Brunner Mine Historic Area near Greymouth is one of the most significant heritage sites in Aotearoa, but for a very sad reason. It was the site of the country’s most deadly industrial disaster.
At the peak of coal production, Brunner Mine was a bustling place. 300 families lived here, nestled on the banks of the Grey River. They serviced the coal mines and associated industries that included brick-making and the manufacture of coke (a very high quality fuel).
Then the unthinkable happened. On the morning of 26 March 1896 a sound like artillery fire ripped through the town. It was a massive explosion deep in the mine. Poisonous gases meant that the rescue mission was difficult and dangerous. The rescuers – mostly other miners – could only work in short shifts, and many had to be rescued themselves. However, they were determined to find the bodies – and any survivors – and insisted on returning to the airless mine as soon as they’d been revived on the surface.
From 11am the rescuers began bringing out the bodies of dead miners. It took five days to retrieve them all. 65 miners had been killed, almost half of the Brunner underground workforce.
The disaster and the plight of the families caught the attention of the whole nation. Ultimately it led to improved workplace safety legislation and practices.
Straddling both banks of the Grey River, modern-day Brunner Mine Historic Area is a poignant yet beautiful place to visit. A statue for the miners who lost their lives was erected several years ago, but in effect the whole site is a fitting monument. Cross the replica suspension bridge and follow the easy circuit track that passes the remains of the brick factory, tunnel entrances and a row of beautifully symmetrical beehive coke ovens.
Brunner Mine is recognised as a Tohu Whenua, one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most treasured heritage places. The site is proudly cared for by the Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai.