Story: Gold and gold mining
In the 19th century discovering gold was a way out of poverty. From the 1860s gold rush followed gold rush, and thousands flocked to the fields. But the work was harsh, with days spent digging in cold creek beds. Only a lucky few found riches in the rock. However, the collective value of the gold that was discovered kick-started the young colony’s economy. Gold was the making of early New Zealand.
Full story by Carl Walrond
Main image: Water race for bringing water to mines, Old Woman Range, Central Otago
The Short Story
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Why is gold valuable?
Gold is rare and looks attractive. It is used mainly in jewellery. When mined, gold is usually mixed with some silver, and needs to be purified.
Where is it found?
Gold is found as very small flecks in the quartz veins of hard rocks. The gold can be mined from the rocks through tunnelling, but it is difficult. Machines called stamper batteries were used to crush the rock, and the chemical cyanide helped to separate out the gold.
Alluvial gold comes from the rocks once they have been worn down to sand and gravel over many thousands of years by rivers or glaciers. The gold lies in the gravel of river beds and can be sifted by hand using a pan, sluiced, dredged, or dug up with machines.
The first recorded discovery of gold in New Zealand was by Charles Ring, a Tasmanian who found a small amount at Driving Creek near the town of Coromandel in 1852. Some years later there were more discoveries around Golden Bay and Marlborough, Otago and on the West Coast. Some finds amounted to nothing, but others led to huge gold rushes.
Otago’s first gold rush was in 1861, after Gabriel Read found gold in what would be called Gabriels Gully. Thousands of diggers, later including men from China, went there to make their fortune.
There were gold rushes on the West Coast from 1865. Miners had to cut their way through bush to reach the goldfields, and as in other places in New Zealand, the work was tough and a miner’s life was hard. There were almost no women. Towns with names such as Quartzopolis, Goldsborough and Crushingtown were quickly built to house the miners and disappeared when they moved on.
The first big find was near Thames in 1867. The gold was in hard rocks and expensive to mine, so companies rather than individuals took over. There were several very rich mines in this area, especially the Martha mine at Waihī.
Gold helped make New Zealand’s economy successful because it attracted people, investments and shipping. Because the price of gold was fixed, gold mining declined in the mid-20th century, but revived in the 1980s when the price was allowed to float. Today, gold still earns the country millions of dollars each year. Modern machinery makes it possible to dig in places that were once impossible to mine. There are large mines in operation at Waihī on the Coromandel Peninsula and Macraes Flat in Otago.