The Latrobe Valley in Gippsland has been described as the Ruhr of Australia. Open cut mines covering hundreds of acres scar the valley. Extensive urban areas, Morwell, Traralgon, Moe-Newborough-Yallourn North, and Churchill fringe the industrial developments. Power stations, with their ever present exhaust plumes dominate the landscape.
Extensive deposits of brown coal underlie a basin lying between the Great Dividing Range in the north and the Strzelecki Ranges in the south.
The area of brown coal deposits is mostly south of the Latrobe River and extends from just east of Moe to the road between Sale and Stradbroke, 52 km. Its north-south extent measures about 15 km, taking in Boolarra and Gormandale. In 1977 the State Electricity Commission stated that in 50 years it had used under 1% of proven coal reserves.
The Latrobe River, named after C.J. La Trobe, first Governor of Victoria, rises in the Great Dividing Range and flows through the basin in an easterly direction into Lake Wellington.
From the early 1840s the area was occupied by pastoral runs. During the 1870s smaller holdings were selected and land was cleared for dairying and grazing. The coach road and the railway line from Melbourne passed through the valley into Gippsland.
Disruptions to black coal supplies for Melbourne in the 1880s prompted the first mining of brown coal in the Latrobe Valley. Several companies were formed, the most prominent being the Great Morwell Coal Mining Company, at present Yallourn North, which mined lignite from an open cut and manufactured briquettes for a while.
In the new century, increasing demand for electricity prompted investigations into the feasibility of utilising brown coal for power generation. The State Electricity Commission was formed in 1919. The existing open cut mine was worked and by 1921 work began on the first power station on a new open cut. Electricity was generated in 1924 and a briquette plant commenced production in 1925. A modern planned town, Yallourn, was built to house the workers on this massive enterprise. The growth of coal-fired electricity generation in the Latrobe Valley has been:
|Loy Yang A||1993||2200|
|Loy Yang B||1996||1050|
Other industries were attracted to the Latrobe Valley by the availability of cheap fuel. The largest was Australian Paper Manufacturers which established a paper pulp plant at Maryvale near Traralgon in the late 1930s. From 1950, capacity at the Yallourn power station was expanded. In the late 1950s, another mine was opened at Morwell and a power station, briquette factory and coal gasification plant were constructed.
This industrial growth attracted great numbers of workers, including many migrants. To house this influx, the town of Newborough was developed and the recently established Housing Commission constructed many new homes in Moe, Morwell and Traralgon. The large available female workforce also attracted light industry to the area.
In the 1960s Hazelwood power station was constructed south of Morwell and a new town, Churchill, was developed in the foothills of the ranges further south. Gippsland Institute of Advanced Education, now Monash University, was established there in 1972.
During the 1970s, Yallourn township was gradually removed to mine the coal beneath the town. Restrictions to coal bearing land also circumscribed Morwell’s development. Yallourn W power station was constructed in the late 1970s, and work also began on a new power station and open cut mine at Loy Yang, south of Traralgon.
During the 1980s the program of continued expansion was questioned. Projected electricity demands were revised, amid concerns for the environment, social welfare and the forced acquisition of land. Consequently, plans for a new power station at Driffield, south of Morwell, were abandoned. Rehabilitation of exhausted areas has been undertaken in recent years.
From the late 1980s the power industry was rationalised and privatised, radically reducing the workforce and causing much unemployment and social distress throughout the Latrobe Valley. The incoming coalition government (1992) had a declared intention of de-unionizing employment, especially strike-prone workforces in essential industries. The State Electricity Commission (SEC – ‘soft, easy, comfortable’) was a key target, and the process was very thorough. Employment in the electricity, gas and water (EGW) sector and total employment fared thus:
% of total
% of total
Urban census populations in the Latrobe Valley have been:
* 'Western Camp'
The disastrous coal fire at the Hazelwood open cut mine in 2014 further compromised air quality in the Latrobe Valley.
Chris Johnston, Latrobe Valley heritage study, Traralgon, 1991
Linda Kennett and Meredith Fletcher, Changing landscapes: a history of settlement and land use at Driffield, Churchill, 2003
Victorian year book 1965, pp 791-97
Jerzy Zubrzycki, Settlers of the Latrobe Valley, Canberra, 1964
Sheila Byard et al (eds), Latrobe Valley Ukranian stories, Moe, 2009
Churchill, Coalville, Hernes Oak, Moe, Hazelwood, Morwell, Morwell shire, Newborough, Traralgon, Traralgon shire, Tyers, Yallourn, Yallourn North entries