High-quality bituminous coal is found in a number of places at the southern end of the Paparoa Range, forming the Greymouth coalfield. As mines were developed in the later part of the 19th century, coalfield towns grew up to provide housing for miners. The mining communities were self-contained and relatively isolated, so there was minimal contact with other West Coast communities except on the sports field. Even that was limited, as miners favoured rugby league while most others played rugby union.
Thomas Brunner discovered a coal seam on the north side of the Brunner gorge in 1847, and mining started there in 1864. As coal mining expanded, the mining settlement spread across the hillside opposite the mine, with other communities at Wallsend, Taylorville and Dobson, a few kilometres downstream where there was more space. The mine steadily produced coal for over 40 years.
The Brunner mine explosion in 1896 was New Zealand’s worst mining disaster, causing the death of 65 men and boys. The impact on the population was enormous: 186 children were left fatherless, 37 women were widowed, and 14 elderly parents were deprived of their sole financial support.
The main Brunner mine was closed in 1906, but other mines started nearby. After the Dobson mine closed in 1968 there was no further mining in the area. The site of Brunnerton is almost abandoned, although the coke ovens and other features are preserved as a historic site. Most of those who live in Dobson and Taylorville now work in Greymouth.
The Frickleton family (five brothers and their widowed mother) emigrated to Blackball from Stirlingshire, Scotland, in 1912–13. Remembered as the ‘fighting Frickletons’, they were an unruly group in the mining community. All five brothers enlisted to fight in the First World War. William was killed, and Samuel was awarded the Victoria Cross at the Battle for Messines.
The Blackball Shipping Company of England was a major shareholder in the company that started producing coal near the present site of Blackball in 1893. In the same year the township of Blackball (named after the company) was laid out, and sections were auctioned.
After a successful strike in 1908, Blackball miners gained a reputation for being highly unionised and active socialists. A number of the leading strikers subsequently became leaders in the labour movement.
The mine workings were nationalised in 1941, becoming the Blackball State Mine. Because of its high sulfur content, the coal was hard to sell, and the mine finally closed in 1964, though nearby mines stayed open. Although the population fell, in 2013 Blackball had a population of 291, but few were now miners.
Originally constructed as a bullock road, the Croesus Track (starting at the northern end of Blackball) gives access to the main ridge of the Paparoa Range.
Rūnanga long-distance runner Dave McKenzie won the Boston Marathon in 1967 in what was then a record time. In the 1960s and 1970s red-haired McKenzie was a familiar figure training on the roads around Rūnanga.
When the Seddon government formed State Coal Mines in 1901, a model town for miners was planned near the Point Elizabeth mine. The name Rūnanga was agreed in discussion between Premier Richard Seddon and Poutini Ngāi Tahu leader Tahuru, apparently commemorating a past meeting place in the area. The land was subdivided into leasehold sites in 1903–4, and timber was milled locally to build houses. A miners’ hall, which acted as the centre for union activity, was opened in 1906.
Rūnanga has provided housing for miners in state-owned mines for over a century. The Point Elizabeth mine was followed by the Rewanui, Liverpool and Strongman state mines, and in the 2010s many miners employed by Solid Energy in the Spring Creek mine live there.