Site Name: Kanahooka Smelter
Address: Brookes Terrace Roadway
GPS Coordinates: H300062 E6180900 HSL 15.00Metres
Site Access: Public Access
What can be seen at site: Large retaining wall structures, foundations for major machinery and acid plants, remains of process buildings, explanatory materials at site

 

Montage of smelter plant ca 1900
 (From the collections of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society)

Remains of acid tower foundations, 2015
(From the collections of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society)

An early industry

The smelter operated on the southern edge of Lake Illawarra operated for only a few years. Constructed in the 1890s, it closed down some ten years after startup for a number of reasons, including the inability to source feed material by sea, as had originally been expected. The site saw a number of uses over subsequent years, and was eventually the subject of a redevelopment which, with the participation of local council and heritage interest groups, incorporated the preservation of substantial items from the original smelter construction. The preserved materials are more than sufficient to indicate the scale of what was, for its day, a large, modern operation.

Why the smelter was important

The metallurgical plant operated on the shores of Lake Illawarra at the end of the 19th century and was a significant undertaking in several ways. It was the first large scale ore processing plant able to handle oxide ores and also sulphur-bearing ores of various types. The latter were ores which had otherwise been left in the ground in a number of mining operations as it was not economic to treat them on a small scale. It thus contributed to the overall economics of mining and metals production. It was an operation of a significant scale, as shown by its output,and from the remains of the plant still able to be viewed at the site, and from photographic records. It was of notable importance to the developing Australian economy of the late 19th century.

Inground flue duct incorporated in development, 2015

(From the collections of the Wollongong City Library and the
Illawarra Historical Society)

A new harbour

The smelter was constructed in 1895 at a time when there was still unresolved contention as to the location of a major port for the Illawarra. The plant was constructed on the western side of Lake Illawarra in expectation that ultimately it would receive its major raw materials (particularly ores from other Australian states and New Caledonia) by sea. Over the period of its operation it received most materials by rail and, when Port Kembla was finally confirmed as the site for the major port, moves were made to relocate the smelter to the Port Kembla area.

Process plant

The Dapto site included blast furnaces, roasting plant, a sulphuric acid plant, and the related ancillary equipment. The plant was modern using telephone communications, and electric lighting - the first works in Australia to do so. The roasting plant (which treated the sulphide ores) and blast furnaces commenced operations in 1897 and for some years the plant enjoyed profitable operation producing 'Dore' bullion (mixed gold and silver), soft lead, and copper matte containing also gold, silver and lead. Its output was considerable: in the first half of 1902 its average monthly production included 3,501 ounces of gold, 52,883 ounces of silver, 564 tons of lead and 26 tons of copper. In the second half of that year, its precious metal production nearly doubled. At its height, the smelter employed at times 400 to 500 men, many of whom lived in tented sites near the plant. 1903, it produced £ 900,000 in bullion alone. But that was not to last and output fell to one third of that in 1904.

A brief outline of the site and its processes done in 2004 as part of archaeological assessment of the site prior to its development provides more information on the relatively complex processes employed in the smelter.

Falling profitability

The smelter's fall from profitability was due to several factors, including inability to source adequate ore supplies, and the absence of economic sea transport. The Dapto plant closed in 1905, and in 1906 work commenced to shift the plant to Port Kembla. Despite having made substantial expenditure on that, work was stopped in 1907, and in 1909 the then owning company went into liquidation. The site has subsequently been re-developed, but significant remnants of structures have been preserved and are open to be viewed. They serve to illustrate well the scale of the relatively short-lived smelter operation.