When the authorities in Van Diemen’s Land decided to open a penal station at Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula, their plan was to establish several other, smaller probation stations, elsewhere on the peninsula. This would make it easier to extract the many natural resources found in the area.

One of the Tasman Peninsula’s natural resources was coal and in 1833, a probation station was founded at Saltwater River, where coal had been discovered at Plunkett Point. Today Saltwater River is a tiny hamlet but the nearby Coal Mines Historic Site is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed Australian Convict Site that offers a fascinating glimpse into the harsh lives the convicts led.

Because the Coal Mines Historic Site isn’t as easy to access as the more famous Port Arthur Historic Site, it’s a great option if you want to get away from the crowds and do some bushwalking too. Getting here from Hobart involves a drive of about 106 km. The easiest route is to take the A3, or the Tasman Highway, to Sorell and then continue southeast along the A9, the Arthur Highway, to the Tasman Peninsula. As you enter the peninsula at Eaglehawk Neck, the road turns west and then south, following the coastline until you get to Taranna. From Taranna, turn west onto the B37, the Nubeena Road, and follow this scenic route through Koonya and on to Premaydena. Here you’ll find the small Saltwater River Road that, as the name suggests, takes you northwest to Saltwater River. Beyond Saltwater River, the Coal Mine Road will take you to the Coal Mines Historic Site.

Before European settlement, the Tasman Peninsula was home to the Paredarerme people and you’ll still find some of the shell middens they left behind. Then, when the penal settlements came, Saltwater River got an agricultural station and the dreaded Plunkett Point mine, the first operational coal mine in Tasmania.

The coal mine was one of the worst places that a convict could be sent to and for this reason it became home to some of the most hardened criminals. Convicts had to do hard labour such as quarrying, splitting timber, building or burning lime or charcoal. Some, like the shoemaker-turned-burglar William Thompson, were harnessed four to a cart to drag the coal from the mines. During each eight-hour shift, the men had to extract 25 tonnes of coal to fulfil their daily quota.

Only convicts with mining experience were allowed to work at the coal face. One of these was George Froggart, who had briefly worked as a miner in Yorkshire before he was transported to Van Diemen’s Land for rape. Froggart was a very troublesome prisoner, even going as far as cutting away the coal mine’s roof, so he probably knew about what it was like to spend time in the isolation cells. Prisoners sent to these cells were allowed two hours of exercise per day and spent the rest of their time in complete darkness, with only musty air to breathe. Above these cells there were separate apartments, designed to house prisoners away from one another so that they couldn’t engage in homosexual activity.

In 1848 the system of using convicts to operate the mine came to an end because it made no moral or financial sense. A private company bought the site and continued mining operations until 1877. Today you can still see the remains of the cells as well as the houses, offices, barracks and other buildings at the site. You will also find the remnants of the signal station, the quarry and the tramway along which the coal coarts were dragged to the beach. Unfortunately you can’t go down into the mine itself but the interesting walks with spectacular scenery more than make up for this.

The Coal Mines Historic Site doesn’t have any facilities other than toilets at the car park. However, it’s a great place for a picnic if you bring your own supplies. The site is open every day and entry is free.