05 October 2009

Sungai Lembing Mining Legacy

Deep in Kuantan hinterlands, there lies a sleepy town which was once a well-developed and the richest town in the east coast region. Sungai Lembing, 42 kilometers away from Kuantan was the centre of attraction because of its tin ore. In fact, at Sungai Lembing, there were lode mining as well as alluvial mining activities prior to the arrival of the Europeans in 1888 and before that, it had been worked for more than 100 years by the Chinese and Malays by using open-cast mining. Mining began in the 19th century in 1868 when Almarhum Sultan Ahmad Muazzam Shah I signed a concession with Baba Ah Sam.

When the British came to Pahang in the late 1800s, the mining concession area at Sungai Lembing was taken over by the British owned Pahang Corporation. Later, the Pahang Corporation and existing loss-making mining companies in Pahang were wound up and combined to form the Pahang Consolidated Company Ltd. (PCCL) in 1891 with a 77-year lease to mine the area. Sultan Pahang Almarhum Sultan Ahmad Muazzam Shah I agreed to the proposal and in 1905 mining started. This company started to intensively mine the Sungai Lembing area in 1906 until its closure in 1986. The tin mine in Sungai Lembing is the deepest and longest underground mine in the world. It was once commercialized on a big scale and enriched the nation’s economy, making Sungai Lembing renowned throughout the world. Until the 1970s, Sungai Lembing was a major producer of underground tin. It was once the richest town in Pahang, known as El Dorado of the East. In the 1940's about 1400 people worked in the mine.

To add efficiency and productivity, a narrow-gauge railway line network was built from Sungai Lembing mining area all the way to Panching which is about 25 kilometers away where Panching area also known to have rich iron ore resources.

Steam locomotives were then used to transport iron from Panching to Sungai Lembing mining centre. The Sg. Lembing tin mine in Pahang was reputed to be among the world's largest and deepest. The total tunnel length is 322km, with a depth of between 610m and 700m. There were two main mines. Myah Mine is 700m deep, and Tabeto Mine 488m. The mines were dug on many levels, with about 30m of rock between the tunnels.

Meanwhile, inside the mining tunnel, railway lines were built for transportation purposes. This was how the miners of Sg. Lembing tin mine reached their workplace each day. They would then spend six hours underground, extracting the tin ore from the main lode. At the end of their shift, the lift would transport them back to the surface and daylight and fresh air. For those six hours of subterranean work, they were paid $40-$44 in 1950. Miners dug into the rock face and broke the stones using iron hammers. The lumps of ore would be put into railway carts, which were taken up to the surface by lift.

For lighting the men used carbide lights, until they were replaced in later years by personal electric lights. The battery pack was worn around the waist and connected by a cable to the headpiece mounted on the helmet. These lamps are still used by miners around the world today.

The yard was built next to the mining area to gather iron ore collected from the mines in various areas and connected by narrow-gauge railway line.

PCCL was responsible for the care of the township, providing the roads, electricity, schools and healthcare. During the peak periods of the tin industry, the Sungai Lembing mines in Pahang contributed about 70 percent of the tin exports of Pahang.

However, tin is no more an important ore in the world, having been replaced by plastics, aluminium and other cheaper synthetic resources for what were previously its end products, like tins and containers for foods and drinks. Beginning in 1984, all that prosperity and riches gradually dwindled as a result of tin’s price drop. With the decline in tin production, Sungai Lembing town itself has slowly dwindled in size and importance, but the memories of its heydays are still vivid in the minds of its old residents.

A museum which is highlighting the tin mining industry of the past was opened in 2003, known as Muzium Sungai Lembing. The museum is housed in an old bungalow once used by the mine manager. The museum houses a collection of mining artifacts as well as mining equipment, mineworkers’ costumes, furniture and tableware.

* Photos taken from Muzium Sungai Lembing

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