Armed with a slide projector and a steely look of determination, Dean Ransom can sometimes be seen wandering the winding roads of Leigh Creek, a small outback town in South Australia’s far north.
- Residents of the former Leigh Creek township in SA’s outback are digitising slides and photos
- They hope to preserve the history of the area which was originally a tent city
- The new Leigh Creek township is undergoing a multimillion-dollar state government overhaul
This unique government-owned town with a dwindling population of just 120 people used to be a bustling hub that coalminers called home until Alinta Energy decided to close its coal mine in June 2015.
Now, Leigh Creek is undergoing significant changes, including reinvestment and the demolishing of houses — for a second time.
About 22-odd kilometres away is the site of the original township, now called “old” Leigh Creek.
The town was established in 1943 as a tent city, where people lived while they mined for coal, despite blistering temperatures.
“Coal was first discovered when they were digging a dam in Copley for the railways in 1888 and it wasn’t until after WWII, around 1940, that they began to mine coal there,” Mr Ransom said.
He said the conditions were “extremely harsh” for the miners and their families.
“They would work six-day weeks very hard in the mines and then come home to a tent that had no air conditioning, no electricity, limited water and even the food supplies were quite often unreliable,” Mr Ransom said.
“So, they all looked forward very much to getting a solid house and a yard and some shops and things that they could actually have a better quality of life.”
A disappearing history
All that is left of the old town is a large barren hole in the earth after it was abandoned in 1983, and a new town built elsewhere.
“In 1976, ETSA [Electricity Trust of South Australia] decided they were going to move the town,” Mr Ransom said.
This was so that coal could be mined where the old town once stood.
“There was a very large consultation program with the community, and they were involved in actually planning the move and planning the new town,” he said.
The new township was dubbed an outback “Hollywood” for its buildings and shiny exterior.
Mr Ransom, a member of the Leigh Creek Old Town Project group, is racing against time to save the old town’s legacy.
“A few of the Leigh Creek residents were concerned they had no way to take their children or their grandchildren back to where they grew up and show them,” he said.
“The only thing that’s left now for those people are stories and memories.
“So, a group of people got together and decided they wanted to collect those stories to make sure that they didn’t get lost to time.”
Mr Ransom’s job is to digitise photographs and documents and store them in an online database.
He mostly works behind the scenes, but sometimes visits peoples’ homes to convert old slides into a digital format.
Mr Ransom is pleading for people not to throw out their precious photographs and slides, but rather to share them with the group before it is too late.
Town auctioned off
When the town moved from its original spot, buildings and other infrastructure were auctioned off in 1982.
Gweneth McCallum’s late husband Trevor McCallum bought a railway station for the price it now costs to almost fill the petrol tank of a small car.
“We were a little surprised because each of them contained an air conditioner, a hot water service, lots of cupboards and the house had a rainwater tank and a clothesline.
“They were made of Besser brick, which was impossible to remove, but they took everything else: all the windows, the doors, the flooring, the framework, the ceilings, the iron off the top. Everything was rescued.”
The couple used a large truck to transport several loads from the old town to their farm, about 300km south of Leigh Creek.
Town’s third transition
In the year following the closure of the mine, the 2016 census showed there was a mass exodus as the population decreased by 55 per cent, which left many houses empty.
Since then, the state government has announced a major overhaul of the town and said it would budget $43.6 million for the project.
Local MP Dan van Holst Pellekaan said the state government planned to demolish empty or asbestos-filled buildings, but leave some standing so the town could still function as a service and tourism hub.
“Approximately 200 houses will be demolished, and they are essentially the ones that are not in a good enough condition to retain anyway,” he said.
“We’re making sure that people who live in Leigh Creek now who currently rent houses will be at the front of the list for the opportunity to purchase them.
“It’s not only about the people who live there it’s actually an important service centre for the pastoral industry, the oil and gas industry, the tourism industry and for about eight smaller surrounding communities.”
The state government’s leases on some of the town’s properties end this year, but Mr van Holst Pellekaan says “if it’s appropriate to extend them again we’ll certainly do that”.
Table tennis champ’s call-out
Residents of Leigh Creek are trying to provide more activities for local children as the town enters its next phase.
Adnyamathanha man Clayton Cruse is a teacher at the Leigh Creek Area School after moving with his wife and two children to the town early last year.
He said his family moved for “an experience” and for his children to learn about the area and their heritage.
Mr Cruse also happens to be a table tennis champion. He began his career in primary school.
“I moved to Alice Springs around 2005,” he said.
“I was working up there and found out they had a table tennis club and joined that and started playing competitively.
“I’d just recovered from a broken collarbone, and the boy was good!”
Mr Cruse is using his table tennis knowledge and championship status to create a table tennis space for the youth.
He posted a call-out on social media for donations of table tennis equipment.
“I was really overwhelmed with the response we got to that just within a matter of days,” he said.
He received donations from individuals, organisations and former Leigh Creek students.
Mr Cruse said there were not many physical activities for the children in the town and that table tennis would be good for their mental and physical health.
“We’ll keep the equipment here at the school, so we’d be able to use it after school hours for the community and during school as well.”
Hope for the future
The marketing manager for Leigh Creek Outback Resort, Emma Ruffles, was born in Leigh Creek and has seen the town change throughout her lifetime.
“It’s been heartbreaking,” she said.
“People that were always living there that I grew up with have left.”
Despite this, Ms Ruffles is grateful for the government’s overhaul of the town.
“I think it needs to happen because there’s a lot of unused resources there and a lot of the houses are full of asbestos and they’re quite damaged,” she said.
“It can be turned into quite a nice community — without driving around as if you’re in a ghost town that’s just been abandoned.”
Ms Ruffles said there had been some negative responses to the plans, but it was important to focus on the positives and the opportunities.
“They don’t realise that the government has worked pretty closely with the community to ensure their livelihoods remain.
“They have an opportunity to have houses to live in and that the town will be cleaned up.”
Later this year, Leigh Creek Energy hopes to construct an underground coal gasification plant.
It plans to set fire to deep coal at the disused mine and use the extracted gas released by the explosion to make fertiliser.
“This is something that has been talked about for a long time and not necessarily too many outcomes or answers have been given.”
Despite differing views on how Leigh Creek’s future will be safeguarded, the community will do all it can to prevent the outback Hollywood from disappearing for good.