Standing on a rise on the north of the island of Labuan, located off the coast of East Malaysia, is a 100-feet tall red brick chimney. The chimney is nothing remarkable as far as chimneys go—just a square-shaped brick tower with two arches at the base and a decorative frieze at the top. But what has puzzled archeologists for decades is why it was built.
Various hypothesis has been put forward to its purpose. Some said it belonged to an unfinished mansion, while others said it was a light house beaconing passing ships, or a bell tower. The most likely hypothesis links the chimney to previous coal mining activities in the area.
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Australian historian, Lynette Ramsay Silver, believes that the mystery chimney was built as a smoke stack for brickmaking, or for smelting ore. According to Mr David Hosking, an experienced Australian metallurgist, the Labuan Chimney’s construction was entirely consistent with chimneys built for brickmaking and the smelting of metallic ores. Silver, during her investigation, found that the interior of the chimney, above the restored base, was lined with glazed fire-bricks that are specifically designed to cope with enormous heat.
The iron bands placed at intervals on the exterior also confirm that the stack was constructed to withstand high temperatures. These bands not only strengthen the brickwork, but also expand and contract when the chimney heats up.
While it was widely believed that no brickmaking had ever been undertaken on the island, Lynette Ramsay Silver found old newspaper reports from 1870 that mentions that Labuan had indeed produced considerable quantity of brick for use at the coal mine, opened up in 1847 on the northern tip of the island. Brick making was a common occupation for prisoners in British colonies. In Labuan this work was performed at Coal Point, where there was a large deposit of suitable clay and an almost inexhaustible supply of coal to fuel the kiln.
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The coal mines reached its peak during the 1870s, but a series of disastrous boiler explosion, compounded by years of insufficient capital, mismanagement, and labor shortages brought work to a grinding halt. By 1881, thousands of pounds worth of machinery and equipment were rusting and decaying.
In 1889, the mines reopened under a new owner, but so much funds were sunk at repair and restoration and building of a new railway line, that the company ran into difficulties and in 1894, work once more came to a standstill.
In the early 1900s, the coal mines opened once again with substantial capital from the Labuan Coal Company Limited and brickmaking was back in demand. Thousands of bricks were needed to build tunnels and new homes for the increased labor force, warranting the construction of a large brick kiln that required a smoke stack.
Lynette Ramsay Silver believes that the mystery Chimney was part of this new brickmaking complex. It was located adjacent to an unlimited supply of coal and extensive clay deposits. It stood on the island’s highest point, where prevailing winds could blow smoke and noxious fumes away from the town
However, the mines were not prospering as expected and in 1911 they were closed for good. By 1913, all brick buildings and workshops were demolished and the hundreds of thousands of bricks removed by train to Victoria. In another hundred years, almost every trace of the settlement at Coal Point had disappeared, along with the memory of brickworks.
Today, the mystery Chimney is the only remaining relic of this forgotten industry.
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