When South Australia was settled in 1836, surveyor William Light had been instructed to locate the capital near an area which had, amongst many other resources, a coal deposit. Coal was considered to be of the utmost importance for supplying heat and energy and was a prerequisite for industrial development. Very few people would now dispute Light's choice of the site for the capital, but coal was certainly not available around Adelaide in 1836. Interest in South Australia's coal and other minerals was also shown by the South Australian Company, who appointed German Mineralogist, Johannes Menge, in 1837 to investigate the potential for coal, water, minerals and quarries. South Australia's coal, or the lack of it, concerned the authorities and certain interested individuals who hoped to prosper from its discovery.
In June 1842 it was reported that a very fine specimen of coal, from a two feet thick seam, from a section belonging to Mr Strangways of Encounter Bay, had been seen. On 16 April 1850, George Francis, a self proclaimed analytical chemist, arrived at Port Adelaide. After having only just unpacked his belongings, he was commissioned by Waters and Hart to visit the northern parts of the colony to search for coal and other minerals. It was during this journey that he indicated to his employers that the area around present day Leigh Creek gave strong indications of the existence of coal. However it took some time for people to take much notice of the area, especially after Edward John Eyre published his negative comments in 1845. During his third expedition in 1840 Eyre passed through the area, where the coal was discovered many years later, and wrote in his journal, 'The flies were also incessant in their persecuting attacks. What with flies and dust, and heat and indisposition, I scarcely ever remember to have spent a more disagreeable day in my life'.
In 1857, long after Light had located and surveyed the capital of South Australia, coal was discovered in the Adelaide parklands. By October of that year, Captain A.H. Freeling, Surveyor-General, reported that during his exploration of the country north of Port Augusta, he had observed that the ranges, 'on either hand, were composed mainly of sandstone and slaty clay and shale. As coal is generally found interstratified with such a formation and in extensive beds, the examination of this part of the country for coal might be attended with success'.
Two years later, A.R.C. Selwyn was asked by the South Australian government to examine and report on the occurrence of gold, water and coal in the Northern Flinders Ranges. After an arduous trip in June 1859, Selwyn arrived at Angepena in the central part of the Northern Flinders. His journey was only of limited duration and conducted without any of our modern day equipment and knowledge, so it is little wonder that he did not succeed in finding any of these resources.
As early as 1872 the government announced a reward of £10,000 for the discovery of a coalfield in South Australia. This was renewed in 1878, as there was great concern about the lack of this resource in the colony, and the subsequent total dependence on imported coal. For the finders to qualify for the reward, the coal had to be of marketable value, and the coalfield near enough to a port or railway to make it valuable and useful to South Australia. When the Inspector of Mines had certified that all these conditions had been complied with, then the reward would be paid in sums of £1,000 each, on every thousand tons of marketable coal raised at the pit mouth. The reward was even going to be advertised in Europe and America in the hope that some people might be induced to come and explore the colony.
For a short time in 1881 excitement ran high in Adelaide when coal was reported to have been discovered near Carrickalinga. However this was later found to be coal from a coastal vessel which had lost it during bad weather. By 1888 some coal discoveries had been reported but the reward was still unclaimed and once again advertised in the Government Gazette.
Some of the first coal deposits discovered in South Australia were at Kuntha Hill, on the Birdsville Track, some 160 kilometres north of Marree. Early in 1885, L. Wilke, on behalf of John Hunter, Charles Adams and himself, submitted a claim to the government for the reward of £10,000. These three men had nine months previously discovered the coal on the Dulkaninna Creek while droving cattle and now decided to form a syndicate and take out a lease over four thousand acres. Within a few days other syndicates were formed and they too took out leases of land adjoining the Kuntha Hill claim.
The deposit was inspected in 1889 by the Government Geologist, Henry Brown, who had previously said that coal could never be found in South Australia. Now he declared that the remoteness of the locality from the railway, which had just reached Hergott Springs (Marree), and the lack of timber and water, would seriously affect the possibility of making this a worthwhile proposition. Still, many people hoped for a long time that the coal could be mined, but after several unsuccessful attempts work ceased.
A hundred years later, in 1989, when Meekatharra Minerals Ltd. investigated the Arckaringa coal deposit near Oodnadatta, a very similar opinion was expressed about its development. However, it was also pointed out that if the Arckaringa deposit were developed it would provide a powerful reason for the extension of the Adelaide-Alice Springs railway line to Darwin. This North-South line, later known as The Ghan, was started in 1878, and has been promised completion after every election campaign held since, but so far the northern part of the line has remained speculation. In November 1994, it was suggested that the Arckaringa deposit could be used for a huge iron ore smelter and power station. When completed, it was said, it would create many hundreds of jobs in the far north of South Australia and transform the state into the 'Ruhr Valley of Australia'.
Six months later, in April 1995, it was reported that the rail link between Alice Springs and Darwin would be completed with the help of South Korean capital. Although the coal may not be of export quality, containing some thirty per cent moisture, South Australian Premier Dean Brown fully supported the deal. Speculation about other advantages of the Arckaringa deposit, included the transformation of Darwin into a major port, where goods could be imported and exported faster and more cheaply than by shipping them around the coast. At a time of continuous high unemployment, particularly in South Australia, statements like these were more than welcome and gave just a ray of hope.
Another deposit, discovered at about the same time as the Kuntha Hill discovery, was at Leigh's Creek. This deposit was much more accessible and more economical to mine than the one at Kuntha Hill. Even so it took almost sixty years, and a lot of political manoeuvring, before it was opened up and finally developed on a big scale. The original Leigh's Creek took its name from the nearby creek and cattle station, both of which were named after Henry Leigh, the first stockman employed on Alexander Glen's sheep and cattle station in 1856.
Although the existence of coal in the Leigh Creek area had been known for thousands of years by local Aborigines, who believed it to be the remains of charcoal from huge fires lit by the Kingfisher man, Yulu Yuluru, it was not 'discovered' by the colonists of South Australia until 1884. While working on the construction of a new railway dam, near present day Copley, John Henry Reid, who had lived in the area for a number of years, had a closer look at the soil dug from the site and became convinced that it showed traces of coal.
In an attempt to prove the existence of coal he sank several shafts and found enough evidence to ask for outside help to continue his search for coal. He tried to float a company but could not find anyone interested and subsequently went into partnership with Samuel Gason, an ex-police trooper, now publican at Beltana, and Drew Williams to make a new start.
The deposit at Leigh's Creek was inspected by Henry Brown during the same trip on which he inspected the Kuntha Hill deposit. One possible reason why it had taken so long for an inspection to be made may have been the total lack of interest at that time. During the second half of the 1880s silver was the wonder mineral of the day. After the rich silver findings at Silverton and Broken Hill everybody looked for, and talked about, silver. Silver deposits were discovered in the Northern Flinders Ranges, and in March 1888 more than 450 applications were made for silver leases alone. When Brown eventually had time to travel north and inspect the coal deposits, he reported,
'I have visited Leigh's Creek and inspected the locality whence the carbonaceous shale previously reported on by me was obtained. This first locality is at the Government tank at the Leigh's Creek railway station. The material taken from the tank is scattered over the surface, and interspersed with the gypsumous clay are small quantities, evidently of the bottom of the tank, of blue and black shale, with leave impressions, fossil wood, and lignite. The quantity of this carbonaceous matter is considerable, some of the shale being so charged with it as to burn slowly. An analysis of a sample by Mr Goyder jun., shows that it contains 39.10 per cent of organic matter'.
The second indication of coal was near Glen's Gums some five miles further north. After having inspected and defined the coal measures remarkably well, he wrote, 'I am of the opinion that there are good grounds for assuming the presence of coal here, and that it is highly desirable that its absence or presence in workable quantities should be demonstrated by sinking shafts or boring. In this case the area is well defined by the outcrops of primary rocks, which will be a guide in sinking'.
This was done, and the partnership of Reid, Gason and Williams employed some experienced coalminers to sink several deeper shafts. Soon the miners had to stop work for want of money. Reid, who was still determined to prove the existence of coal, formed another company, this time in Adelaide. This company also ran out of money after only a short time of exploratory work. While working at the bottom of the shaft, the miners encountered the age-old problem of excess underground water. This put an end to their cherished dreams of a huge fortune.
It was not until after the passing of the Crown Lands Act of 1888, when larger areas became available for mining purposes, that coal mining leases were applied for. The first application to search an area of ten thousand acres was made by W.R. Sando. Another application, made by the Leigh's Creek Coal Prospecting Syndicate, secured the sole right to search for coal over an area of about forty square kilometres near Leigh's Creek for a period of fifteen years. Thomas Briggs, an experienced coalminer, offered his services to the syndicate and drilling commenced near the railway dam. Coal was struck at a depth of about twenty-five metres. The manager then decided to sink a prospecting shaft in order to determine the age of fossil ferns brought up by the drill. Disappointingly the ferns were too shattered to be identified with any particular geological age.
During this operation, and further prospecting of the property, about fifteen distinct varieties of fossil ferns were discovered. This was considered to be enough evidence, according to one newspaper reporter, 'to show that the specimens are either of the Carboniferous or the Jurassic age - both of which are the sources of the world's present coal supply, and as this shale-like strata has been proved to exist over nearly the whole of the syndicate's property, their discovery promises to be the most important ever made in South Australia, the benefit of which, to the North particularly, cannot be overestimated'.
More than sixty years had to pass before this prophecy would be realised. After further drilling they too struck water at a rate of more than six hundred litres per hour. This proved a costly setback for the syndicate as three continuous shifts were needed to keep the water out. On recommendation of the government geologist, assistance from the government was received in the form of a diamond drill and the payment of two-thirds of the cost of boring, amounting to well over £4,000 by 1891.
Using some of the bore-samples a local resident from Copley found a good use for the coal. By burning the coal in an iron tube he found that it produced a gas which he was able to light at the mouth of the tube. Many years later in 1949, W. Schneider, lecturer at the School of Mines, suggested that Leigh Creek coal should be used for the production of gas and petrol. During the long New South Wales coal strikes in the winter of 1949, the South Australian Gas Company did use Leigh Creek coal for gasification. Although not really suitable nor economical for that purpose, it did keep up the gas supply during the emergency. Despite these obstacles the South Australian Government Fuel Research Advisory Committee agreed to continue with the research and send a hundred tons of Leigh Creek coal to Germany for further testing.
On 16 October 1889 the Leigh's Creek Coal Mining Company N.L. was incorporated. Both Drew Williams and Clement Giles became directors of the company which had a capital of £25,000, made up of twenty-five thousand shares of £1 each. According to the manager, Robert Redman, 22,670 shares were taken up almost immediately. The company intended to start work near the Leigh's Creek railway station. Its office was at Melvin Chambers, King William Street, Adelaide, with Gordon, Nesbit and Bright solicitors for the company. In February 1890 the Leigh's Creek Coal Mining Company N.L. completed the set-up of the diamond drill. All was in readiness to start work and send cores from the drilling operations to the government geologist Henry Brown.