In the third of our special four-part series looking at the Illawarra Mercury’s 160-year coverage of the region, LOUISE TURK explores the news and people who made the headlines from 1950-2000.
The second half of the 20th century was a period of enormous, overwhelming change in the Illawarra region.
Technological advances transformed the steelworks, once the lifeblood of the region, from a workplace which employed 20,000-plus in the 1970s to less than a quarter of that figure by 1999.
A downturn in the steel and mining industries in the early 1980s sparked a rise in commercial and retail construction - new federal, state and council office blocks and city and suburban shopping centres.
The region also began to draw on its natural assets and beauty with tourism becoming a multi-million dollar industry.
Construction of the Northbeach International Hotel, now known as the Novotel Northbeach, by the Corban family was a bold step that became the flagship for the tourism industry.
During this period, The University of Wollongong grew from a fledgling campus to a huge influence on the region’s economy.
By 1991, the university had overtaken the steelworks as the region’s biggest single ‘‘people centre’’.
The university had a student population of 9687 in that year, compared to the Port Kembla employee number of 9200 which was further reduced to 8000 in 1992.
This represented a vast change from 10 years previously when the steelworks employed 20,500 people and as such, almost being a sister city to Wollongong.
IOver the years the university expanded and amalgamated to encompass the former Wollongong Institute of Education, the Conservatorium of Music, while adding an information technology and law faculties and several centres of research. In 1999, the overall student population at the university was 12,901.
Moving back to the steel industry, there were significant investments during the 50-year period to 2000 which underscored the importance of heavy industry to the regional economy.
Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies was in Port Kembla on August 30, 1955, to open Australian Iron and Steel’s hot strip mill and Lysaght’s cold reduction mill.
That year at Port Kembla, 1.1 million tons of pig iron were produced and the ingot steel-making capacity was 1.3 million tones.
Contractors dredged nearly four million cubic metres of mud and blasted 340,000 cubic metres of rock to create Port Kembla’s Inner Harbour in 1960.
On November 28, 1960, the first ship to enter the Inner Harbour, the Iron Yampi, began steaming in from its anchorage outside the port.
As it bore down the channel, NSW Premier Bob Heffron pressed a button exploding a charge at the centre of the pennant-strung cable across the harbour - and thus the harbour was opened.
In other industrial milestones during 1960, the Port Kembla Steelworks commissioned a new open hearth furnace - the largest in the Commonwealth at the time.
And the Electrolytic Refining and Smelting Co started building a smoke stack in Port Kembla which would become a landmark of the suburb’s industrial skyline.
The industrial heartland of Wollongong was defined in 1970 with $1.5 billion investment spent or promised to shape the region as one of the largest steel and coal producers in Australia.
Through the 1970s both the steel and coal sectors would face a tumultuous time with pit closures, retrenchments and multi skilling at the Port Kembla Steelworks, but in 1970 both sectors powered forward like there was no tomorrow.
A decade later, a $146 million coke oven battery project at Australian Iron And Steel was unveiled in March 1980.
The battery was made up of 50 seven-metre ovens, the largest to be built in Australia at the time. Each oven was charged with 35.5 tonnes of clean dry blended coal to produce 28 tonnes of blast furnace coke every 19 hours.
The same year, a new No. 2 $140 million Port Kembla Coal Loader was taking shape. The massive project incited great controversy after the NSW Government announced in June 1977 it had dropped its Botany Bay site and instead opted for Port Kembla.
The first coal loader was commissioned in 1964 with a capacity of two million tonnes. This expanded to 7.2 million tonnes by the time the loader was replaced by the No. 2 loader which opened in 1982.
The region was also flooded with new residents during the 1950-2000 period, including thousands of migrants who gained work at the steelworks.
The volume of people arriving was highlighted in March 1950 when a ‘‘welcome’’ was held at Wollongong Showground. More than 1000 ‘‘new’’ Australians and citizens ‘‘met, chatted, and had morning tea together’’, according to the Mercury.
Hostels were built at Fairy Meadow, Unanderra, and Berkeley to provide interim accommodation while migrant communities were centred on Steeltown (Cringila), Port Kembla and Lake Heights.
By 1956, 41 per cent of steelworks employees were post-war immigrants, recruited mainly from the Mediterranean. This figure rose to 60 per cent in 1966, with the majority hailing from the former Yugoslavia.
The opening of the Wollongong Hospital block, then known as Hickman House - after the chairman of the Wollongong Hospital Board - was a landmark occasion on September 8, 1951.
The 10-storey hospital block which towered over Wollongong was opened in a grand ceremony which included unfurling union jacks, the national anthem played and a guard of honour by almost one hundred sisters of the hospital.
The building of 1951 had 201 beds, public telephones, automatic lifts - which for the time was state of the art - an emergency lighting system and some of the most efficient medical and theatre facilities of the day.
The 1950-2000 period was also a time in which some heart-breaking tragedies were experienced in the Illawarra.
Four Illawarra children and two adults died of polio in 1961 when Wollongong was hit by one of the worst outbreaks in NSW history.
Wollongong also had massive flooding during 1961. Two people died when, over a six-day period from November 18, 635mm of rain fell.
In October 1968, constant fires kept firemen and bushfire brigades busy. Then Black Monday - October 28 - dawned.
At least 31 homes were destroyed and dozens of people were homeless after about 30 fires from Coledale to Dapto were fanned by 80km/h winds.
Floods and gale force winds ravaged homes in the Illawarra and South Coast in March 1975, killing two people, leaving hundreds of uninsured families homeless and causing a multi-million dollar clean-up bill.
The Illawarra experienced many disasters that would be etched in the minds of many for years to come.
Four miners suffocated when a pocket of gas ignited in a panel of the Old Bulli Mine, several hundred yards from the main shaft, on November 9, 1965.
On July 25, 1979, 14 miners died after a methane gas explosion at the Appin Colliery. Ten of the dead were enjoying tea and sandwiches at K-Panel, three kilometres underground, when it was ripped apart by the blast at around 11pm.
It took 26 hours to recover the bodies of all 14 men with the tragedy coming just a week before the 77th anniversary of the Mt Kembla mine explosion, Australia’s worst mining accident when 96 men and boys perished.
In the early hours of Saturday, April 30, 1988, an embankment supporting the Illawarra railway line at Coledale collapsed, sending a wall of water and mud cascading downhill.
It crushed the Hagan family’s Rawson Street home, killing mother-of-three Jennifer Hagan and her young son James who would have celebrated his second birthday that very day.
Then on a winter day in 1992 a group of three families from Wollongong and Sydney set out for a picnic in Kiama.
Dressed in warm heavy clothing, they were standing on a rock platform near the renowned Kiama Blowhole when three ‘‘freak waves’’ washed several of them into the water.
August 17, 1998, is a night Wollongong will never forget.
After days of persistent rain, a ferocious deluge was unleashed, leaving the region underwater.
Mudslides and torrential rain wrecked hundreds of homes, trapped thousands of people in cars, and stranded rail commuters.
People fled for their lives as cars were swept into creeks, while on Bulli Pass drivers and passengers leapt from their cars just seconds before they slid over the edge.
The damage bill ran into millions of dollars.
There were endless stories of miracle survivals and near misses.
Incredibly, only one life was lost. John Thompson, 71, died when water inundated his car at Bellambi.
But as residents slowly come to terms with the natural disaster, they had to gear up for another battle with the insurance companies.
Insurers insisted the storm was a flood, and therefore not covered by insurance.
A massive campaign for insurance justice was picked up by the national media and finally the tide turned when the NRMA changed its mind.
More than 12,000 people lined Wollongong’s main streets to catch a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth during her visit on February 11, 1954.
The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh motored from Mt Keira Rd, along Crown St to Corrimal St, then on to the council chambers on the corner of Burelli and Kembla streets.
It was the first visit to Australia by a British monarch and crowds of people camped out overnight for the momentous occasion. By 11am, the streets were filled with people waving flags or wearing red, white and blue.
The jubilant crowd hushed as news of the queen’s imminent arrival was broadcast, and then erupted into cheers as the royal car rounded the corner.
Wollongong mayor Alderman J J Kelly welcomed the royal couple.
The band promptly broke into God Save The Queen joined by a singing crowd.
The royal couple attended a lunch at the Soldiers’ Hall and then moved to the Wollongong showground to the delight of the more than 20,000 excited school children gathered.
Nearly 100 years after the railway between Sydney and Wollongong was opened, the line was electrified on February 4, 1986.
Costing $230 million, the project took four years to complete.
Hundreds turned up to see the first electric train arrive at Wollongong Station.
Speaking at the event, the then NSW Premier Neville Wran said it marked a new era for Wollongong residents.
Wran believed ‘‘quick, comfortable train travel’’ would open the Sydney job market to Illawarra residents and enable Sydney-siders to visit the Illawarra’s lakes and beaches with relative ease.
In 1993 the electrification was extended to include the railway between Wollongong and Dapto.
Frank Arkell, the man who coined the phrase ‘‘wonderful Wollongong’’, was elected to Wollongong City Council in 1974.
A team of Independents headed by Mr Arkell ousted Labor for council control in September after a budget audit in May revealed the council was $1,183,983 in the red.
From 1975 Mr Arkell was the Lord Mayor of Wollongong for 17 years.
His political reach extended to State Parliament and he was the Member for Wollongong from 1984 until 1991.
He was known as Mr Wollongong, a passionate promoter of the city and an active patron of more than 50 clubs and societies.
The year 1991 marked the end of Arkell domination of local politics and state political representation, after he was defeated by Gerry Sullivan for the seat of Wollongong and by David Campbell for the Lord Mayor.
Mr Arkell was admitted as a Fellow of the University of Wollongong in 1985.
His life ended in tragic circumstances aged 67, when bashed to death at his West Wollongong home in 1998. At the time he was awaiting trial on child sex offences.