National Trust Tasmania
National Trust Tasmania
Travel Tip

Tasmania’s Top Ten History Lessons

Kathryn Leahy
​Tasmania has come a long way since merchants traded on its shores and tall ships sailed into its harbours. Explore the early lives of explorers, pioneers, and convicts. There’s no shortage of experiences, museums and collections to re-tell stories of the past.

1. West Coast Wilderness Railway

The West Coast Wilderness Railway is the world’s steepest steam-operated railway with original steam locomotives and a rare rack-and-pinion rail system used to climb hills and cross gorges. Today, passengers travel from Queenstown on the same locomotives that started the trip back in 1896. The 16 km run passes through wilderness to Dubbill Barrill, with stops for a little gold panning and sightseeing on the way. These 28-tonne locos were originally built to move copper ore for the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company at Queenstown to the port of Strahan, and from there, to the world.

heritage train travelling through the rainforest
Nick Osborne
West Coast Wilderness Railway

2. The Wall in the Wilderness

The small town of Derwent Bridge in Tasmania’s central highlands is home to Australia’s most ambitious art project. Greg Duncan is carving the history of the highlands in 100 metres of timber. The beautifully carved work sets out in relief sculpture the history, hardship and perseverance of the people in the Central Highlands and pays homage to the individuals who settled and protected the area. There is nothing like this anywhere else in Australia.

wall carving depicting Tasmanian heritage and history
Brian Dullaghan
The Wall in the Wilderness

3. Port Arthur Historic Site

Discover the convict past and history that has helped shape Australia at the Port Arthur Historic Site. For more than 40 years until its closure in 1877, Port Arthur was a penal settlement as well as a military and industrial centre, encompassing mining, farming, timber cutting, boat building and many other trades. Port Arthur is the best-preserved convict settlement in Australia and among the most significant convict era sites in the world and is World Heritage listed. Visitors can discover this fascinating convict history and its many stories through a variety of interpretive experiences. There are guided tours, a harbour cruise, audio tours, multimedia presentations, furnished houses, museum displays, a convict study centre, interpretation gallery, and a high-tech audio installation at the Dockyard.

a historic convict prison at Port Arthur in southern Tasmania
Hype TV
Port Arthur Historic Site - Separate Prison

4. Mawson Replica Huts

For two years, through two dark winters, these huts were a sanctuary of warmth, light and companionship in the windiest place on Earth. The Mawson’s Huts Replica Museum stands on the waterfront in Hobart, not far from the wharf from where the SY Aurora sailed south to Antarctica with Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14. This world-class museum gives visitors an historic insight into the daily lives of the expeditioners who spent two winters living and working in the true ‘home of the blizzard’.

a life-size replica of Mawson Hut recreated on the Hobart waterfront
Dale Baldwin
Mawson Huts Replica Museum

5. Beaconsfield Mine and Heritage Centre

This is a place where you can lose yourself in history, play with treasures from the past and embark on a historical journey. You’ll be entertained by the interactive displays and live a different story around every corner with buttons to push, levers to pull, tunnels to crawl through and animals to search for. Experience the excitement and realities of the elusive hunt for gold or learn about the mine rescue of Brant Webb and Todd Russell through interpretive displays.

heritage centre complex and an old disused mine at Beaconsfield in the Tamar Valley
Dan Fellow
Beaconsfield Mine & Heritage Centre

6. Bass and Flinders Centre

At George Town, go aboard a replica of Bass and Flinders‘ sloop Norfolk – used to find out if Tasmania was an island or not. Go below, it’s a tight squeeze but worth it. See the captain’s and crew’s quarters and look for Flinders’ peculiar cat Trim, renowned for sailing the world with his master. A frisky character born at sea, he could jump through a sailor’s clasped hands and would whip meat off the fork of unsuspecting crewman. As you explore the Huon pine sloop, note there’s not a screw or nail in sight – trunnels or treenails hold the entire vessel together. See artefacts, watch movies and go on a tour to learn about Australian maritime history.

7. The Tench Penitentiary Chapel Historic Site

In the early 1830’s, a service in the chapel of the Van Diemen’s Land Prisoners’ Barracks Penitentiary (The Tench) was far from holy. Built in the shape of a cruciform and designed to make space for the growing numbers of convicts arriving in the colony, it included thirty-six solitary cells, later declared inhumane. When transportation ended, the site became Hobart Town Gaol for the next 100 years. Parts of the chapel were converted into Supreme Courts connected by tunnels to the gaol, and an execution yard and gallows were added. More than 50,000 convicts passed through here, their stories told through various guided tours. For a glimpse into the past, join the living history theatre production, No Mercy, presented across the two court rooms at The Tench – one of Australia’s most significant convict precincts.

Visitors walking through The Tench Penitentiary in Hobart Tasmania
National Trust Tasmania
The Tench Penitentiary

8. Waddamana Power Station

A museum interpreting integrated hydroelectric development in Tasmania offers a glimpse of what life was like in the central highlands in the early 1900s. In 1916 at the Waddamana Power Station, electricity was generated by harnessing the power of falling water, ‘hydro-electricity’. The station, located almost in the geographical centre of Tasmania, is now a fascinating hydro-electric museum featuring machinery, memorabilia, and artefacts from the station and the people. You can even stay at the Waddamana Field Study Centre, the original village built to accommodate the workers who constructed Waddamana.

9. Wooden Boat Centre

The Wooden Boat Centre in Franklin sits on the banks of the Huon River, and comprises the Wooden Boat Discovery Centre and Wooden Boat School. In the Discovery Centre you can see displays interpreting the history of wooden boat building and water transport along with maritime tools and artifacts. A number of small vessels are on display and you’ll also see some of Tasmania’s unique boat building timbers including Huon pine, King Billy pine, celery top pine and Tasmanian blue gum.

man building a traditional timber boat
Nick Osborne
Wooden Boat Centre Tasmania

10. Furneaux Museum

Find relics of sealers and Straitsmen, and places and happenings that tell the story of Flinders Island. Piece together the history of the Furneaux Group of islands through an assortment of artefacts spread across six buildings that are exhibits in themselves. The Mutton Bird Shed is a replica of the birding huts used in the 1920’s during mutton bird season; Dryazell was a school and the residence of the first government subsidised ‘school master’ on the island; Nissen Hut is the final resting place of the shipwreck relics of the Furneaux Group; and the Aboriginal Room brings to light the sad history of the Wybalenna settlement.

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