Page 4 – Mining at Charming Creek

After the closure of the state mine in 1914, the block of coal discovered in the headwaters of Charming Creek created interest. The problem was how to transport the coal from an inaccessible area surrounded by dense forest. Local sawmiller Robert Watson, who had constructed a bush railway up the Ngakawau gorge to his mill near the mouth of Charming Creek in 1912, proposed to extend this 4 kms upstream to the coal. Finance for the railway extension and mine development was raised by a share issue, and the Charming Creek mine started producing coal in 1929.

In operation from 1929 to 1986, the Charming Creek mine was to become one of the longest-lived mines in New Zealand. At its peak in the 1940s it employed about 70 men, producing over 40,000 tonnes a year. Total production was over a million tonnes.

Inside information?

The first lease over the Charming Creek area was taken out by Robert Watson (Granity) and Francis Harriet James (Wellington). As Mrs James was the wife of the general manager of the State Coal Mines, this caused considerable comment. But as State Coal Mines had declined to work the area a decade earlier, there was hardly a case for conflict of interest.

The mine was remote from the nearest settlements. Some of the miners lived in Seddonville, and had an 8-km bush walk to work every day. The rest lived in Ngakawau, and rode to work in the empty mine tubs. After a road to the mine from Seddonville was opened in 1948, miners were transported by bus.

Industrial trouble

The late 1920s was not a good time to start a mine. The demand for coal dropped during the Depression, and there was fierce competition for sales. The directors of the Charming Creek Coal Company were prepared to undercut the price of coal from the longer established mines at Millerton and Stockton. Because no other jobs were available, Charming Creek miners were forced to accept a form of contract work known as the tribute system, which was strongly opposed by the large mining unions. This was to lead to an ugly confrontation.

In the early hours of 26 May 1931, more than 200 miners, led by union officials from the Stockton and Millerton mines, trekked up the Charming Creek railway, arriving just as work was about to start. They frog-marched the Charming Creek miners back to Ngakawau where they were forced to leave the district under police escort, showered with what the Grey River Argus termed 'Irish confetti' (bricks or stones).

The government sent police to restore order, and the protest leaders were subsequently arrested and fined. Within a few weeks the Charming Creek mine was working again, but the events were to leave a legacy of mistrust that persisted for decades. Over the years a number of private mines opened in the Seddonville area, but the miners there remained apart from the strongly unionised miners south of the Ngakawau River.

Charming Creek railway

The railway line through the Ngakawau gorge and the lower reaches of Charming Creek was hewn through solid rock, about 9 m above the river, and includes several tunnels and bridges. The largest is a 37-m suspension bridge across the Ngakawau River. Tractors modified to run on rails pulled the coal trucks.

The line from the mine to Ngakawau drops more than 100 m. To assist braking with a heavy load of coal, a raised wooden centre rail was installed in the steepest sections of the line; the brake was applied by winding a handle at the back of the engine.

The railway closed in 1958, and coal was then trucked to the railhead at Seddonville. The Charming Creek walkway now follows the line of the old railway, and is one of the most spectacular bush walks on the West Coast.

How to cite this page

'Mining at Charming Creek', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012