There is one factor more than any other that contributed to the early growth and prosperity of our southernmost provinces; Otago, Southland and the West Coast. That factor is gold. Once the rushes in California and Australia started to run dry, hopeful prospectors started flooding into the country searching far and wide for a new opportunity to make their fortune.
There had already been small rushes in the Coromandel and near Collingwood, and small gold finds to the south at Palmerston, Mataura and Lindis Pass in the 1850s spawned rumours of great riches to be found.
On the 25th of May 1861, a Tasmanian-born miner named Gabriel Read turned these rumours into reality, discovering gold on the banks of the Tuapeka River at the place now named Gabriel’s Gully.
Over the next decade or so there would be a huge rush, tens of thousands of men (and some women and children) from around the world arrived in this country. Mining camps popped up on every riverbank and in every valley, men searched far and wide for new claims, townships grew to great heights and then disappeared overnight when the gold ran out.
Charleston is said to have grown to ten or even twenty thousand inhabitants, and according to legend it had nearly as many pubs (nearby Brighton had 53 pubs open within only five weeks of the local rush beginning). Dunstan, soon renamed Clyde, was for a time the largest city in New Zealand.
Tuapeka, Waipori, Shotover, Naseby, Dunstan, Clyde, Pomahawk, Parkeese, Ross, Arrowtown, Skippers, Ophir, Cambrians, Gabriels Gully, Cardrona, Kawarau, Oamaru, Manuherikia, Waikouaiti, Taieri, Hamilton, Nightcaps, Windwhistle, Nokomai, Waikaia, Canton, Moonlight, Waiuta, Queenstown, Cromwell, Saint Bathans, Roxburgh, Lawrence, Havelock, Blackwater, Okarito, Bruce Bay, Brighton and Charleston… The rushes took their prospectors all over the southern provinces.
It was a dangerous job and many a poor miner caught his death out in the snow or rain, drowned attempting to cross an un-bridged river, lost his way in untamed bush, died in mine accidents, or fell victim to the rise in crime that came along with the rise in population and loose gold.
A gang made up of Richard Burgess, Joseph Sullivan, Philip Levy and Thomas Kelly murdered George Dobson near the Arnold Goldfield, and the town in that area was called Dobson in his memory. Not long after on the Maungatapu Track they killed James Battle and buried him in a shallow grave, before ambushing a party consisting of George Dudley, John Kempthorne, James De Pontius and Felix Mathieu, shooting them and hiding the bodies.
In November 1863 a pair of highwayman at Dunstan waylaid the bank manager on his way to the Nevis, in 1870, two thousand ounces of gold were stolen from a police camp at Dunstan/Clyde, where it was waiting to be escorted to Dunedin. At Kawarau, a Chinaman named Le Ah Cheong murdered one of his countrymen and half-buried his body. In a spree, Henry Beresford Garrett and his gang robbed fifteen men at the foot of the Maungatua Range.
These are just a handful of the Wild West-esque events that took place all over the gold rush area during this period, by scouring old newspapers or police gazettes you can find many more. It was a wild time.
1863 was an especially bad year to be a miner. Intensely bad weather starting from July would kill many, perhaps even hundreds. First there were massive floods that destroyed dozens of camps and settlements, causing serious damage to the gold towns of Otago and Southland. The floods were so large that even in the 20th century they were referred to as “the Old Man Flood”.
Snowstorms buried large parties of miners, cut off towns, prevented news from spreading and caused terror. The newspapers ran apocalyptic accounts of hundreds of miners stranded, freezing and starving in the Pomahawk and Old Man Ranges, attempting to escape to safety only to freeze to death and disappear in the snows.
The floods started around the 8th of July, with Patrick Gleeson drowning in the Shotover River and the owner of the Blind Stab Claim among those lost. On the 9th, William Burke was swept away in the Arrow River, and the day after that another man got tangled in his tent at Arrowtown and was drowned.
On the 12th, William Buchan, Alexander McIntosh, Michael Townsend, Richard Aylward, Michael Cudohy and John McDonald were all killed when flooding caused a landslide near Moke Creek on the Shotover. That same night at Skippers Gully two Irishmen named Timothy Sheehan and Eugene McMahon were killed in another landslide.
Four men were swept away at Twelve Mile Creek but survived. At Manuherikia a party of workers barely managed to escape with their lives, though losing all of their belongings to the waters. Numerous dwellings were swept away at Teviot and all mining had to be suspended. Two men were also drowned at Foxs on the 12th, and a man in a boat at Millers Flat was taken away in the strong currents, never to be seen again.
The waters receded somewhat, but not entirely. On the 17th of July three bodies were found drowned on the Big Beach of the Shotover, two days later a messenger named Sidebottom disappeared and was later found drowned. On the 22nd Charles Matthews was lost at Frankton, and his body wouldn’t be discovered until October.
On the 24th an unidentified body was recovered from the junction of the Kawarau and Arrow Rivers, and a man named Bill Hickson was killed by a landslide hours after being trapped alive in a tunnel near Arrowtown.
Floods occurred on the 26th that were even more deadly than those of the 12th. A young boy was drowned in the Molyneux River, three sawyers (Frank, John Brown, John Brous) were killed in a landslide at Bush Creek near Arrowtown and three men drowned at Arthur’s Point.
Near Moke Creek four Irishmen, named John Lynch, Michael Lynch, Patrick Egan and Thomas Noonan, were killed in a landslide. On the Shotover a group of seven Ulstermen named James Kelly, Patrick Murnin, Patrick Travers, John McWhinney, Robert Weir, William McAllen and Charles Wilkinson were drowned in their huts when the river suddenly rose.
A natural dam at Sandhills was burst by the flooding, and thirteen men were drowned. John Fraser, William Wilson, Samuel Wilson, William Cummins, George Jack, James Allen, Joseph Mortimer, John Hornbuckle, Samuel Gretton, Peter Hunter, Davie Angus and James Graham were killed, and four other men were injured but managed to survive.
At Molyneux Ferry a Mr. McDonald and some Provincial Engineers were flooded out of their tents, and on the Roaring Meg several packhorses were swept away while attempting to ford the river (which rose as much as twenty feet). The packers were forced to take shelter in a cave that they named Walker’s Hotel.
Rumour said that great numbers had drowned at Foxs and on the Shotover, and at Manuherikia a young man named John Roberts fell into the river and was lost, while his father had to be physically prevented from jumping in after his son. At Teviot a log struck two men while they were together crossing the river, causing both to lose balance and drown.
Most of the buildings in Kawarau were damaged beyond repair, but miraculously most of the miners escaped to high ground. Despite some emergency maintenance Hill’s Bridge was carried off, and at the Dunstan a man swore he saw a billiard table and three drowned horses floating together through the centre of the flooded town.
One man drowned “above the Ford of the Shotover” and wasn’t discovered until late in August. A few days after at Packer’s Point a Yorkshireman named Joseph Barston was drowned after slipping off of a temporary bridge, at some point a Canadian named James Adly was killed in a landslide, and on the 31st Kenneth Cameron was drowned in the Moonlight River.
The total number of killed, and the total cost of the damage, is unknown. The contemporary Nelson Examiner said that more than one hundred had been killed, and reminiscences in the Otago Witness of 1919 said that sixty-three were known to have killed, but many others were assumed to have also died.
Just as the floods ended, the snowstorms began. In the Crown Range on the 29th of July a man named John Donoughue was lost and quickly froze to death. His body wouldn’t be discovered for almost a month.
On the 31st, four men and a horse were found frozen solid in a mountain pass near Switzers Diggings. In August the storms got worse, and on the 12th a man named John Penfold froze to death on the Old Man Range.
Two days later reports spread that forty men had been buried by an avalanche at Serpentine Gully, but they would later be found alive, if in a bad state. Near Teviot the next day a packer and his horse disappeared in the snows, Robert Henry froze to death in the Pomahawk Ranges, and a Mr. Alexander was killed in an avalanche.
During the snowstorm at Hogburn four masked gunmen burst into an inn, tied up the proprietor and a number of miners sheltering inside and made off with a large amount of cash. Hundreds of men across the region came down with frostbite and in many places all industry ceased.
In a little gully near Nevis stood two lone huts. Three miners lived in one of these huts and two in the other. When snow buried the gully the three men in the first hut were forced to escape through the chimney, while the other two were killed.
For many of those lost in the snow the date of their death is unknown, as many bodies would only be discovered months later (if ever). One man was lost at German Jock’s Gully, another body was found near Pyramid Rock when the snows finally began to melt. Between Gorge Ferry and the Campbell Diggings William Nicol was caught in the cold and died of exposure.
During a police operation in the Kakanui Range Sergeant Garvie was separated from the party and never seen again. Bodies were still being discovered for months. On the Old Man Range Joseph Thompson and a Mr. Landregan would be found, as well as a party of three other miners who got caught in a storm.
Nicholas Cordt was found dead at Potters Gully, and John Stewart at Pomahawk Creek. Some bodies wouldn’t be found until the next year, as with a skeleton found at Timber Gully. In many places the snow from the storm had fallen twenty-feet deep.
The death toll from the snowstorms is unknown, though it must be at least a dozen. In folklore it, like the Old Man Flood, was exaggerated and the numbered of men supposed to have been killed was inflated.
In truth, the death toll really could have been much worse as there were many close calls. Sixteen people, including women and children were snowed in at a gully between Blackball and Drunken Woman’s Creek, and it was only due to a rescue party’s quick intervention that the group survived. Similar stories came in from the Fraser River, Campbell’s Creek, the Old Man Range, the Pomahawks, Teviot and many other places.
The average New Zealander today wouldn’t have heard of these events, but the memory did survive in common folklore well into the last century, and there are several songs based on or mentioning the storms.
Country legend Dusty Spittle recorded “The Great Snow Storm” on his Kiwi Storyteller album. This is an essentially accurate retelling of the actual events. “Five hundred men on Campbell Field, high on the Old Man Range, were trapped in isolation when the wind began to change, they started out upon the track with ne’er a sight to guide; many a man died in the snow, his mate froze by his side…”
The late and great NZ folk musician Phil Garland’s song “Rose of Red Conroy” tells the tale of Central Otago settlers in the “year of the great tragic snows”, with Mr. Conroy disappearing “over the back of the mountains, where there’s death where the southerly blows”, leaving his wife with only a rose.
The Dutch-born folk Kiwi musician Paul Metsers’ song “Farewell to the Gold” tells the story of a young gold miner prospecting the hills of Otago, Cardrona’s dry valley and the winding Shotover with his mate Jimmy Williams, “til a terrible flood swept poor Jimmy away, during six stormy days in July”.
A monument to those lost in the snowstorm was erected in the 1920s at what had once been the gold-rush township of Chamonix (aka Gorge Creek, it can be found south of Fruitlands in between the Old Man Range and the Clutha River), it says:
“IN MEMORY OF THE PIONEER GOLD MINERS WHO PERISHED IN THE GREAT SNOW, 1863”
We remember you, and thank you for the hardships you suffered through to build the country we call home. Today’s soft multitudes of liberals and soybois ought to be grateful, because without our ancestors efforts we wouldn’t live in such relative comfort and prosperity.