emanating from food stalls. At first it was unclear on which side of the river the ceremony would take place as people were crossing the bridge. The Trans Scenic train drew to an historic halt on the south side, discharging Chris Carter, the Minister for Conservation, whose great-great-grandfather had died in the Brunner Mine Disaster on 26 March, 1896.

The Kokatahi Band was assembled in their large, side opening truck/stage, resplendent in their red uniforms. They were the lucky ones because as the opening ceremony began grey cloud and rain swirled up the appropriately named Grey River and pelted down.

Even by West Coast standards this was a deluge. Huddling in an unlocked truck I munched on whitebait patties while the bridge was reopened by Kevin Brown, the Grey District Mayor, and Chris Carter. The drenched children of Brunner School, attired in Victorian costume, sang the national anthem and released balloons which were swept inland.

Afterwards we were all grateful for the hot food produced by local groups, particularly hot lamb and pork sandwiches. The celebrations lasted well into the evening. Brian Coghlan of Blackball took the world record for shovelling coal.

The reopening of the bridge, at a cost of more than $600,000 dollars, will facilitate access from each side of the Grey to the historic mine site, probably the best industrial site in the country.

"Coal Gorge and the Brunner Suspension Bridge" reviewed by Neville Bennett
Local historian, Brian Wood, who had been active in the committee which reopened the bridge, marked the occasion by launching a book, reviewed here by Neville Bennett.

Brian Wood: Coal Gorge and the Brunner Suspension Bridge, Brian Wood, Greymouth, New Zealand, 2004
ISBN: 0-476-00304-0
The book is available from Brian Wood, Main Road, Blackball, 7850, Westland for $39.95.

Our heritage is always in danger of being lost, especially those parts of it that are not terribly fashionable. There is an attitude of deference to the wealthy. Respect for the pastoral industry, and a nod to the romance of gold. But coal? COAL? Grubby subject. Peripheral.

Actually, the Brunner coal miners played a vital role in New Zealand development. They were one of the biggest concentrations of capital and employment in one tiny area. They were central to a dream of making New Zealand the Britain of the Pacific, as the high quality coking coal was a foundation for oceanic shipping and a dream of industrialisation.

Brian Woods' exploration of the Gorge is remarkably encyclopaedic. He deals authoritatively with the geology of the area, its Maori connections, and the engineering of the bridges, mines and bricks. An extremely profound study of this community alone would qualify this book as a candidate for the Sherrard Prize for the best history writing in New Zealand.

The book is A4 size with hundreds of photos and maps. The photos are a little dark, but this is a must read for Coasters and anyone interested in the history of work in our past, and the rise of the union movement.

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