Historic mining town in the wilds of Western Tasmania.
Located 293 km north west of Hobart, 38 km north of Queenstown and 155 km south of Burnie and 172 metres above sea level, Zeehan is a classic mining town. While the older sections of Zeehan are genuinely very interesting and give some indication of what the town must have been like when it had a population of 10 000. The new sections are really identikit mining town and is no different from any one of a thousand mining towns. Standard issue permulum houses abound. There is a modern library. A modern police station. Zeehan has spread down the main street with the old part of the town, which is worth exploring, being located at the far end of the town.
This contradiction has been well captured by the poet Graeme Hetherington who has written of the town:
Brand new and temporary. With one-night rooms, brick-veneer, fake stone
Bars, Dining Room, Reception, cars. The motel stood, spread here and there,
A boom town's bag of gold dust. Among the areas of swamp,
Heaps of mullock, caved-in shafts. And sections of a fallen water race
Once raised up high On thin and spreading stilts.
Still the town is worth visiting. The main street is a reminder of a bygone era and the local Museum is outstanding.
Zeehan was one of the first places in Tasmania ever seen by Europeans. As early as 1642 Abel Tasman sighted the mountain peak which was subsequently named Mount Zeehan after the brig in which he was sailing. It was Bass and Flinders, travelling around the Tasmanian coast in 1802, who named both Mount Zeehan and Mount Heemskirk after the two boats used by Tasman in his epic voyage.
The area, which was wild and rugged, remained unexplored until the discovery of tin at Mt Bischoff in 1871. In the years that followed prospectors rushed the area and a certain mining craziness set in. In 1879 tin was discovered at Mount Heemskirk north of the present site of Zeehan. It led to a boom which saw more than 50 companies staking claims over some 6400 hectares of what would prove to be hopeless and useless country. There were even leases sold on the beaches along the coast. By the 1880s there were only a dozen mines working in the Heemskirk area.
In late 1882 four miners moved further south and in December a man named Frank Long discovered silver-lead near the present day site of Zeehan. It led to the largest mining boom on Tasmania's west coast with Zeehan being dubbed the 'Silver City of the West' and, within a decade, Zeehan growing to become the third largest town in Tasmania. This is hardly surprising. Long's first samples had yielded 70 ounces of silver per ton.
By 1884 there was a paling hut, the Despatch Hut, at Zeehan and John Moyle, employed by the Despatch Syndicate, had become the first mine manager in the district.
Over the next decade Zeehan boomed. At its height in 1891 there were 159 companies with mining leases in the area. Trial Harbour was the port and there was a muddy and difficult road from the Trial Harbour Hotel to Zeehan.
By the 1890s the town had developed an air of sophistication. There was a Zeehan Stock Exchange which boasted 60 members. Each year, from 1890-1910, the mines earned an average of £200,000. The main street was full of elegant buildings including banks, theatres and hotels.
By 1910 the ore bodies which had sustained Zeehan began to give out and the town slowly declined. By the 1950s it had a population of only 650 and the last silver mine in Zeehan closed down in 1960. It looked as though it was about to become a ghost town. However, the town continues to exist and prosper because many of the men who work at Renison Bell, which is only 15 km away, live in the town and commute to the mine.
The Gaiety Theatre/Grand Hotel
It is hard to imagine that when Zeehan was a roaring town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the Gaiety Theatre, which seated 1000 people, was the largest concert hall and theatre in Australia. Such was its prestige that during that time it saw Enrico Caruso, Dame Nellie Melba and the infamous Lola Montez all treading the boards and entertaining the wealthy miners. It has even been claimed that Lola Montez, outraged at a review in the local paper, horsewhipped the editor although this story is said to have happened in Ballarat. A favourite with the miners was the All Male Welsh Choir which packed out the theatre. Next door the Grand Hotel charged city hotel rates (ten shillings a day) and offered city services.
The Zeehan School of Mines and Metallurgy was established in 1892 and ran courses in geology, assaying and surveying. Today it has been converted into the Zeehan Museum. It is a fascinating museum which offers the visitor an excellent overview of the history of the west coast of Tasmania from convict days through to the modern mining towns. It has one of the finest collections of minerals in the world. Next door are a series of beautifully preserved old engines from the local areas. There has been a substantial amount of money spent on the museum to make it into a very genuine tourist attraction.