The discovery of payable quantities of gold in late 1864 sent miners swarming across the area between Greymouth and Hokitika, with rushes further south to Ross, Ōkārito, Gillespies Beach and Bruce Bay. The tide changed in early 1866, with rushes northwards to Brighton (near Fox River), Charleston, the Grey Valley and the coastal area north of Westport.
The West Coast’s peak production of gold – more than 15 tonnes – occurred in 1866–67, and yields declined rapidly thereafter. During this period most of the claims were small. Equipment was relatively primitive, and sluicing was small-scale. The easily won alluvial gold was soon exhausted, and sluicing and dredging on a larger scale was needed to find gold.
Miner’s phthisis (silicosis) was one of the most dreaded hazards of working in the quartz mines near Reefton. Inhaling quartz dust over a time led to breathing problems that were often fatal. The Miners Phthisis Act 1915 provided some financial compensation, and gradually led to improved working conditions.
The discovery of gold-bearing quartz veins led to the opening of hard-rock mines in the Reefton–Lyell area. Ore obtained from the mines was transported out of the mine and crushed in a stamper battery to recover the gold.
During a dredging boom in the early 1900s there were 40–50 dredges on the West Coast, but these had largely disappeared by the First World War. Larger electric dredges were developed in the 1920s and 1930s, often with overseas capital.
The West Coast is the only part of New Zealand where high-quality bituminous coal is found. The main coalfields (Greymouth, Reefton and Buller) had been discovered by the early 1860s, and production was soon underway. There was a strong demand for bituminous coal as fuel for steamships, railway locomotives and industrial boilers, as well as for coal gas production.
In the early 1900s the German navy was concerned about the wartime supply of high-quality coal for their warships in the Pacific Ocean. They identified the Buller coalfield as a possible source, and suggested that in an emergency it might be necessary to occupy Westport and the surrounding area. Fortunately these plans were never put into action.
The quality of West Coast coal got worldwide publicity in 1889 when the Calliope, a British warship, was the only one of seven warships to survive a hurricane in Apia harbour, Samoa. Using coal from Denniston, it was fired up quickly and able to escape from the harbour. The Westport Coal Company featured this incident in their advertising for the next 50 years.
West Coast coal production reached 1 million tonnes in 1907, and fluctuated around that level for the next 50 years.
Because the price of gold was fixed for much of the 20th century, gold mining gradually became less profitable. The last underground mine closed in 1951, and after that there was only small production from a single dredge.
The demand for bituminous coal decreased from the mid-1950s as ships and trains switched to oil, coal gas was replaced by natural gas and electricity, and less coal was used for household heating.
The price of gold was allowed to float from 1973 and rapidly rose, leading to increased interest in gold mining. Many small alluvial operations were able to work ground that had previously been inaccessible or lacked water. A dredge in the Grey Valley worked river flats in the 1990s.
After several years of prospecting and drilling, OceanaGold started producing ore from a large, hard-rock opencast pit near Reefton in 2007. The partly processed ore was transported by rail to Otago, where the gold was extracted. The Reefton mine closed in 2016, having produced 610,000 ounces of gold.
From the 1990s there was a revival in coal production. High-quality bituminous coal from the West Coast was in demand overseas, particularly for specialised smelter operations. By 2013 annual coal production was 2.5 million tonnes, most of which was exported.
Pike River mine disaster
The Pike River underground coal mine on the Paparoa Range was opened by Pike River Coal in 2008. On 19 November 2010 a massive explosion occurred in the mine. Twenty-nine men working in the pit at the bottom were killed. Two men survived the explosion because they were in an access tunnel some distance from the pit. Rescue teams were prevented from entering the mine because the situation was too dangerous, and a second explosion occurred on 24 November.
The Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy was established in 2010 to investigate the tragedy. Pike River Coal went into receivership, and the mine was bought by the state-owned Solid Energy in 2012. Solid Energy decided not to retrieve the bodies because it considered the mine remained too dangerous to enter. Some families objected to this decision and the tragedy remained a source of bitterness for many West Coasters. Solid Energy went into liquidation in 2018. In the same year, the government decided that an attempt would be made to re-enter the mine.