Many know about the Otago Gold Rush, which began in Gabriel’s Gully in Lawrence. Perhaps less well known is the history of the Tuapeka Mouth goldfields, an omission former Tuapeka Mouth resident Bill Cowan, now of Dunedin, is keen to correct. Mr Cowan has collated a history of the goldfields, excerpts from which will appear in a short and occasional series on these pages.
Chapter One: Early Days
Tuapeka Mouth in South Otago was once the centre of a significant alluvial goldfield; significant in its longevity, being worked until 1955, and significant in its use of technology. And yet it has tended to be overlooked, overshadowed by the importance of Gabriel Read’s discovery (a history of Otago Goldfields published in 2005 makes no reference to the Mouth).
Four years before Read’s momentous discovery, Alexander Garvie, a surveyor employed by the Otago Provincial Council, set out to explore the province. His reconnaissance party explored the Tuapeka River to its confluence with the Clutha River with one of the party, John Buchanan, successfully prospecting for gold in a number of places. After the initial rush to Gabriel’s Gully, prospectors soon established claims the length of the Tuapeka.
Initially known as Dalhousie, after an Indian administrator, a typical goldfields settlement soon took shape at the Mouth including hotels, stores and sly grog shanties. In 1861, the country commanded by the watersheds of the Waitahuna and Tuapeka Rivers was proclaimed a goldfield. Mining regulations stipulated that a fixed claim would have an area of 2.2sq m with a partition wall of 1m left in a natural state between each claim. By 1864 it was reported that the entire Tuapeka River valley was occupied by a continuous line of workings.
The main areas being worked included the banks and terraces of the Tuapeka and a crescent, probably an ancient riverbed, which curved roughly north and south behind the Tuapeka Mouth village. In later years this became known as the Claim — with its various machinery, steep cliffs, deep ponds and a resident population of quails and frogs.
Right from the beginning water, or rather its absence, was a problem on the Mouth goldfield. As a consequence of the topography there were no streams higher up in the hills which could be dammed to bring water at high pressure downhill to the various claims. There was plenty of water in the Tuapeka but no way to convey it uphill. Early prospectors eyed the Crookburn Stream 6.4km south of the Mouth, along with Browns Creek 3.2km up the Tuapeka on the west bank. Rudimentary dams were constructed across the Tuapeka, which lasted only until the next flood.
Early water races, including fluming, were constructed from both sources.
These races were comparatively small; one race measured 0.6m deep by 0.3m wide and conveyed two heads. In 1871 a company was formed to bring water to the Tuapeka Mouth field from the Beaumont River 38.6km away. An encouraging start was made but five years later work stopped after 24km had been completed.
During 1867 the first Chinese miners arrived in the area. By the early 1870s there were about 80 miners working within a 6.4km radius of the Mouth, using the cradle and long tom for gold recovery.