From coal and cannabis to a writers’ festival and a forest track – Blackball is the town that refused to die

A writers’ residency, a literary festival, a museum of working class history, a legendary pub and now a 55-kilometre walking and biking track through dramatic West Coast scenery – Blackball, population around 300, is a town on the move.

“People are buying houses sight unseen,” Cynthia Robins, co-owner of Formerly the Blackball Hilton, tells Frank Film. “They go on Trade Me and see a house and they’ll just buy it and move to Blackball.”

It is a dramatic turnaround. This is the town known locally as “The centre of the universe – the part where nothing moves”. Over the last few decades, the local coal industry has collapsed, forestry has declined, and West Coast tourism has gravitated to the coastal road.

But the home of the Labour Party was never going to give up easily.

The morning fog still clings to the roads, the anti-1080 slogans still cover the fence, but Blackball is flourishing.

Café owner Jane Wells points down her road. “In this street alone about seven houses have changed hands, all with new people.”

One of those “new” people is writer and historian Stevan Eldred-Grigg, author of A Southern Gentry and Pleasures of the Flesh. He was born in 1952 in a taxi between Blackball and Greymouth and spent the first six years of his life in Blackball.

He returned last year as the inaugural recipient of the Blackball Writer’s Residency, chosen from 35 applications from across New Zealand. The environment – wild, lush, green – and its strong social history pulled him back to his childhood home. But finding a house was not easy.

“We had to pay $185,000 for a two-bedroom 1920s’ bungalow – by Blackball standards it’s highway robbery! But houses are hot property in Blackball these days.”

The town, named after the Blackball Shipping Line, was established in the 1890s, a “classic West Coast coal-mining society,” says Eldred-Grigg, with a resilience that came to shape the New Zealand union movement.

In 1908, New Zealand’s first successful strike action saw Blackball miners holding out against the coal company for a 30-minute crib time, or lunch break, in their 10-hour working day.

From then, “Blackball was at the heart of the organised working class in New Zealand. Again and again, it was a place where people were willing to stand up and fight.”

But getting coal out was expensive. New technologies appeared, the demand for coal shrank. “It simply became uneconomic in the end.”

The closure of the mine in 1964, says Blackball resident, writer Meg Fulford, “devastated the town”.

“Houses were valueless. Families would go to church then come back and say, ‘Oh look, it’s burned down’ – they’d collect the insurance and go off to a new job.”

Help, not necessarily welcome, came by way of a new wave of self-styled hippies, jaded exiles from the city.

Jerry Fulford describes the derisive looks when he and his musician friend walked into a pub “full of old miners”.

“They asked John what sort of music he played and he went over to the piano and started playing Ol’ Man River. Within 30 seconds this bar full of anti-hippies was singing their hearts out till about two in the morning.”

Jane Wells, another so-called “blow-in”, also came to Blackball in the early 1970s.

“I thought, what a hole! Just about all the houses were unpainted. There was a massive coal heap in the front of each one. And what was the Hilton was derelict.”

By the time Wells came in as co-owner of the hotel, Hilton International had “got their knickers in a knot” over the name. “We decided all that publicity was too good to waste, so we bunged ‘Formerly’ in front of the name.”

Now, the Paparoa Track linking Blackball to Punakaiki, the latest addition to New Zealand’s Great Walks network, has spawned a new café, a shuttle and car relocation service and more accommodation options. There are plans for a new gallery, a small theatre and a carving studio.

“Blackball is a place that’s refused to die,” says Wells. “Different waves of people have come through and they’ve all brought something new. But I hope it doesn’t lose its character – I hope it doesn’t become trendy. I want it to stay Blackball somehow.”

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