Mining has been an important industry in Australia and has impacted not only the national economy but immigration patterns as well. Silver and copper began to be mined as early as the 1840s, followed by the discovery of gold in 1851 in New South Wales and Victoria, transforming Victoria into the richest colony in Australia. Australia is also a leading supplier of iron, nickel, uranium, zinc, and coal. In addition to its ores, Australian mines also produce diamonds and opals.
The bounty hidden below ground was not extracted without a price, however. During the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, Australia, like most countries, had few safety regulations for miners. This resulted in numerous mining disasters across the nation.
The worst occurred in 1902 in New South Wales, near Mount Kembla. An explosion claimed the lives of 96 men who were either working in the mine or who died attempting to rescue the others. No family in town was spared the loss of a relative.
In March, 1900, five men were killed while being lowered down Birthday shaft at the Balmain Colliery. The bucket in which they were contained tipped, spilling them into the shaft. This accident led to new regulations requiring mine owners to install guide rails to prevent the buckets from tipping or swinging in the shaft.
The Birthday shaft claimed three more lives when it was being sealed in 1945. A test caused natural gas to explode beneath the seal. In addition to the fatalities, two more men were injured in the blast.
A fire claimed the lives of 42 men at the North Mount Lyell site in October, 1912. The cause of the fire was never positively determined.
In Far North Queensland, 75 men were killed in 1921 at Mount Mulligan. The official report stated that the explosions were caused by the use of open flames for lighting.
In March of 1887, an explosion killed 81 men at Bulli. The investigating commission ruled that it was caused by an accumulation of carbonic hydrate or marsh gas at the face, and that the ignition was probably provided by an overcharged shot that a miner fired.
As grim as these disasters may be, they are far from the worst mining accidents in history. In the United States, at least 361 miners died in 1907 at a Consolidated Coal mine in West Virginia, and another 239 died four days later at a different mine in Pennsylvania. An explosion at a mine in France killed 1,100 men in 1906, and 447 miners lost their lives in a 1963 explosion at a mine in Japan. A 1942 accident in Manchuria claimed an astonishing 1,549 lives and is likely the world’s worst mining disaster ever.