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A piners' camp near Zeehan, photographed by JW Beattie (AOT, PH30/1/1905)

Piners have harvested Huon pine (Lagarostrobos franklinii) since early settlement. An extremely durable rainforest timber unique to Tasmania, it has been highly prized, particularly for shipbuilding. From 1822 to 1833, Sarah Island convict work-gangs extracted timber from the nearby Gordon River. After closure of the penal settlement, freelance piners continued retrieval, eventually working all the wild rivers from the Huon in the south to the Pieman in the north-west.

From the early 1860s to the 1880s, Huon pine came mainly from Port Davey. The next centre of pining activity was the King River and its tributaries. The golden age of pining was the inter-war period, when over a hundred men explored the Gordon River system – felling, hauling, clearing and collecting logs to supply Strahan's five sawmills. Working conditions were wet and dangerous, and all supplies had to be rowed upstream by punt. Isolated for months, gangs of four to six men lived in huts called 'badger boxes' which could be quickly evacuated in floods. Horses, blocks and tackle, canals and tramways were used, or in steep country, logs could be 'shot' from the stump straight into the river. Piners would make good money if a flash flood washed the logs out, but it could take up to three years before their branded logs drifted to the lower Gordon – and mills only paid on receipt of timber. Piners were continually driven to further exploration because Huon pine was more valuable than readily accessible hardwood species.

The Second World War spelled the end of most pining operations, with many piners enlisting. Pining never again reached pre-war levels, but the following thirty years saw the introduction of new technology: motor-driven log haulers, chainsaws, outboard motors and helicopters to reach virgin stands of timber at the upper Denison River. In the 1950s and 1960s many piners found employment track-cutting with mining companies and Hydro surveys, or diversified into tourism and crayfishing. The greatest harvest of Huon pine occurred from 1974–80, when state-of-the-art technology was used to salvage timber from Lake Gordon as the dam was filling. Once widely used, Huon pine is now a rare and expensive craft wood.

Further reading: R Flanagan, A terrible beauty, Richmond, 1985; D Hopkins, The Huon piners, Devonport, 2004; G Kerr & H McDermott, The Huon pine story, Portland, 1999.

Wendy Rimon