In my book, I commented that the big mine at Mt. Lyell got under way nearly a century ago. When I wrote that, during my first trip to Australia, it was true. However, soon after my visit, the mine passed the 100-year mark.
Miners, against all odds, had begun looking for gold in Tasmania in the late 1800s, as gold had been abundant on the mainland. Getting to sites that seemed good for prospecting was not easy, and getting supplies involved moving gear up river from Strahan and then just carrying everything the last several miles.
It turned out that there was no gold, but a few savvy investors realized that everything being dug up (and, early on, thrown out by those seeking gold) was copper—tons of it. With a plan to both mine copper and build a railway, to facilitate supplying a mine, the Mt. Lyell Mining & Railway Company was formed in March of 1893. The railway was built, and by 1901, the mine was thriving and Queenstown was growing rapidly, as more miners, families, and support services moved in.
I mention in the book that I bought a sample of stichtite, a stone that, while attractive, interested me primarily because its existence had been hypothesized before the stone was discovered. That hypothesis was put forward by the mining company’s brilliant metallurgist and general manager, American Robert Sticht, for whom the stone was fairly obviously named. But this theorizing was not the limit of Sticht’s contribution. By 1902, Sticht had perfected a system of smelting that used sulphides that existed within the ore to generate and maintain heat. His system revolutionized smelting worldwide and resulted in a dramatic reduction in the amount of fuel needed for this operation.
Over its first 100 years, the mine produced more than 130 million tons of ore. However, the mine had the kind of history such things have, with successes tempered by tragedies. Mud slides, mine fires, and economic upheavals dotted the timeline of ore production.
By the time of my visit, falling copper prices had already seriously undermined any possibility of the mine’s continuation. Shortly after the mine’s 100th birthday, it was closed for a year, and then the mine was sold to an Indian company. The mine now supplies copper to India.
The image below is one of the huge open-cut mines on top of Mt. Lyell. (Most of the mining is now done underground.)