A mining disaster put Tasmania’s tiny Beaconsfield on the map in 2006 and, ironically, it has reaped the benefits ever since.
Story By Andrew Bain
In the Tasmanian town of Beaconsfield, 40 kilometres north of Launceston, the phrase “sitting on a gold mine” is more than a metaphor. Directly beneath its streets, more than a kilometre underground, miners burrow through the hard earth in search of gold, working tunnels that, for two weeks in 2006, turned this small community into the most famous town in Australia.
On Anzac Day that year, a rock fall in the mine killed Larry Knight and trapped Brant Webb and Todd Russell. For a fortnight the country watched as rescue workers struggled to free the pair. It was an accident that ultimately revealed as much about Beaconsfield’s spirit of mateship and community as the nation’s fascination for an against-the-odds survival story – this town built on gold clearly also had a heart of gold.
“Before the accident I’d kept pretty much to myself and I hadn’t actually seen the spirit of the town until we got out,” Brant says. “But the whole time I was underground my family never had to cook a meal. It was unbelievable how many people rocked up that we didn’t know from a bar of soap. It was pretty incredible.”
Gold and the mines have been central to Beaconsfield throughout much of its history. The precious metal was first discovered near the town – then known as Brandy Creek for the colour of the water in a nearby stream – in 1877, prompting a goldrush that swelled its population to around 3500 people. More than 50 companies worked the fields and Beaconsfield was said to be the third busiest town in Tasmania, after Hobart and Launceston. By the time the mines closed in 1914, in large part due to the cost of constantly pumping out water, about 24,000 kilograms of gold had been extracted. For 85 years mining ceased, until the Hart Shaft was reopened and the first gold poured in 1999.
Today Beaconsfield is home to around 1050 people, and along Weld Street, the town’s main road, there are still faint reminders of the golden good times, with a handful of goldrush-era buildings sitting among a more modern scene that includes a wholefood store and gem dealer. The three pubs all date from the 19th century, while the striking red-brick Uniting church was the first Methodist church built in Tasmania, preceding another pioneering moment for Beaconsfield – in 1953 it was the first Australian town to fluoridate its water.
This story excerpt is from Issue #69
Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2010