Nelson’s complex geology and large hinterland gave early settlers great hopes of mineral wealth – most of which were not realised.
Copper and chromite
In 1852 copper was found in the Maitai River headwaters. A railway – the country’s first – was completed in 1862 from Dun Mountain in the hills behind Nelson city down to the harbour. About 5,000 tonnes of ore was mined between 1858 and 1866, but the amount of copper and chromite recovered was paltry.
Traces of gold were found in the Aorere River valley as early as 1853, and from 1857 larger alluvial gravel deposits were worked by around 2,500 diggers near Collingwood. While the quantities recovered never matched richer fields in Otago and on the West Coast, gold still generated trade – and gave Golden Bay its name. Nelson was the nearest port to the West Coast goldfields until 1866, when Buller gold began to be exported from Westport.
Hard rock reefs were mined on the west coast at Taitapu, but most of the region’s gold was alluvial. Dredging was tried unsuccessfully in the Wangapeka and Aorere river valleys. In back-country valleys, farmers also tried their hand at gold mining – a nugget here and there helped develop farms. In the 1930s a government scheme paid unemployed men to try their luck in remote areas. In the winter of 1932, there were around 200 men mining In the Howard River (between Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa).
New Zealand’s first coal was dug from a small seam at Whanganui Inlet and shipped to Wellington in the Jewess in 1840. Mines at Pākawau and Pūponga were developed in the late 1890s, with Pūponga coal shipped to Nelson, Taranaki and Wellington. In 1911, at its peak, Pūponga employed 70 men and yielded 30,000 tonnes of coal. In 1913 the mine flooded and it was never again profitable.
Ochre and iron
Māori used ochre deposits at Onekakā and Parapara to decorate carvings and as body paint. In 1920 a company was set up to mine the deposits and make iron. Coke ovens, a blast furnace, water race and aerial cableway were built and the first pig iron was smelted in 1922. In 1923, 41,000 tonnes of iron was exported. Pig-iron bars were carried on a tramway across Onekakā inlet to a 370-metre-long wharf, where they were loaded onto ships after West Coast coal had been offloaded. By the mid-1920s Onekakā was producing large cast-iron water pipes. However, the ironworks could not compete with cheap imports of Indian iron, despite a government subsidy, and it wound up in 1932.
At nearby Parapara, from the 1880s to 1906, the New Zealand Haematite Paint Company produced red, yellow and orange pigments from ochre. This paint was used on many New Zealand railway wagons and goods sheds. From 1926 the Nelson Paint Company used Parapara ochre to make paint in the city – its first colours were purple-brown and dark red.
Lime was first burnt for agricultural use in 1842. In 1909 a cement works was established at Tarakohe in Golden Bay, near limestone, marl and clay deposits, and with good shipping access. ‘Golden Bay’ cement was used by generations of home handymen. There were layoffs in the early 1980s due to overcapacity in New Zealand production, and the plant closed in 1988. The closure removed 8% of the wages bill from Golden Bay’s economy.
Tākaka marble has been worked from a number of quarries on Tākaka hill since the early 1900s, and was used in Wellington’s Parliament buildings. Granite was also quarried briefly at Tonga Bay on the west coast of Tasman Bay, and this was used for the steps at the head of Trafalgar Street in Nelson.
Mt Burnett, overlooking Collingwood in Golden Bay, is New Zealand’s only source of dolomite, a mineral used as an ornamental stone and a concrete aggregate. Clay was dug from pits near Tapawera to supply the Nelson Brick and Pipe Works, and was also found at Puramāhoi and Parapara in Golden Bay. From the 1950s potters made use of local clay.
Dick the Scorpion and Brandy Mac
Gold miners often used nicknames. Some of the names remembered many years later by Robert Win of Hope Junction (later called Kawatiri) were Jack the Russian, Billy the Native, Jimmy the Rambler, Mouth Almighty, French Joe, Brandy Mac, Dick the Scorpion, Tommy the Robin, Blackguard Jack, Jack the Christ Killer, White Peter and Louis the Christian.
Asbestos deposits occur in the upper Tākaka River. From about 1913 until the 1950s a reclusive couple, Henry and Annie Chaffey, lived in this remote area, accessible only by several hours’ walking. After a road was built to a hydroelectric dam at the headwaters in the 1930s, the Tākaka River deposits were mined from 1940 to 1945, and again from 1949 to 1955. About 5,000 tonnes of asbestos fibre was produced.
Planning for the Cobb hydroelectric scheme began in the 1930s. A private company began the venture but the government bought it out in 1939. Expected to take two years, it took 20 more. A dam was formed in the upper Cobb River valley, and water piped down to the power station on the banks of the Tākaka River. In the early 1950s a workforce of 500 laboured in the high, cold valley, completing the permanent earth dam in 1956.