Following the discovery of payable gold in Otago in 1861, the Canterbury provincial government offered a reward of £1,000 to anyone who found gold in Canterbury. This gave prospectors an incentive, and colours soon showed up in gold pans in West Canterbury (today’s West Coast). Payable gold was discovered in Greenstone Creek, a tributary of the Taramakau River, in 1864, leading to the frantic rushes of 1865–67 as more discoveries followed. Like Otago, the early gold on the West Coast was alluvial. It attracted men from the Otago goldfields, and ships landed diggers directly from South Australia.
There were no roads and the diggers had to cut their way through bush. It took time before they could set up stores, and the first miners ate kererū (wood pigeons), potatoes, fern and kōnini berries. They explored the country between Greymouth and Hokitika, and mined beach sands at Ōkārito, Addisons and Charleston. The diggers described the alluvial deposits as ‘tucker ground’ – good enough for yielding food, but it was as if the gold had been spread evenly but sparingly by some unseen hand.
Richer finds followed, and the success of the rush could be seen at Christmas 1865, when all of Hokitika’s 72 hotels were packed with boozing miners. These were the days of the wild West Coast. Sly-grog shops illegally selling alcohol sprang up with each new field. Towns like Goldsborough emerged from the bush and disappeared when the gold was worked out. At the peak of the rush, in 1867, there were probably about 29,000 people on the West Coast – around 12% of New Zealand’s European population at the time. One in five of the European men in New Zealand were on the ‘roaring’ coast, but there were few women.
The 1860s goldfields could be lawless. Fights, claim-jumping and murders occurred, although most trouble just stemmed from drunkards. The goldfields had their own terminology. Planting gold to give a false indication of a field’s wealth when selling up was known as salting the claim. And rushes that resulted in no gold were duffer’s rushes (on the West Coast there are numerous Duffers Creeks).
Quartz reefs of Reefton
The discovery and development of gold-bearing quartz veins near Reefton around 1870 marked a shift from alluvial to hard-rock mining. Unique names are a remnant of the coast’s hard-rock mining days. Crushington lies south-east of Reefton, and was where quartz-crushers worked day and night extracting gold from the Globe mine. Quartzopolis was an old name for Reefton (shortened from Reef town), where mines such as the Wealth of Nations and the Keep-it-Dark paid handsome dividends to lucky shareholders. The reefs were rich, but hard-rock mining also required a much bigger investment. Companies were established and machines did more of the work. Quartz was crushed by pounding stamper batteries – between 1870 and 1951, 84 Reefton mines produced 67 tonnes of gold.
Once gold dredging proved itself in Otago it was also used on the West Coast to work river gravels or old river channels. Sluicing was practised extensively in places such as Kūmara. Gold was taken from beach gravels using riffle tables on wheels (known as Long Toms). The gold occurred in thin layers of black sand, and because the particles were so fine, much was washed away. To prevent this, some miners used boxes fitted with copper plates coated with a mercury amalgam which caught the gold.
A Ross gold miner built a hut on some dry stone tailings. Hidden beneath was a shaft. He was busy preparing supper, when the floor collapsed and he was buried. His mates dug into the night, until incredibly, 15 metres below, they found him, ‘bruised, but little injured … In his sudden descent he had clutched at the blanket on his bunk, and they found him with it, and the frying-pan, which he had also stuck to, little the worse for his marvellous adventure.’ 1
Safety was poor and funeral processions were common in mining settlements. Falling boulders and collapsing terraces claimed lives in alluvial workings. Underground miners fell down shafts. Conditions such as silicosis (caused by inhaling quartz dust and also known as phthisis) created breathing problems and proved fatal for some. In 1915 the Miners’ Phthisis Act was passed which provided pensions to miners with silicosis and financial compensation for widows and children.