Tales from Wangi Power Station

Wangi Power Station,
1956 — 1986.

Wangi Power Station is a heritage-listed former coal-fired power station at Wangi Wangi, right on the banks of Lake Macquarie, the largest coastal saltwater lake in the Southern Hemisphere. Building commenced immediately after the war, as the country’s power needs were growing, and took almost a decade to complete.

The station was built on is the traditional lands of the Awabakal people (derived from Awaba, the name of the lake), and documents from as early as 1826 record the name of the area as Wangi Wangi. Though much of the local language has been lost, the word “wangi” has been translated to mean “water”. Most Aboriginal place naming refers to natural resources or seasonal conditions and the repetition of the word functions as a multiplier, so Wangi Wangi is taken to mean “a lot of water”.

The location of the station was an important factor, providing a peninsula with an inlet and outlet to get the water coolant through the building. It was also close to the local mine which supplied the station with coal. Once opened, the station operated for thirty years, supplying electricity across the state of New South Wales. In its day it was the largest in the country. For this small lakeside suburb and surrounds, it was a major employer and part of the fabric of everyday life.

What follows is an oral history from some of the people who knew it best, as well as a brief account of the building’s great mystery story: the skeleton that was found in a boiler there in 1972.

The decommissioned Wangi Power Station today.
The building is currently for sale.

Dr. Ken Thornton:

In the history of the NSW electricity generation, Wangi is significant in that construction was started by the Department of Railways prior to 1950. With the formation of the Electricity Commission of NSW in May 1950, Wangi was transferred to the new organization. All power stations before 1950 were built adjacent to the load, including Sydney, Newcastle, Lithgow, Port Kembla. Wangi and Tallawarra were the first NSW stations to be built at the fuel source. For the load-based stations, technology and cost precluded them from being built away from the load centers. So, beginning with Wangi and Tallawarra all NSW power stations have been built at the fuel source.

Ron Turvey*

The only water that came out of the outlet canal was the water that went through the condensers, and the water that they used for washing down the floors and that. They had barriers across the outlet canal and the superintendent of the station had his window looking down on the outlet canal, and they used to keep a very close eye on the outlet canal to make sure that there was no pollution in it. The water that came through the condensers came in from two canals on the south side, and they went through the screens where all the marine life and the shell and the weeds were taken out, and when it went into the condensers it was clean. It went through the tubes to turn the steam
back into condensate and into the boilers, and when it came out of there and into the outlet canal it was exactly the same as what went in. The only other things that could have possibly gone in was when they washed down the floors in the station and all that — water from the drains that didn’t go into the sewage system.

Paul Smith:

We swam in the outlet in the winter, no matter how cold the weather was.

Julie Lawry:

We also swam in the outlet. Jump in, get carried down, and hopefully grab the rope to get to the side so as not to finish up reaching the lake.

Mark Johnson:

The water was lovely and warm. You could get a return current right at the side of the channel, however, one had to be very careful of all the fishing lines on the lake output end. The bridge created a risky diving platform.

Kathie Wright:

Sharks used to frequent the outlet because of the warm water. There were often sharks caught in the lake. Back in the day when they were caught, they used to hang them up in the main street and weigh them.

Janice Martin:

My husband worked as a fitter and turner at Wangi Power Station when it was being built. His name is Leslie Martin and his TA was a chap by the name of Jack Hawkins. Les is still with us. I myself have a history with the site because of my grandfather and my dad. They ran a market garden and were Wangi fruitos prior to World War II. Dad, Earnest Arthur Clenden Hayes, went to Wangi Public School. The house that they lived in was on the powerhouse site and was called Melrose Cottage. It is still there but was moved across the road I believe. By a quirk of fate. my husband and I also lived in this cottage after we married in 1960.

Justin Shanx Peterson:

My grandfather was a contract painter out there, up until the late ’60s, possibly very early 70’s. He was one of the painters that painted the smokestacks with lead-based paint. I have no idea how often he was up there although he did not require work anywhere else. He passed away when I was very young. I believe his passing was in connection to the paint.

Burt Errington:

Best spearfishing place on the lake when I was younger. Always got a feed in the warm water.

James Collins:

We used to jump our push bikes into the channel and tie a rope to a pole and ride our surfboards in the current.

Janet Gerrie:

My dad worked there as a lagger from 1955 until he retired around 1985. A lagger wrapped the pipes in a type of fibro wrap. I think he enjoyed most of his time there but was pleased to retire. Dad got the bus from Toronto to work and back, it picked him up at the door of our house on Awaba Road. He had a workmate who used to come across from Pelican by boat to work at Wangi. It was a lot quicker than driving.

Patricia Smith:

That was my dad, Jack James. He transported seven men across to Wangi Power Station every day on the Patricia, which was named after me. He was a lagger as well.

Joanne Wilks:

My grandfather helped in the construction of Wangi Power Station. I remember him talking about it. The construction crew he was with also helped construct Vales Point and a couple of other power stations as well. Unfortunately, everyone in his crew has all passed away.

Anita Milford-Chilvers:

My father worked there. I remember going to work with him. They had a big fishpond somewhere in there. He told me that’s where all my goldfish went when they “disappeared”.

I also remember there was an investigation into one of the shift workers stealing all the TVs. Our house was raided in the middle of the night and my mother slept through the entire thing. They raided the wrong shift! I don’t know if they ever caught who actually took them.

Bron Madley:

My dad worked at Wangi power station. My best memory was the family Christmas party and the train that would take the kids around the power station. The train would take us past the big crushing balls if I am correct. We would get a present and a show bag from memory. Dad also did some time on the weighbridge. He ended up being a leading hand storeman. His name was John Emerton.

Christine Minor:

The Christmas picnic and the train rides all through the station were my best memories also. My dad, Bill Emerton, was a coal and ashplant attendant, but later on, he became a rigger and moved to Eraring Power Station for a few years before he retired. I think Dad found it very different there.

Wangi Power Station c. 1960

Kara Dawson Schultz:

My father-in-law, now in his mid-80s, was working on it when it was being built. He said he did all the frames for the windows. There was apparently a lot of them. He worked there with some friends who were friends for life. Some have now passed on now.

Sara Bettinzoli:

My grandfather Eddie Bettinzoli worked there for many years. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to hear much about it before he and my father passed and my grandmother has dementia and is unable to fill me in on the details, but she did tell me about one day when she took the rowboat out on her own to fish and all of a sudden hundreds of dead fish started floating to the surface. She went home empty-handed and waited for him to get home then spent the rest of the evening yelling at him, wanting to know what they did to kill the fish.

Dead Man Space: The Tale of the Wangi Skeleton

One of the lesser-known but deeply mysterious tales from Wangi Power Station concerns the fate of a man whose remains were found in a boiler, 100ft above the ground, in 1972.

The skeleton was found alongside a tobacco tin and a wristwatch, which were later used in identification. The person who discovered the skeleton in a vestibule of one of the boilers believed that it had been there for at least 18 to 24 months, which was the last time the boiler was out of service for maintenance.

Mike Rounce:

The skeleton was found there while I was still an apprentice in the early ’70s. Nifty Nev, an engineer, went to do an inspection in what was called — believe it or not — the “dead man space”. Never found out who it was.

Further investigation has yielded some additional information. The deceased’s name was Arthur Lawrence Sneddon, believed to have been 52 when he died. Sneddon had been living in Wangi Wangi for an unknown amount of time and was formerly a construction worker who worked on the building of the power station.

Prior to this he had been living in Cessnock and was the first person to be charged in the district under new “culpable driving” laws in an incident where he crashed his car into another, causing grievous bodily harm to the other driver. In a separate incident, he was also charged with hitting a cyclist. In June 1971 Cessnock Police received a missing person’s report, though details of this investigation could not be found.

Newcastle coroner Mr. R. L. Radford was unable to fix the time or cause of death. A second, Sydney-based coroner declared that Sneddon’s death was caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. How and why he ended up there is still unesolved.

* Via Bill Bottomley’s Remembering Wangi Power Station

Historical images c/o State Library of NSW & Lake Macquarie Library

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Categorized as Fathoms
Heath Killen

By Heath Killen

Heath Killen is the founder and editor of On A Floating World. Born and raised in Newcastle, he is passionate about the coastline and waterways surrounding his home. Elsewhere he helps people develop brands, campaigns, and projects based on their passions.