If you want to explore the colonial remains of a notorious Tasmanian penal colony, the Port Arthur historic site is the obvious place to go. In the same general area, but far less known, is another historic site where some of Port Arthur's worst convicts were sent to mine coal ... and where visitors can roam the ruins without cost or crowds.
I'm referring to the Coal Mines historic site, up some back roads from Taranna and about a 25 minute drive from Port Arthur. In 1833 coal was discovered here at Plunkett Point, providing Tasmania with its first mine and ending reliance on New South Wales for its coal supply.
Extra-naughty convicts from the penal colony at Port Arthur were brought in to work the mine, and were housed in a stone barracks holding up to 170 of them. There was also a chapel, bakery, store and officers quarters, plus jetties and tram tracks for transporting the coal.
The mine closed in 1848 and the buildings decayed into the ruins we can see today. Visitors can wander around among the sandstone structures that remain, and get a sense of the conditions the convicts were kept in and the isolation they must have felt.
Visiting the Coal Mines site is a very different experience from the very popular Port Arthur site. Port Arthur has paid entry, guided tours, and crowds in large numbers - it is Tasmania's most visited attraction. In contrast, the Coal Mines site is free to visit, sees a small fraction of the visitors, and can be wandered around freely. I liked being able to stand quietly in one of the tiny dark cells and reflect on what it might have felt like to be imprisoned here. Such contemplation was made a little easier by the quietness and absence of crowds.
It feels more like visiting a remote scenic spot in a national park than a major historic site. But don't let the low key nature fool you - the Coal Mines site has World Heritage listing because of its historic, scientific, aesthetic, technical and other values. The combined roles of secondary punishment station and one of Australia’s first mechanised mines sets it apart and makes it unique.
Wandering around the Coal Mines Historic Site is not a substitute for visiting Port Arthur, which is a more comprehensive presentation of Tasmania's colonial history. But while in the area, visitors curious to see more relics - in an uncrowded and informal way - may find a side trip to the Coal Mines site worthwhile.
Coal Mines Historic Site - by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority
Coal Mines Historic Site - by Tas Parks & Wildlife Service