Thursday, 8 October 2009

A little bit of History: Gold at Skippers

By courtesy of Mr. Peter Hutchison who joined our Skippers Canyon tour at the beginning of this year, I would like to publish this historic background about gold at Skippers. Mr. Hutchison covers with his description a part of the commentary we provide on our tours.

The gold at Skippers has its origins in quartz veins or reefs in the schist bedrock of the area.  Over millions of years the bedrock was eroded and the gold in the quartz was released into the streams and rivers as alluvial (water borne) gold.  The thousands of miners who flocked to the Shotover valley in late 1862 and early 1863 were drawn by this alluvial gold, which was rumoured to be present in almost fabulous amounts.  In the early weeks of the rush some lucky miners did make their fortunes.  The discoverers of Maori Point, Raniera Erihana and Hakaraia, two Taranaki Maori, panned 300 ounces of gold in an afternoon.  (in 2001 this was worth about NZ$200,000.)
At first the miners worked the river beaches using shovels, gold pans, cradles and sluice boxes.  A cradle was a wooden box on rockers.  Gold bearing gravel was shoveled onto a perforated iron plate at the top and water was poured as the cradle was rocked back and forth.  Fine gravel and gold fell through the holes and then passed over a sloping board that had been covered with cloth and horizontal wooden bars.  The cloth and bars trapped the heavier gold while the lighter sand was washed away.  A sluice box worked in a similar way but was laid into a channel cut into the ground, with a constant flow of water passing through it.  Gold bearing gravel could then be shoveled into it or washed into it by water cannons or sluicing monitors.


The early miners also realized that a fortune in gold lay under the river itself.  Huge efforts were made to “turn the river”.  This required wing dams to be constructed.  These were built out from one side of the river and then down the middle of the riverbed, confining the river to half its bed and allowing the other half to be mined.  But the sudden floods in the river often destroyed the dams and the riverbed filled up with more and more gravel as the river terraces began to be sluiced.  The most spectacular attempt to mine the riverbed occurred in the 1930s when the river was channeled into a metal fluming at Maori Point.  This last attempt was a financial failure, with only 1,000 ounces of gold being recovered in 5 years.


The riverbed was also worked by dredging.  A dredge was basically a chain of buckets powered by steam or electricity and mounted on a floating pontoon.  The bucket chain was lowered into the river bottom and the buckets raised the gravel onto the dredge, where it was passed through a screen and gold saving tables.  The first electricity powered dredge in the world, the Sandhills dredge, operated on the Shotover upstream of Skippers during the 1890s.  It was not a financial success either.  The final attempt at dredging the Shotover near Skippers was made during the 1920s when an Australian company built a suction dredge at Maori Point.  This was also a financial failure and the rusting remains of the dredge are still visible on the river bank near Maori Point.


The alluvial gold was not confined to the existing riverbed and adjacent beaches.  Over thousands of years gold had also been laid down in the ancient beds of the Shotover and its tributaries.  These former river beds are now visible as the high flat terraces above the existing riverbed.  The miners first worked these terraces by tunneling into them, looking for the elusive leads of gold that ran through the gravels.  When iron pipes became available and water races had been dug to bring water to the site, the terraces were worked by hydraulic sluicing.  Water cannon or sluicing monitors played high pressure jets of water against the high gravel faces of the terraces, breaking them down and washing the gravel through sluice boxes.  It is hydraulic sluicing which is responsible for the massive areas of washed out terraces which are visible from the Skippers road.

Water cannons still visible in Skippers Canyon

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