Newman is a town in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. It is located about 1,186 kilometres north of Perth, and 9 kilometres north of the Tropic of Capricorn. It can be reached by the Great Northern Highway. In the 2006 Australian census, its population was 4,245. Newman is a modern mining town, with suburban-style homes contrasting with the surrounding reddish desert.
Large and modern mining town in the Pilbara
Newman is a model mining town. A modern, attractive centre in the heart of the Hamersley Ranges, it serves the two huge mines at Mount Whaleback and Orebody 29.
Newman sits on what was originally regarded as marginal cattle country. It was built in the 1960s by the Mount Newman Mining Company, following the discovery of rich iron deposits on nearby Mount Whaleback.
The discovery marked the start of the resource boom in Western Australia in the 1970s. The town takes its name from nearby Mount Newman, named in honour of A.W. Newman, an early explorer who died of typhoid just before reaching the area in 1896.
The Eastern Pilbara is one of the most isolated and inhospitable regions in Australia. Temperatures in summer time hover around 40°C and the hot winds blow in off the Great Sandy Desert. It is hardly surprising that the Aborigines who lived in the area didn’t have to contend with the advance of Europeans until the twentieth century.
The first European into the area was Francis Gregory who travelled though the area to the north of present-day Newman in 1861 and observed the obvious iron ore deposits which coloured the mountain ranges. In 1876 Ernest Giles, who the year before had crossed from South Australia to Western Australia, attempted to reverse the process. He left Perth, travelled north to the Murchison and Ashburton Rivers and then headed east. With his second-in-command Alec Ross and four camels Giles travelled from the headwaters of the Ashburton to the range of mountains which lie to the north of Newman.
At the time he was suffering from temporary blindness. Ross virtually had to lead Giles up the hills. Although his vision was bad Giles’ humour was intact and, as a result of his affliction, he named the range Ophthalmia. Giles was unimpressed with the land.
The next expedition into the area occurred in 1896 when Aubrey Woodward Newman planned to lead a party from the goldmining town of Cue north towards Roebourne. Newman died from typhoid before the journey began but the new commander, William Rudell, honoured his departed leader by naming the highest mountain in the Ophthalmia Range, Mount Newman (1053 metres).
The first settlers into the area were John and Daisy Bates who established Glen Garrick sheep and cattle station in 1901. Gold prospectors, encouraged by the finds at Nullagine and Marble Bar in the north and Meekatharra and Cue in the south, scoured the area but had no success.
The East Pilbara remained a marginal pastoral area until the early 1960s. In 1957 the prospector Stan Hilditch discovered huge iron ore deposits at a mountain located 5 km south-east of Mt Newman, which he named Mount Whaleback, which has since become the largest open-cut iron ore mine in the world. At the time the export restrictions on iron ore which had been imposed during the war were still in place.
The ore Hilditch had found was virtually useless. Three years later the embargo was lifted and Hilditch, with his partner, A.C. Warman, pegged a claim on Mount Whaleback.
A consortium was formed and between 1967 and 1969 the American company Bechtel Pacific turned this lonely piece of desert into Australia’s most productive iron ore mine. In those two years the biggest open-cut iron ore mine in Australia was established, the town of Newman was built, the longest privately owned railway (426 km from Newman to Port Hedland) in the world was constructed, and the port facilities at Port Hedland were upgraded to handle 16 000 tonnes of iron ore per hour.
The first shipment of iron ore left Port Hedland in April 1969 bound for the steel mills of Japan. Today the Mount Newman Mining Company Ltd is 85 per cent owned by BHP.
In 1975 the mining company, aware of the inhospitable nature of the terrain, planted 60 000 trees and shrubs in order to make the town less like a desert outpost. In 1981 Newman ceased to be a closed ‘company town’ so that today it has a number of facilities for the visitor and is administered by the East Pilbara Shire.
The ore production statistics of the Mount Newman area are awesome. It is estimated that the Hamersley Range contains 33 billion tonnes of iron ore. The Mount Whaleback open-cut mine will eventually reach a depth of 350 m below the surrounding plain. The trains which carry the ore to the coast have been known to move over 18 000 tonnes in a single haul.
The railway line from Newman to Port Hedland runs downhill for all but 30 km of its entire length. And, amazing as it seems, the mine produces 30 million tonnes of iron ore every year.
Being founded in the 1960s, Newman’s architecture reflects the modernist styles of that decade and the next, being predominantly functional and devoid of detail or embellishment.
As the town was founded and built by a steel company, the majority of buildings use a steel frame construction. This applies to the suburban style homes themselves, most of them being two prefabricated halves inserted together into a steel I-section frame, the columns of which are left exposed on the exterior of the home.
This construction method serves not only to showcase the company’s product, but also gives strong resistance to cyclone winds which can affect the region from time to time. For this same reason, most houses are elevated from the ground by a few steps. Many houses also have large air-conditioning units situated next to them to provide adequate cooling against the very hot summer temperatures.
Newman has an arid climate, with very hot summers and mild winters. The average summer high temperature is one of the hottest of any areas in Australia and approaches those of cities such as Riyadh and Baghdad.
The temperature reaches or exceeds over 38°C almost every day in the summer. On 15 January 1998, the temperature reached an all-time recorded high of 47.0°C.