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Developing trade and port histories: Outports - Whyalla and Port Bonython

Whyalla and Port Bonython

The town and port of Whyalla were proclaimed in 1914, although the huge iron deposits in the adjacent Middleback Range had been known since Edward Eyre had noted their existence during his exploration of the region in 1840. In 1878 ore samples were assayed at the London Colonial Exhibition of that year; however no attempt was made to mine the iron deposits until 1890. In that year it was reported that there were at least one million tons of ore in the hills. However it was only with the establishment of smelters at Port Pirie, on the other side of Spencer Gulf by Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP), that the ore deposits were examined critically for use as flux in the smelters.

At first the ore was transported to Port Pirie by land - by bullock team to Port Augusta at the head of the gulf, then by a circuitous rail journey to Port Pirie. BHP needed a quicker and cheaper route. It petitioned the South Australian government for a tramway to be constructed from the mines to the coast, and for the construction of a jetty for loading the ore onto the ships. The Act of Parliament of South Australia (Private Act) (Hummock Hill to Iron Knob Tramways and Jetties) was passed 5 December 1900, and the 33 mile long tramway was ready to carry the first load of ore by the end of August 1901.

Under the terms of the Act, the tramway was required to transport passengers and other goods at least twice a week. The company jetty was also to be used for the loading and unloading of goods and a load of hides and skins were carried in October 1901, the first of a number of such.  Ketches were already using the jetty for the shipment of goods to and from other ports.

In the arid environment of upper Eyre Peninsula everything had to be imported, including water.  In the first ten years of the mine's operations 600,000 tons of high quality iron ore was shifted through the fledgling port, to the smelters across the gulf.

In 1912 BHP decided to extend its operations into the manufacture of iron and steel, particularly rails. The steel works would be located at Newcastle in New South Wales, near to that city's coal supplies. Mining operations in the Middleback Range were increased and the jetty in False Bay was extended to 2400 feet, and conveyor belts fitted for carrying the ore directly to the ships. The first shipment of 2800 tons of iron ore for Newcastle was loaded in three and a half hours on 8 January 1915.

In 1935 BHP decided to build a blast furnace and steelworks at Whyalla. Some consideration was given to using the adjacent Backy Bay (now Fitzgerald Bay-north of Whyalla on False Bay). At this time too, the South Australian government agreed to build a pipeline to supply the town with water from the River Murray. BHP began dredging the harbour in 1937 and preparing the site for the blast furnace. Everything was now moving quickly - BHP also decided to construct shipbuilding facilities at Whyalla and the Royal Australian Navy asked if the company would undertake the construction of patrol vessels.

So in November 1939 the next phase of Whyalla's development began.  By 24 July 1940 the keel plate of the first ship to be built in the town was laid - HMAS Whyalla - and it was launched 12 May 1941. The blast furnace was operational two weeks later. World War II development in the port was huge. By the end of that first year of shipbuilding four corvettes had been built for the RAN.  The following year BHP built its own ore-carrier Iron Monarch, and in 1943 Iron Duke was launched, and five freighters for the Australian Shipbuilding Board. Shipbuilding continued apace at Whyalla during the remainder of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. In March 1958 the yard undertook to build a 32,770 tonne oil tanker for Ampol. For this it was necessary to extend the slipways.  PJ Adams was the first Australian built oil tanker. Orders for ships continued to come in and each ship was larger than the one before. In all Whyalla built 50 ships in its first 40 years.

A second jetty was built in 1966 to cope with additional ore shipments.

By the 1970s the shipyard was affected by union action; ships were still being constructed but at greater cost.  In 1972 the bulk carrier Clutha Capricorn, 79,380 tonnes was launched; the Iron Curtis launched in 1978 was the last ship from the Whyalla yard.

BHP divested its long products division in 2000 to form One Steel, dissociating itself from the town and port it had been responsible for founding. One Steel operates the port of Whyalla.  In August 2006 work began on a new deepwater channel up Spencer Gulf to enable the use of new bulk carriers up to 180,000 tonnes.

Port Bonython

The decision by Santos to build a refractionation plant in the area gave a new lease of life to Whyalla following slow downs in the steel industry. The company decided to build a pipeline from its Moomba gas fields in the state's north-east, to a facility it constructed near Point Lowly. Port Bonython was constructed at a cost of $450 million, which included the 650 kilometre pipeline from Moomba. The jetty is 2.4 kilometres long, making it the longest in the state. Port Bonython, the Santos company facility began operating in 1983. It loads between 25-30 ships a year with various hydrocarbon products including naptha, crude oil, propane and butane. The maximum size tanker handled is 110,000 tonnes.

Further reading:

Scheiffers, Sue. A ribbon of steel; Whyalla : Whyalla Jubilee 150 Committee, 1985

Making way for titanic carriers, Sunday Mail  27 August 2006

Websites:

Santos: Port Bonython

Fractionation

Jetty, Port Germein
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Ketches loading grain at Port Wakefield about 1912
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Klein Point jetty facilities
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Loading sheep at Kingscote Jetty
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Port Augusta 1889
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Port Augusta dock
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Port Augusta September 1884
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Port Elliot jetty and government store
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Port Lincoln shipping
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Port Noarlunga
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Port Pirie wharf
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Port Pirie wharves in 1910
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