The Timmsvale Hydro Mill dam in flood, 1920s and below, right, under construction.
The Timmsvale Hydro Mill dam in flood, 1920s and below, right, under construction. courtesy Jessie Bell

Green energy for sawmill

TIMMSVALE’S Hydro Mill is being reclaimed by the trees of the Eastern Dorrigo that once felt the bite of its saws.

A huge turbine rusts quietly under a corrugated iron roof.

The massive logs of the penstock are being colonised by velvety mosses and the pipe that once fed the turbine is a line of unravelling wire in a shallow channel.

There is little left of one of Australia’s first water-powered sawmills, an alternative energy success 89 years before today’s ‘green’ energy projects.

Jessie Bell, nee Timms, who will celebrate her 91st birthday in January, remembers when this still green forest on the bank of the Little Nymboida River was a wide dusty flat, noisy with the sounds of rushing water, the screams of the saw blades, the shouts of men, bellowing of bullocks and the rattle of moving logs and planks.

It was Mrs Bell’s father, Tommy Timms, who built the Hydro Mill in the early 1920s, a mill which operated from 1923 to 1932.

It was a big undertaking by the man who had moved to Timmsvale at the age of 15 to help his father, pioneering Eastern Dorrigo selector, Thomas Timms.

Solely by correspondence with the turbine manufacturer, Armstrong Whitworth Ltd, and on his own initiative, Tom Timms began planning the project. Months of work and worry were involved as any mistake would mean complete failure as well as the loss of his lifetime earnings.

A dam built from logs on a tributary of the river collected water for the mill and had to be regularly mended and reinforced after floods.

Up to six men were employed to work on the dam which started on July 12, 1923.

After working out the flow, which was nine cubic feet per second, a suitable sized turbine was ordered from England.

The dam walls were made of logs 40 metres long and 3.5 metres high, with concrete used in patches to seal the dam completely.

On November 16, 1923, at 3.10pm the outflow was stopped to let the dam fill. The water backed up more than a kilometre upstream.

The dam was washed away in the late 1930s but part of it can still be seen.

From the dam’s sluice gates, water coursed through a 1.5-metre-wide one-metre-deep race for 360 metres with a fall of 25mm in every 12 metres.

In this race the water flowed around the hillside and into a 3m square penstock (tank) made from logs sized to shape with a broad axe.

From an outlet in the penstock, the water was funnelled through a 600mm-diameter wooden pipe made of turpentine timber wound with wire, which plunged 42 metres to the turbine, which ran the mill’s saws.

With a valve on the turbine and water in the pipe, starting was instantaneous and the turbine functioned all the time without an attendant.

The water race was also a great plaything for the Timms children and their friends.

“Dad would walk down to lift the gates on the dam to start the flow of water down the race on Sunday afternoon,” Mrs Bell said.

“Unbeknown to Dad, we would give ourselves a head start and see how far we could run down the race before the water caught up with us.”

The hydro mill employed between eight and 10 men at a time when jobs were scarce.

A Ford locomotive was used to haul loads of logs to the mill from the loading ramps at the tramline. When in full production, the mill was processing about 25,000 super feet of logs a week.

Sawn timber was hauled out by bullock wagon, which usually involved a three-day return trip to Coffs Harbour, from where it was shipped out by boat from the jetty.

Once the Glenreagh to Dorrigo rail line was constructed, timber was moved by rail from Ulong station.

Ms Timms can be contacted on 6654 5340.



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