Postcards from the Past, Present and Future

Lithgow sign at Bracey Lookout Hassans Walls (Tracie McMahon)

Story by Tracie McMahon

Lithgow has changed dramatically since 1910 when the needs of a growing industrial City resulted in deforestation and pollution. We’ve taken drone footage to compare Lithgow in 1910 with Lithgow today and we discuss the encouraging progress we’ve made in regenerating our City.


Key Points:

  • Lithgow’s industrial past resulted in deforestation and poor air quality.
  • Changes in government policy, together with community attitudes and local actions have led to significant reforestation and cleaner air.
  • Locals can continue to contribute to this recovery through individual and collaborative actions that preserve and protect vegetation and air quality.

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Close your eyes. What is your memory of Lithgow? What do you see, hear, smell, feel?

Like most Lithgow kids of the 1980s I played a lot of sport in the shadows of Scotsmans Hill and Macaulay Mountain. Once the sun dipped below the horizon the temperature plummeted. But it’s not just the cold I remember: I can still taste and feel the gritty tang of coal smoke as I sucked in air to recover from another lap of the oval.   

As a soccer mum of the noughties, the mist that followed every breath remained, but the acrid smoke was gone. These are the changes of only a few decades. What would a resident of Lithgow from early last century have remembered?

This photo sourced from the Eskbank House Museum collection was taken above Cook St on what is now Hassans Walls Reserve. Notice the treeless landscape and the billowing stacks of industry on the Eskbank Estate.

Lithgow circa 1910. Courtesy Eskbank House Museum Collection.

Take a moment and consider Lithgow then and now. You can orient yourself by finding the double story timber building and the row of cottages on the right of the picture. This is Lithgow Public School and the corner of Short and Eskbank Street. Current day landmarks like Hoskins Church had not been built.

Our team recreated this photo using a drone in May 2023. It reveals the metamorphosis of Lithgow.

Photos Tracie McMahon. Drone Footage and video production: Harry Afentoglou 

When I watch the clip and look at the photo, I have so many questions. I want to know why there were no trees and how they grew back. I also want to know who to thank for the clean air!

Deforestation

My research reveals that Lithgow was not the only place to lose vegetation. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century land clearing was not only prolific but mandatory. The Crown Lands Alienation Act of 1861 required all landholders to ‘develop’ their lands or return them to the government of the day. 

In Lithgow, timber was viewed as one of the valley’s resources. Its uses were many, including mining props, railway sleepers, fuel and construction materials for housing and commercial premises. Lithgow’s industrial heritage provided the coal and steel that built cities and railway lines to ‘open up’ Australia to settlement. The barren hills and smokestacks of the photo from 1910 are an outcome of the policies and attitudes of the era.

Fast forward to this century, and a review of native forest clearing by Corey Bradshaw, a South Australian academic, indicates that between colonisation and 2010 Australia had destroyed 38% of its native forests.

Hassans Walls Reserve is now managed by Lithgow City Council and removal of trees is regulated by legislation, preventing a return to the ‘moonscape’ of the past.  Since 1910, some vegetation has reestablished, but the regrowth is still in its infancy.

The photo below shows the absence of trees at the opening of Bracey Lookout in 1953. The photo to the right is taken in August 2023. The two eucalypts in the photo on the right are less than seventy years old. They are barely ‘teenagers’.  Imagine how tall and wide they will be in the future.

Picture of Bracey Lookout opening 1953 displayed on signage at the lookout (L). The lookout today (R). Notice the concrete filled oil drums of the original construction and tall Eucalypts. (Tracie McMahon)

The ‘greening’ of Lithgow evident in the video clip also showcases community actions. Gone are the barren streets and backyards of a community struggling to establish itself. Now there are verdant gardens, nature strips and parks. The ‘green thumbs’ of Lithgow support two garden clubs, three dedicated landscaping nurseries, a community garden at the PCYC, a heritage garden at Eskbank House and a tree arboretum at Wallerawang. Many of these organisations are operated or assisted by volunteers who are digging, planting and nurturing Lithgow’s environment. 

Volunteers also assist community groups like Lithgow and Oberon Landcare Association Inc. and Lithgow and District Community Nursery Landcare’s current activities include tree planting at Lake Pillans, Farmers Creek and Clarence. Past activities include the rehabilitation of Lake Pillans and mass tree planting at Lake Lyall.

Lithgow Oberon Landcare Lake Pillans Planting 26 August 2023 – 195 native species were planted. (Tracie McMahon)

Actions like these not only look good but improve environmental health and moderate the extremes of Lithgow’s climate. Bradshaw’s research indicates deforestation accelerates climate change in two ways: clearing releases carbon into the atmosphere and increases land surface heat as the cooling shade of the canopy is lost.  

Revegetating our neighbourhoods appropriately also contributes to an ecology that supports all life.  When we plant, we attract pollinators. Other flora and fauna follow. Regenerative land care practices are showing that soil, fungi, plants, animals and their complex networks can also repair the damaging effects of industrial processes.

Hassans Walls Reserve:  False Sarsaparilla (Hardenbergia violacea) twines around Sunshine wattle (Acacia terminalis). Blue Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus oreades) behind. (Tracie McMahon)

Air quality

Unsurprisingly, regulations around air pollution have now been established. P.C. Manins, a CSIRO researcher, summarised the history of Australian air pollution in the 20th century in decades: the 40s and 50s were “smoke-stack industries” and the 60s a time of “heightened awareness”. It wasn’t until the 70s that Australia began to measure clean air and then legislate and enforce air quality measures.

For me, the difference between the 80s and the 2000s is most obvious. In the 80s, a yellow layer of smoke settled into the valley on wintry days. From this time onwards, cleaner production methods were introduced and better tools became available for air monitoring. Standards on motor vehicle emissions, domestic appliances and backyard burning were adopted and tightened. Consequently, air quality improved substantially in urban and rural areas by the year 2000. Manins’ research concludes that “the Australian community continues to rate air quality as the number one environmental concern, probably because dirty air is often so visible or smelly.”

I wasn’t the only one who noticed.

In Lithgow, when State and Federal legislation changed, workplaces and industrial sites such as mines, factories and farms adapted to ensure compliance with the new legislation. Domestic air pollution measures including vehicle emissions and household heating also took effect.

Lithgow City Council has responded to legislative change and community expectations with policies restricting backyard burning and ensuring wood-fired heaters are operating correctly. They also provide a rebate to replace coal burning appliances (donkey boilers).

Deborah McGrath, Corporate Planning and Communications Officer at Lithgow City Council identified that since the mid-2000s almost 100 appliances have been replaced under the rebate scheme. There are now less than twenty coal burning appliances remaining across the LGA. The use of these appliances and all solid-fuel heaters is governed by EPA regulations. Lithgow City Council can also issue smoke abatement notices under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997.

In a time of cost-of-living pressures, it can be difficult to replace an appliance, but everyone can contribute to cleaner air by ensuring solid-fuel heaters and appliances are operating correctly.  Simple things like cleaning the chimney each year, using dry fuel and ensuring adequate air flow to maintain a flame all work. Lithgow City Council’s website has a list of ten simple steps to reduce wood smoke pollution.

Clear skies on a cool August morning. 9 am and not a puff of smoke evident. (Tracie McMahon)

The future?

I hold these sights and sounds of Lithgow in my memory. Today, however, I smell the honeyed scent of sunshine wattle and hear the rattle of leaves as a pre-Spring gust brushes the eucalypt that towers over me. I am hopeful that if someone recreates this story in another 120 years they will be able to place themselves by landmarking enormous trees. I hope they find the large Blaxland’s Stringybark on the edge of Bracey Lookout and stop for a moment to wonder; to see, to hear, to smell and to feel. I hope they try to give it a hug, feel the rough graininess of the bark and smell the embedded mustiness of past rain as wattlebirds chortle overhead.

What do you hope for?

Hugging a Blaxland’s Stringybark (Eucalyptus blaxlandii). This tree is also visible in the 1953 photo top left above the concrete shelter (now removed), suggesting it is at least 100 years old.


Take Action:

  • Plant appropriate vegetation. Lithgow and District Community Nursery provide advice and locally grown native plants. The nursery is open Friday, Saturday and Monday at 2A Coalbrook St Lithgow.
  • Get involved with tree planting and regeneration with Landcare. Contact: Steve Fleischmann, Landcare Coordinator, Lithgow and Oberon Landcare Association Steven.Fleischmann@lithgow.nsw.gov.au or 0419795781
  • If you have a coal-fired appliance, consider replacing it using the alternate fuel rebate scheme. Details can be found at https://council.lithgow.com/environment/pollution/air-quality/
  • Operate solid-fuel heaters according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Lithgow City Council has ten simple steps to minimising air pollution, including cleaning the flu, and maintaining air flow to the fire. See: https://council.lithgow.com/environment/pollution/air-quality/

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Further reading

Soil: Why it Matters! Discusses the importance of soil when building and constructing.

Hassans Walls: a Gem to Discover! A bushwalk with the authors of Native Plants Hassans Walls Reserve.

Fantastic Fungi. An overview of fungi and its contribution to the environment

Citizen Science at Lake Pillans. A lesson in using iNaturalist and ecological diversity at rehabilitated Lake Pillans with an ecologist.

“Every Seed and Every Plant Counts”: Lithgow & District Community Nursery. Visit the nursery and learn what they do and their contribution to Lithgow’s environment.

Mary Brown’s Reimagined Edible Heritage Garden. A brief history of Thomas Brown and Eskbank House, including a snapshot of Lithgow’s industrial past.

Research referred to in this story

Bradshaw, C. J. A. (2012). Little left to lose: deforestation and forest degradation in Australia since European colonization. Journal of Plant Ecology, 5, 1, 109-120.

Manins, P. (2000). Air Pollution in 20th Century Australia. Clean Air and Environmental Quality, 34, 3, 30–36. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.663409290290973

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.

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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