Quarry a tough slog for workers
The Ballina breakwall was built in the 1890s from stone cut out of Rileys Hill
RILEYS Hill, a small settlement on the Richmond, will always be remembered in local history for at least two things, its quarry and its dry dock.
In the 1890s, the Ballina Breakwater was under construction by the Public Works Department. A massive amount of stone was required to build the breakwater. Most of this stone came from Rileys Hill, and it was a major undertaking to quarry it out and take it to Ballina.
The Richmond River is full of shoals and navigating these can be very treacherous.
Around 1860 a Captain Riley is said to have had his ship stranded for three weeks on the shoals. At the point on the river where this happened there was a prominent hill that acted as a marker for navigation. It became known as Rileys Hill and it is here the quarry opened about 1890.
It closed in 1911.
Stone was blasted from the hillside, then taken by railway track to the wharf, where it was lifted by massive cranes onto punts for the trip down river to Ballina.
Many of the men who worked at the quarry had previously been employed on the LismoreMurwillumbah Railway, where they were used to rock-cutting, tunnelling and moving the huge pieces of stone.
These men were also used to moving around the state following these jobs.
Some were married and wives and children followed them, so providing a community. Most lived in tents but there were also shacks, and the unmarried men were accommodated in a kind of hostel.
The children went to the school at Rileys Hill. Some of these families later settled in the area but most simply moved on to other areas following the available work.
Looking at the family details of some First World War soldiers who were born in our area tells us how these families moved on from one place to another – the birth places of their children show the details.
The second important element at Rileys Hill, its dry dock, was begun in late 1899 or early 1900.
It was excavated out of solid rock and this too found its way to the Ballina Breakwater. At the dry dock, the stone was lifted by a 10-tonne steam crane mounted on a railway track that moved back and forth as blasting took place. The smaller material was lifted out by pick and shovel.
A Coffer Dam had to be built at the river end of the dock to allow a gate to be installed. The whole operation took several years of hard work and is a fine example of engineering skill. The gate itself worked in such a way that, when it was closed, the pressure exerted on it from the river made it close even tighter.
The dock was built with sloping sides so vessels of different sizes could be accommodated.
Horses were used to drag the trucks laden with spalls (smaller stones) to waiting punts. Trucks were hinged and loaded at a slight incline. As they reached the punts, the horses would swerve away at right-angles, the driver would release a lever and the load would tip into the punt.
It is reported that only one load was lost over the entire period of quarrying!
It showed the ingenuity of our early engineers. Often they had to make do with what equipment they had on hand, as it was a slow process to get new equipment even from Sydney. Most heavy items had to come from overseas.
These men, however, were masters of their trades – blacksmiths, iron moulders, engineers, carpenters, and many more. Most had served their apprenticeships at places like Birmingham in England – if they did not have something, they adapted or made it!
SLOW-GOING: Excavating Rileys Hill dry dock in about 1900 of Have something historic interest? to hear We would live from you, email tracey.hordern@ northernstar.com.au