Newnes: An Unforgettable Place


A chair on the Philosopher’s Walk looking through the Wolgan Valley. The chair was placed by Thomas Ebersoll in 2018. It, like Thomas, survived the fire, flood and landslips.

Story and photos by Tracie McMahon

The Wolgan Valley was labelled the “Forgotten Valley” by Greg Bearup in the Weekend Australian following the closure of Wolgan Gap Road. He posed the question “With the onset of more extreme weather, will some areas of the country simply become too expensive, or too dangerous, for human habitation?” Yet some people, like Thomas Ebersoll, owner of Newnes Hotel Holiday Cabins and Campground, remain resilient and ready to face this challenge.

Key Points:

  • Newnes is located in a fragile environment, prone to high rainfall and natural disasters.
  • Newnes Hotel Cabins and Campground have been constructed with an awareness of both the need to protect this fragile environment and the heightened risk of natural disaster.
  • Risk-conscious design and maintenance has enabled the business to continue to operate despite challenging circumstances.

Visiting the town of Newnes in the Wolgan Valley is like stepping into a time machine. You can see and touch the remnants of the world before petrol, when shale oil was king; poke your head amongst a tumble of bricks that cooked the coking coal; and marvel at the engineering that blasted through a hillside for an impossible descent into the valley by nineteenth century steam locomotives.

The remnants of the thousand-strong population and the economic folly of trying to extract natural resources from such a volatile landscape are everywhere, preserved by their remoteness. By the 1930s, the Shale Works was closed, with much of the infrastructure moved to Glen Davis or sold. All that remained was the hotel and a few homes: housing only four families by 1940.

coke oven at newnes

The brickwork of coke ovens now provides a home for coral ferns, grasses and insects

But Newnes was not forgotten. The surrounding river flats became a holiday retreat for those wanting a ‘getaway’ and the hotel became a kiosk supplying campers with ice creams and cool drinks. Its wide verandahs were a welcome respite from summer heat and driving rain until the deluge of 1986, when the Wolgan River swallowed the hotel’s lilting back verandah in one gulp.

The Wolgan valley is no stranger to flood and, since the Hotel’s construction in 1906, the river has changed course, moving thirty metres closer to the building. In the 1986 downfall, it seemed nature had won its battle over the industrialists, reclaiming the last functioning remnant of the shale town.

But the friends of Newnes were not willing to let it go and in 1987, 186 volunteers cut the hotel into pieces and moved it by hand over three days to its present location. Bit by bit the hotel was pieced together, a crane lifted the roof into place and the roofing iron was nailed back on.

newnes hotel relocation 1987

The Friends of Newnes celebrating the relocation of the Newnes Hotel (Courtesy Thomas Ebersoll – Allan Watson collection)

The building was now safe, but much of its contents had disappeared or were damaged in the flood, and the hotel continued its demise. Camping fees and a weekend kiosk could not fund the repairs necessary. In 1996, the owner placed a piece of cardboard on a star picket: “For Sale – Enquire within”.  

Thomas Ebersoll joins the story

In the 1990s Thomas was a frequent visitor to Newnes, getting away from the busyness of city life, and noticed the sign. He says, “I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Everyone said I was crazy, but I could see the potential, and I wanted to do it.” He and his wife Helen purchased the property.

And so it began. Thomas in a caravan with a generator, a head full of ideas, and a passion to create a space where people could “sit, chill out and be quiet”. Over the next fifteen years, Thomas has restored the hotel, built four self-contained cabins, an amenities block and sympathetic infrastructure.

He and his wife Helen, and daughter Marianna, explored the area as they worked, researching, learning and sharing their hospitality and knowledge with visitors.

The property has approval for five more cabins and a second shower and toilet block, but Thomas feels that what he has is enough. He scoffs when I ask how he feels about the risks of owning and running the business. He says, “I don’t own anything. What a stupid concept. It was here before me and will be after. If the river claims this place, I have to accept it. I just care for it now.”

Thomas takes me on a tour of the infrastructure and the cabins, explaining how he cares for the property:

Building for resilience

Power is supplied by an array of solar panels which can be tilted to ensure sunlight is captured all year round. The panels supply more electricity than is needed with surplus power harvested by a battery. A back-up generator is in place if the batteries fall below 80% charge. Gas bottles are brought in as needed for gas hot water and cooking appliances.

At peak occupancy the Newnes Campground and Cabins can house 23 in the cabins and a village of hundreds on the campground. Prior to the road closures the campground regularly had 200 visitors on both Easter and October long weekends. Campers at the nearby National Parks and Wildlife Service Little Capertee Creek Campground also often used the amenities.

Thomas says this peak period is the only time when the back-up generator has had to be relied upon. Outside these peaks he usually has power to supply the business’ needs for six months.

Solar Panels and a working vegetable garden provide sustenance and power

A wood-fired barbecue and campfire area is set between the cabins. Below the amenities block Thomas has built a wood-fired pizza oven and camp kitchen. The pizza oven is a particular favourite with groups of campers. He just needs 24 hours’ notice to fire it up and ensure it’s ready to go.

Sewage from the cabins and toilet blocks is treated via a series of ‘Wisconsin Mounds: a system of interlinked septic tanks and underground tunnels and filters. Thomas says, “The whole system is just like a living creature with micro-organisms, sun and minerals working together to clean our human and water wastes.” Only eco-friendly chemicals are used, and some simple tips are provided in each cabin, like wiping greasy dishes with paper towel, to ensure the system remains healthy.

wisconsin mounds at newnes hotel

The effluent disposal system ensures that waste is treated effectively and does not damage the environment.

The Hotel grounds have a productive garden with vegetables, fruit and poultry. Visitors are welcome to share the produce on an ‘as needs and always leave some for the next person’ basis. Water for the gardens is harvested from the cabin roofs and drinking water is supplied by a spring behind the Hotel grounds. Water for firefighting is sourced from the river, with a firefighting pump permanently in place.

The question of firefighting resources leads me to ask about Thomas’ experience in the Black Summer fires. The Wolgan Valley was surrounded by the Gospers Mountain fire and Thomas remained on site with two NPWS firefighters who found themselves unable to leave the valley.

Thomas Ebersoll explains the features of the property which reduce the bushfire risk. (Click to play; 2min 37sec)

The cabins feature Thomas’ craftsmanship as well as his desire to minimise waste and honour the materials he is working with. Even the smallest off-cut can be used with the edges of cornices and architraves fashioned into handles or small pieces of art depicting the surrounding landscape.

Inside a cabin, Thomas Ebersoll pointing out use of ‘waste’ construction materials.

Inside a cabin, Thomas Ebersoll pointing out use of ‘waste’ construction materials.

The future of Newnes Hotel

Prior to the landslip that closed the Wolgan Valley Road, Thomas was in the process of preparing the business for sale. He says at 68 he was finding the work of maintaining and operating the business was just getting too much. But now?

Thomas is not one for resting. He says, “Change is inevitable, you have to accept it. There might be another fire, another flood. With less people coming, I can manage. It will be five to ten years before there is any road.”

He says it has given him time to work on other ideas he has wanted to pursue. He points to three turn of the century train carriages which he has been restoring as a dedication to Allan Watson, who operated the Newnes Hotel weekend kiosk from the 1950s, after spending much of his childhood holidays at Newnes. Allan had started the project but was unable to complete it before his death in 2017. Thomas has completed it. The carriages are lined up next to the hotel, with a framed photo of Allan displayed in front.

He is also designing a nine-metre octagonal pergola for the space behind the hotel. He hopes to create a beautiful quiet space for small events, artists, and environmental enthusiasts to gather.

newnes hotel pagoda

Thomas Ebersoll’s next vision for Newnes – still planning for the future.

For now, Thomas is happy to maintain the extensive grounds and welcome guests to the cabins and campground under escort arrangements. The valley is recovering, and many of its occupants including the flora and fauna, are returning. This moment in time is just one in the Newnes story and an unforgettable opportunity to witness firsthand nature and people adapting and recovering to a changing landscape.

Visitors should check the National Parks and Wildlife Services Alerts page to ensure any planned activities are permitted and can be conducted safely. The area is still prone to instability and road access via the Donkey Steps is under regular maintenance.

Further Reading

Bearup, G. (November 4-5, 2023) Forgotten Valley, The Weekend Australian, p. 19.

Take Action:

  • Consider whether your property is prepared for environmental risks, and how you can prepare at both the building and maintenance stage to minimise these risks.
  • Visit Newnes and experience what it is like to live ‘off-grid’.
  • To learn more about the history of Newnes or the Wolgan Valley visit the Lithgow Library and Learning Centre. The Local Studies collection is extensive and Library staff are happy to assist.

Share this article:

This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Tracie McMahon

Tracie lives, writes and walks on the unceded lands of the Dharug, Gundungurra and Wiradjuri people. Born in Lithgow, she and her family have spent most of their lives living and working with the people and places of the Lithgow area. Her passions are nature and community, which she pursues through story, art, and volunteering in Lithgow and the Blue Mountains.

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