West Coast

Kelly Basin mining settlement, c 1890 (W.L. Crowther Library, SLT)

The West Coast has always been separate: an island within an island. Isolated by its geography and the nature of its community, its relationship with the remainder of Tasmania has often been marked by tensions and contradictions.

Occupying a third of the island and home to the smallest regional population, the west has, since the 1880s, generated through its mines a major share of Tasmania's wealth, and in hard times ensured its economic survival. Its people have been leaders in developing innovative mining practices, mountain railways and the harvesting of fine timbers. Sadly, some of the west's natural beauty has suffered in the process of creating this wealth.

West coasters have formed a distinctive social group, complementing the traditionally rural and increasingly urban Tasmanian mainstream. Resilient and articulate, they often reacted to perceived neglect by governments and administrators. The close-knit mining communities learned to fight for political representation, for facilities such as schools and hospitals, and for workplace justice through pioneering industrial unions.

Early observers of the west coast, Flinders, Evans and Hobbs, described it as a waste, a land hostile to settlement. Lt-Governor Sorell saw it as an ideal repository for the worst convicts. The mountains and forests that resisted explorers and road-builders have now been recognised as its most valuable resource, and much has been included in the World Heritage Area. In a strange reversal, the very features of the west that isolated it and created hardship for its pioneers now draw tourists worldwide and contribute greatly to the island's economy.

Further reading: C Binks, Explorers of western Tasmania, Launceston, 1980; and Pioneers of Tasmania's west coast, Hobart, 1988; G Blainey, The peaks of Lyell, Melbourne, 1954; K Pink, The west coast story, Zeehan, 1982; C Whitham, Western Tasmania, Queenstown, 1924.

Chris Binks