Newcastle is an industrial city. There was never any other alternative. With the abundance of high quality coal industrial development was inevitable. Early industry relied on coal for steam power. Today we rely on coal for electricity generation; the turbines in the region's many power stations are steam driven. With electricity readily available in quantity industry flourished. And what could better serve industry than a good port?
Many factors were evaluated by BHP before the company established the works at Port Waratah, Newcastle. Surely the availability of hard coking coal suitable for steel-making and a good shipping infrastructure must have been part of the strategic evaluation process.
BHP shipped products to both export and domestic markets, it didn't take long for BHP to acquire its own fleet. With the advent of steelworks related shipping movements the port was starting to experience difficulties. Whilst coal export continued to expand, the ships carrying ore to the steelworks and steel products to the various markets were competing for loading and discharge berths. Shipping movements in and out of the port were relying on the tides for clearing the bar at the entrance of the harbour.
At times BHP ships were diverted to Port Kembla owing to lack of berths in the port of Newcastle. Deepening the harbour was regarded as an imperative necessity in shipping circles. The trend to larger ships was responsible for ships scraping the bottom of the harbour, and quite a few of them suffered the ignominy of being "stuck on the mud". Notable among the "victims" BHP's IRON HUNTER. The 50,000 tonne deadweight bulk carrier became "grounded" at the entrance to the harbour loaded with a 55,000 tonnes cargo of iron ore in 1973.
However, improvements to Newcastle Harbour were slow and at times the idea of the port development was in danger of being abandoned. In 1911 a Royal Commission considering the development of Port Stephens as an alternative to Newcastle ruled against the move. But the Royal Commission concluded that:
"It has been urged that in view of the large amount of money expended upon Newcastle Harbour - 2,215,037 (pounds) up to 31 October 1910, of which 1,042,407 (pounds) represents the cost of dredging and the further sums that would be required to enable the port to keep abreast of the demand for coal shipping accommodation, Newcastle ought to be made the port of the north for general overseas shipping, your commissioners have given careful consideration to this question, and they cannot resist the conclusion that the natural disadvantages of Newcastle make it unsuitable as a port for decentralisation purposes...".
The channel was eventually dredged and the port infrastructure improved with the advent of the Maritime Services Board. The Board was formed in 1936 by merging the NSW Dept of Navigation and the Sydney Harbour Trust. The MSB of NSW was granted jurisdiction over the port of Newcastle in 1961 but the deepening of the channel to 36 feet (9.1 metres) promised by the government in 1908, was not obtained until 1965, more than 50 years later. The Board achieved this target through a ten-year port development plan, which cost $ 58 million.
At the time BHP was phasing out chartered ships and introducing larger modern and faster vessels, the "bulk carriers" were coming. Although few ships calling to Newcastle were more than 20,000 tons, the Chief General Manager of BHP, Sir Ian McLennan, warned that a deeper harbour at Newcastle was one of the most essential needs. It is arguable whether Sir Ian McLellan' s words influenced the renewed interest in the improvement of the channel including the steelworks section, but it was obvious that if this weren’t done coal trade would have suffered. "The coal export trade in a few years was to be restricted to ports capable of taking ships of 45,000 to 65,000 tonnes" wrote the Newcastle Morning Herald.
In 1969, the ship GRISCONA 60,639 tonnes and 742 feet long entered Port Hunter.
On 14 February 1983 a depth of 15.2 metres (fifty feet) was proclaimed by the MSB. This was nearly double the 1931 depth.
In 1986 IRON NEWCASTLE loaded a record 137,971 tonnes for Japan.
In retrospect, McLennan did not voice his concerns casually. It soon became obvious that BHP was going to be a major player in Australian shipping and, the port of Newcastle was one of its prime targets. The Company's ships were increasing in tonnage and they called into Newcastle in ever increasing numbers. The largest vessel in the world regularly employed in the coal trade, the IRON PACIFIC, 222,000 dead weight tonnes, entered the port with safety. IRON PACIFIC left Newcastle with a record cargo of 182,464 tonnes of coal, all loaded in Newcastle. Coal was certainly the principal element in the development of Newcastle. And coal again, was the deciding factor in the decision by BHP to establish a steelworks in this city.
Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association