WITH any luck, the town of Kurri Kurri will have a unique new Hunter Valley tourist attraction by year's end.
Costing more than $100,000, the new feature will be a life-sized bronze statue of one of the hard-working pit horses of yesteryear hauling a coal skip with a wheeler. It's to be installed in Rotary Park, in the town's main street, near where a single statue already exists honouring underground miners, a reminder of when the district had 28 mines employing a staggering 11,000 miners.
Perhaps 2000 'pit ponies' (big horses really) once toiled below in the deep, coal-veined earth over decades from around 1900. The mines then began to close from the late 1950s with the Kurri region's grand showpiece and last major pit, at Richmond Main, finally closing in 1967. In its heyday, 'Richie' was the largest shaft mine in the Southern Hemisphere, employing 1100 men and boys and with 200 pit horses.
These impressive animals, hauling heavy coal skips or dragging timber pit props, and later cables with a tail chain, were gradually replaced by machinery.
To the miners, these pit horses were always more than mere beasts of burden. Each had a distinct personality, was a loyal workmate and comrade and all were genuinely mourned when injured or dead.
Retired mineworker Brian Mould, 84, of Stanford Merthyr, knows this all too well, which is why he thinks they deserve a statue as a permanent memorial.
"These horses have never been recognised up here. And once our generation passes, so will memories of how very valuable and respected these work horses were," he says.
"That's why something has to be done now. In 50 years it will be too late."
Mould is part of a community committee behind the bronze horse statue project. Over the past three and a half years the committee has been working to make it a reality with the help of sculptor Brett Garling.
It's an impressive achievement. A similar giant bronze pit horse finally unveiled in late 2015 in Collinsville, North Queensland, took 18 years of crowd funding. The town's now proudly proclaimed to be the state's 'pit pony' capital.
"But they were always horses, not ponies, up here on our Coalfields," Mould says.
"They were Clydesdales crossed with thoroughbreds. Big animals bred for hard work. Our Greta Coal Seam was 22ft high plus (6.7m) in places. At Richmond Main, Pelaw Main and Abermain pits ceilings could be as high as 30ft (9.1m).
"It was only at places like Hebburn No. I colliery near Kurri Hospital where the coal seam was very low, down to 4ft 6inch (1.4m) where small horses, ponies, could be used," he says.
Former miner Tom Outram, 94, of Kurri, says that the pit horses, the gentle giants underground, "weren't nasty, but had a placid nature".
Outram worked at Richmond Main pit, about 800 ft (243m) deep from 1942 to 1948. Here the horses, wearing leather skullcaps, were best known for their strength, height, intelligence and quietness. And something else.
"They could sense danger and saved lives. They could hear the roof moving before anyone could, although it was the rats down there that usually raced out first," Outram says.
"In tunnel mines the rats could simply walk down, but in shaft pits, they came down (in the cages) hidden in bags of feed for the horses. (About 120 horses worked at any one time at Richmond Main where in the 1920s a record 3400 tons of coal was dug on one shift).
"Mine workers generally looked after the pit horses well. But unfortunately some didn't. If they were caught they were strongly 'chastised'," he says.
The Clydesdales at Richmond Main pit were always magnificent animals, probably bred on the Gunnedah estate of mining magnate John 'Baron' Brown.
A lot of miners always had something in their crib tin, like an apple, as an extra treat for their horses.
"Some animals were so good they even won prizes when entered at the Maitland and Cessnock agriculture shows," Outram says.
"In the 1940s, they also took part in the popular 'Pit Horse Derby' with all mines wanting to win the trophy prize. Top Sydney jockies (like Billy Cook and Darby Munro) competed. It was called the Melbourne Cop of the North."
But coal mining is always hazardous. In the 1949 Hunter Valley floods, 23 pit horses drowned together at Aberdare Extended. Miners though did manage to save 40 more equines, including a big animal called 'Miner' whose photograph has ironically become the model for the pit horse statue project.
"Oh, there were tragedies alright," Brian Mould says, recalling tales told of the Aberdare disaster where the drowned Clydesdales, being too big to be brought to the surface, were dragged to a large brick wall 'stopping' (old mine working) and bricked-in. Another 53 horses probably died in individual accidents at Richmond Main over about 50 years and up to 83 at Pelaw Main pit over the decades.
Retired miner Col Andrews, 78, of Kurri, said Wonthaggi pit in Victoria was steep in places and a bad pit. About 403 horses were killed over 58 years from 1910 to 1968.
"Pit horses were always held in great affection and were guardian angels. Take these facts. Early on, an ordinary horse or one used by a baker might cost 8 pounds ($16), yet a pit horse could cost up to 25 pounds ($50)," he says.
"Being strong, intelligent and hard-working, they were well looked after. They were trained for work at 4-5 years and maybe worked for 10 years. They were part of the place. They worked underground to voice commands, like bullock teams. When horses had a bit of age on, they were usually taken to the surface to work.
"One of the problems underground for them was they were working in slush all the time and Clydesdales have a lot of hair around their feet. They suffered from 'greasy heel', which had to be treated quickly as miners wouldn't want to lose work time.
"Horses were checked every day for their health. On the surface, horses swam in a trench up to their necks to remove coal dust and were then fed and watered. If one died in an accident, miners had tears in their eyes," he says. "A lot of miners always had something in their crib tin, like an apple, as an extra treat for their horses."
In tunnel mines, horses walked up to the pithead every day to be released into a paddock for the night. In deep shafts though, horses stayed at pit bottom in stables for six days before emerging.
Bizarrely, however, one of these 'miner's best friends' was also responsible for the accidental death of a human.
"It was at Pelton, a tunnel mine. A miner was coming up after a shift hanging onto the tail of his horse," Andrews says. "The animal was so excited to see sunlight it kicked up at the rear, hitting the man's head and killed him."