Remembering John Britty North - pioneer of Katoomba

Narrowneck Lookout today presents an undisturbed green panorama but in late 1888 this area was disrupted by mining, with a flying fox stretching across the valley, from Orphan Rock to the Ruined Castle.

In 1878, a postal inspector travelling to Katoomba noted an average three letters a night on the mail service. He remarked on Katoomba’s population: Mr James Neale of Froma, his servants, the railway platform keeper, three railway workmen and their families (Blue Mountains Gazette, 11.12.1985).

John Britty North changed this.

An Englishman who emigrated in February 1852, he eventually bought land and mining leases around the area of what is now the Scenic Railway and into the Jamison Valley, establishing a coal mine. In 1878 North registered the Katoomba Coal and Township Land Co. Limited.

Extracting a slab of coal from his mine, North dragged it up the cliff face and transported it to Sydney for the First Sydney International Exhibition in 1879. He won third place for his coal and a government contract.

Coal mines enlarge populations; they bring miners, engineers and managers and the people to provide food and lodging for the workers and their families.

North had to transport coal from the mine at the base of Orphan Rock to the railway line. He hired Norman Selfe to design and build a track, called the Incline, through a natural fissure in the rock face, 1880-1882. The engine area was at the top of the escarpment, the base ending just below the level of the Katoomba coal seam.

From the top of the Incline, the coal was originally carted by bullock drays along the “Engine Road”.

In 1882, a siding was opened near now Shell Corner, close to North’s first rented home, Essendene. North constructed a dual two-foot gauge tramway from the top of the Incline to the siding, three kilometres long with a timber trestle bridge and a 50-metres-long suspension bridge.

Locating kerosene shale at Ruined Castle, North registered the Katoomba Coal & Shale Co. Ltd in 1885. To transport that shale across the valley he purchased and had installed the aerial ropeway from the closed Gladstone coal mine. This Bleichert ropeway was operating at Katoomba by late 1888, from the Ruined Castle, across the Jamison Valley, to the engine bank (near the upper terminus of the Scenic Railway). In late 1889 or January 1890, the cableway collapsed.  This ruined the company.

North continued mining in Katoomba until around 1900 while actively promoting the growth of Katoomba as a tourist resort and serving as alderman on Katoomba Council, 1890-1893. Mining itself continued sporadically until the 1940s, collapsing because of war-time labour shortages.