TURN BACK TIME: With poppet heads gone, the huge old bathhouse of the Raspberry Gully pit dominates this remarkable photo taken from Kirkdale Drive, Kotara South, in late 1973. Beneath it was a stable. At left is the mine magazine. The No.4 drift portal was located behind. The mine was closed in 1961 and the site later became the haunt of trail-bike riders and rubbish dumpers.THE Raspberry Gully pit gave birth to modern Charlestown on the ridge above.

Never heard of the historic colliery?

That’s not so strange as the final trace of coal mining there – No.4 drift tunnel portal – was demolished in mid 1992. This is despite the actual mine closing down 31 years earlier, in 1961.

Located amid wild raspberry bushes on land now called Kotara South, the once famous mine was also called South Waratah Colliery, Waratah Colliery, Gully Pit and Charles’ Pit.

Even older Novocastrians today might be familiar with the name only because it evokes memories of the so-called “Gully Line”.

For until mid 1955, Caledonian Collieries Ltd ran a daily passenger service for their coal miners on a line from Broadmeadow to this colliery below present Charlestown.

It was said to be the last private workman’s train to run in NSW.

MINE MEMORIES: A loco with coal wagons crosses Lambton Road, Broadmeadow, at the Gully Line, en route to Port Waratah.

The name “Gully Line” is still commemorated in local lingo because of the historic importance of the busy intersection of Lambton Road and Turton Road.

For here, near the major traffic lights where the rebuilt Master Builders Association (MBA) building towers above all, is a decaying rail bridge smack bang in the middle of the stormwater channel.

This bridge was once part of the Gully Line corridor where hissing, steam-powered locomotives hauled coal from Raspberry Gully north to Port Waratah.

Today’s Kotara South mine site is mostly parkland, although for generations a big cluster of buildings stood there.

Drive today towards Charlestown Road along Kirkdale Drive and you might miss the 1988 Bicentennial Plaque opposite Dalpura Lane, overlooking a reserve.

It tells you the Waratah Coal Company transferred its operations here from Waratah in 1876 “thus creating the town of Charlestown”.

In 1902, the colliery employed 520 men and boys. Many big surface features survived until 1969, with the then remaining No.4 portal tunnel being a 1950s attempt to make the mine economically viable.

FIRST-HAND KNOWLEDGE: Coal historian John ‘‘Tiger’’ Shoebridge with old mine machinery at the site of an earlier coal history talk.

A fortnight ago, noted coal historian John “Tiger” Shoebridge conducted a tour of the historic site called “Secrets of Raspberry Gully,” on behalf of Bob Cook’s Heritage Hunter group.

Waving an arm around what had once been dense bush in a remote location, but is today surrounded by homes, the retired colliery manager, now 82, said the site had totally changed.

“I’ve known about other mines, but here, I was hands on. This is where I started in the mining industry in June 1953,” Shoebridge said.

Sitting on a grassy mound beside a pedestrian walkway parallel to the dead end of Elton Close, Kotara South, he declared: “All the land’s been re-contoured. We’re probably now in the middle of the old railway sidings.

“And see those very large, grey slabs to the side of this walking track [behind No.34 Elton Close]. They should be preserved as a part of mining history.

“They’re the bed blocks [foundations] of the pit’s winding house. And why was this stone used? The company had a Waratah quarry, while other mines used bluestone which came up cheap from Melbourne as ballast in ships.”

Most surprisingly, though, was the news the original Charles Pit lies forgotten beneath bush just beyond the Elton Close cul-de-sac. What most people remember of the coal workings was actually the sealed 1950s No.4 mine portal up further on a hillside.

Shoebridge said the once remote, flat 1870s mine site (bordered by today’s Kirkdale Drive and Elton Close) was named after colliery surveyor, Charles Smith.

“The shaft was dug down 260 feet [79 metres] to the Victoria Seam and then 518 feet [157 metres] down to tap the Borehole Seam,” he said.

He also learned the mine’s later steel head frame – replacing a wooden structure – was recycled from the forgotten North Stockton pit on Hexham Island.

“The Raspberry Gully mine site was a village in my time, so I’ll talk about what happened then [1953-1961],” he said.

“It was a world of its own, with its own train service, its own power supply, its own church and even ran to its own time dictated by the approaching train [from Broadmeadow with miners]. It would blow a whistle and the pit whistle would reply. That meant it was seven o’clock Gully Time [shift start], no matter was the real time was if the train was delayed and late.”

Shoebridge said the original, Waratah parent mine was behind the Mater Hospital and surveyed by a Thomas Groves in 1860. The area soon became known as Grovestown.

Later, to save the company from folding, the South Waratah Colliery was started with a railway begun in 1874.

The coal historian said its history was complex, with a few mine owners.

“It survived for so long because there was easy access to get coal to the port of Newcastle.”

He said his own memories included the time the shaft cage became blocked against its wooden runners and he had to climb up with a hacksaw to release it.

A heavy coal skip soon crashed down, splintering wood as it fell through a wood floor before plunging another 60 metres down to pit bottom.

“Within one hour the colliery was working again. It was a lesson to a young mine worker.”

Shoebridge said he also remembered wild rides and occasional minor disasters with runaway wagons and flat-top rail trucks heading towards Broadmeadow like a juggernaut.

One time a stray cow came to a sudden end near the Park Avenue Crossing. Another time a stray horse bolted down the track and was killed.

Yet another time, mischievous schoolboys almost derailed a coal train with a cast rail chair placed on the line.

Shoebridge said South Waratah used pit horses probably until mine mechanisation was introduced about 1956.

“Horses were brought up from underground at weekends. Dirty, smelly animals they were. Their stables smelled abominably of ammonia. I’m biased because one of them leaned on me and broke three of my ribs,” he said.

“When the teeth of such animals were worn down and they couldn’t graze they went to the knackery. But at Pelton Colliery, I think, people made sure the old animals still got fed daily. So, don’t say that miners don’t have soft hearts.

“Also one time early on at Raspberry Gully I saw the mine manager and an ostler talking together among the horses, checking on their inner health.

“They were breaking open clogs [of manure] and smelling them. That’s when I thought, ‘Do I really want to be a colliery manager?'”

He’s still annoyed though at being suddenly discharged in 1961 when miners were looked after better than management people like himself.

“There’s no loyalty among coal owners. At times, my life was at risk. I think I did a good job,” he said.

Despite this, he’s a supporter of unions.

“I’ve fought them and I’ve cussed them, but they are the only support the working man has,” Shoebridge said.