A Romance of Lake Wakatipu
A Memorable Sunday Morning in Invercargill—Startling Intelligence—Hoards of Mineral Wealth—Bill Fox again—"It's not all Gold that glitters"—A Man with more Enterprise than Honesty—The Mokomoko Jetty—A "Wooden-headed" Railway Scheme—Sam Perkins in Exile—He starts for the New El Dorado—The Nevis.
It was on a Sunday morning in the month of December, 1863, that the then small and comparatively unknown town of Invercargill* was completely knocked out of all sense of propriety and regard for the sacred character of the day by an announcement which reached it late the preceding evening.
The news was of such a startling character that newsmongers, in bruiting it abroad, did so with bated breath, as if at a loss to reconcile their minds to the bare idea of its possibility. It was not a scandal nor yet a tragedy; nevertheless, for gossip purposes, it was as good or even better than either of these fertile sources. It was intelligence of hoards of mineral wealth to be had for the gathering at a place coterminous with their own border.
Incredibility, or fear arising from the idea that the news was too good to be true, at length gave way under two distinct processes of reasoning—first, Gabriel's Gully and Dunstan finds, in the adjoining province, made it not improbable the auriferous deposit extended in the direction indicated; and, secondly, the originator of the reported find brought along with him substantial evidence of its authenticity, in the shape of a hundredweight or so of the precious metal.page 87
These clues led up to further developments, the facts elicited being as follows: A squatter named Rees, known to reside miles away in the interior—few could tell how many—arrived in Invercargill late the preceding night. Displaying the above-named golden treasure, he explained that a few weeks previously a prospector—Bill Fox—had reached one of his out-stations in a state bordering on starvation* Although without food, and almost destitute of clothing, he was otherwise well in, being possessed of gold ad libitum. Pox's story was that he had struck it rich, and the evidence of that fact being otherwise incontestible, Rees was now en route to claim the reward of £2,000 offered by Government for the discovery of a new goldfield.
Such was the substance of the intelligence bruited abroad this eventful Sunday morning, and it is easy to understand that it spread like wildfire.
With these facts before them, who will believe our report when we say this was the stepping-stone towards a downfall in the fortunes of Invercargill, and subsequently led up to the abolition of Southland† as a separate and independent province. Such, nevertheless, was the case. Theretofore it had been a place of slow but steady progress, with superior advantages as regards harbour accommodation, and very superior advantages as regards territorial estate.
Had Bill Fox kept his discoveries to himself, or shared them only with his friend the squatter, it would have preserved Invercargill from much trouble and disgrace. So low did the place eventually become that the bailiffs were actually placed in possession of the Government offices.
Startled right out of every sense of precaution and propriety, Southland entered upon a career of extravagances far in excess of its means and estate. It attempted to compete for the new goldfields trade with its more opulent neighbour, Otago, and the result was fell catastrophe. That, however, was a result in the then future. What we have to do at present is to deal with the events annexed to this memorable Sunday, and their more immediate outcomes.page 88
One whimsical affair will tend to illustrate the giddy excitement which arose, as also the utter ignorance which existed as to the country where the new find occurred. A recent arrival in Invercargill, who had brought with him more enterprise than honesty, had amongst his effects a stock of sketch-plans of the Holy Land, with the Dead Sea figured out in the centre. At best they were only fit for waste-paper, and men of ordinary genius would never have rated them at a higher value. Not so, however, the genius in question. He pencilled down a few townships and rivers. One of the former he named Invercargill, and one of the others Jacob's River. As for the Dead Sea, under this magic wand it blossomed out into Lake Wakatipu. Thus readjusted, these sketch-plans of the Holy Land were eagerly bought up as itinerant guides to the new El Dorado at Lake Wakatipu!
Schemes equally futile, but of far more disastrous consequences, were put forward in the endeavour made by Southland to grasp this land of promise. A huge wharf or jetty, costing many thousands of pounds, was erected at a place named the Mokomoko,* and, after being completed, was fitted up with a railway-line connecting it with town.
A line of railway was constructed, on which, for economical purposes, wooden rails were laid.† The first ten miles, leading into the heart of a flax swamp, was considered so successful that an excursion train was despatched to give the public an opportunity of celebrating the event. The excursionists were deposited safely in the flax, and, after enjoying themselves to their hearts' content, resumed their places in the carriages preparatory to being conveyed home. Meantime a slight shower of rain had fallen, and this so wet the wooden rails that the wheels refused to bite, with the result that the passengers—men, women, and children—were left to rusticate for the night in the swamp. That incident had the effect of condemning the wooden rails, better known as Davis's patent.
Sam Perkins had been living in a kind of exile in Invercargill for some months prior to the Fox-Rees discoveries. How he existed no one knew; but no one was supposed to know anything about his black-mailing resources, so that Sam had a means of support, although certainly not a lawful visible means. He was amongst the first who started for the new El Dorado. He had now to move about with great care and circumspection. The death-sentence had not been revoked, and for aught he knew he might at any moment stumble upon, an old acquaintance, who might take upon himself the duty of carrying out the original sentence.
Sam, or "the little old man with the grizzly beard," as he was now familiarly known, had therefore to keep a sharp lookout. En route to the Wakatipu he avoided company, and travelled alone. On reaching his destination he sought out one of the most isolated localities in the neighbourhood.
The Upper and Lower Nevis each turned out well, but at no time did they gain the popularity achieved by the Arrow, the Shotover, and Cardrona.
Prudential considerations induced Sam to locate himself on the Nevis, and, as the upper branch was the more sequestered of its two branches, Sam selected the higher latitudes. Here he built a hut for his accommodation, and worked a piece of riverbank for a living. He made periodical journeys to Kingston, for tucker, and at a later date, when Bill Fox assumed command of the "Nancy," he made the acquaintance of Bill. One result of that acquaintanceship was that Fox arranged to take up the old man's provisions and land them at a point convenient on the banks of the lake. By that arrangement the little old man saved himself a journey of some miles over very rough country.
It was in that way Bill came to recognise the little old man when he made his appearance on board the "Nancy" under the mysterious circumstances already narrated.
The old man had occupied the hut during the long months of winter, and, so far as either Bill or the few others with whom page 90he came into contact knew, he was perfectly content, making enough, at all events, to pay his way. It was a lonely, isolated life; still, it was not a whit more so than the life led by many more in and around these diggings. Weeks might pass without the old man seeing any one, so that no recluse could have been more isolated.