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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 8 (November 1939)

Historic Arrowtown — Early Days Recalled

page 39

Historic Arrowtown
Early Days Recalled

Looking along the Avenue at Arrowtown.

Looking along the Avenue at Arrowtown.

The Sleepy Hollow that is Arrowtown, in the Lake Wakatipu district, rests at the foot of the mountains and dreams of the days of gold. Old buildings line the main street which runs parallel with the River Arrow. An avenue of beautiful trees—sycamore, oak, poplar and rowan —growing in front of quaint old-world cottages makes a picture that attracts many a visitor in the green days of Spring and the golden days of Autumn. This quiet little town has other claims to interest in the glory of its school gardens and the old-fashioned street lamps.

One hot summer's afternoon we were passing through the town and for the first time in many visits we saw a crowd in the main street. Such a crowd could not fail to draw one's attention, for the women were wearing dresses of the mode prevalent in the eighteen-seventies while the bearded men wore a variety of clothing, moleskin trousers, frock coats and top hats. Men, women and children were gathered about a doorway on which were large placards bearing the magic inscription, “Gold Discovered.” A Government Publicity film was being “shot” before our eyes! As the crowd excitedly read and talked over the matter it was not difficult to imagine Arrowtown in the days of the old gold-rush.

The discovery of gold in the Arrow Gorge was kept secret for a time, the seclusion and inaccessibility of the gorge making secrecy possible. Mining operations were begun on 4th October, 1862, by a Mr. McGregor and his mates, and later by other parties including West's and Fox's. They agreed to keep the discovery secret. Fox, however, visited Dunstan, talked a little too much, and on his return was observed and followed. The secret was out. Within three months there were 1,500 men working on the Arrow, some fabulous returns being made.

A general view of Arrowtown, showing the Arrow River on the right.

A general view of Arrowtown, showing the Arrow River on the right.

The influx of great numbers of miners through comparatively trackless country, over rugged mountain ranges, and across swift rivers must always arouse wonder in the mind of the newcomer to Central Otago and the Wakatipu district. How did they do it? They came by three routes, by the Mataura Valley through Southland, by the Kawarau Valley over the Gentle Annie Saddle, and by the Cardrona Valley over the Crown Range, the last two being most favoured. Ferrymen at Cromwell and Albertown earned as much as £100 in a week, charging 1/- and 2/6 per head. There were no roads as we know them today. Prices soared high. A writer was charged 1/- for a needle, one of the only two needles in stock at the time. On protesting at the outlandish page 40 charge he was told: “But look, mine goot man, at the price I have to pay for bringing up goots!” The following year better tracks were made and the above-mentioned purchaser was able to obtain two needles for 1/-.

A library was opened early in the history of the town—which was known as Fox's—fifty-three subscribers joining up almost immediately. The subscribers had the choice of but thirty-two books! Within a year, however, there were 100 subscribers and 273 books, and from then onwards the annual revenue often exceeded £200.

A letter delivery known as “Rowell's Express” became extremely popular. Letters were received, forwarded and delivered for half-a-crown apiece, although post offices existed in all the goldfields and other settled portions of Otago. Charles Rowell was a smart business man who seized an opportunity when he saw it, and a great number of miners paid him 2/6 to ensure the delivery of one letter. Gold, money and valuables of all kinds were sent by these messengers and never once was any breach of trust recorded. That their life was a hard one may be judged from the fact that a messenger lost his life in endeavouring to cross the Arrow River at the time of the great flood of 1863. After a hazardous trip he arrived with the mails at the Whitechapel Flat crossing, a few miles from Fox's. The river was a seething torrent, and the bridge had been swept away. On the precipitous riverbanks there was only one landing place and if the rider missed that he would be swept away down a narrow gorge between perpendicular rocks, with no chance of escape. On this occasion watchers on the opposite shore warned the messenger not to attempt the crossing, but he plunged into the torrent, was swept out of the saddle, and never seen again. The horse was found next morning, on the right side of the river, with the mails soaked but intact. The letters were delivered as usual.

The discovery of gold at Macetown, Skippers, Maori Point and other places in the district opened up tracks over the surrounding country and these tracks made Fox's the centre of the most densely populated mining area in the Wakatipu district. Queenstown, twelve miles from Fox's, supplied Moke Creek, Moonlight and their tributaries via the saddle between Ben Lomond and Mt. Bowen. Owing to the lack of foresight on the part of the business men of Fox's, the Bush Creek and Advance Peak tracks were allowed to fall into disrepair, to the detriment of their trade. A Mr. Richmond, of the New Orleans Hotel, organised a Progressive Committee, in 1865, for the purpose of opening these neglected tracks and regaining some of the lost trade with the Shotover. Although good tracks were formed by the Committee, the trade had already been appropriated by Queenstown, which has retained it ever since. The distance between Arrowtown and Maori Point and the Upper Shotover is less than half that from Queenstown, but the opportunity had passed as far as the Arrow business firms were concerned.

The notorious Captain Hayes was a well-known figure in these parts in the early days, being mine host of the Prince of Wales Hotel, a sod building with a roof of calico! The captain, minus one ear, came from the Californian diggings, and was noted as a poker-tricks player.
Reflections in Lake Hayes in the mountain country near Arrowtown.

Reflections in Lake Hayes in the mountain country near Arrowtown.

The story goes that he wore his hair long in order to hide the mutilation, nobody but his trusted friend, the barber, being aware of it. The captain had married a girl from a family of actors and singers, much against the wishes of her people, and they were glad when a chance offered itself for revenge. Hayes and the barber fell out and the barber not only told the ‘in-laws about the missing ear, but next time Hayes had his hair cut, gave him a short crop. The clever family of actors and singers made up a skit on the subject and entitling it “The Barbarous Barber,” showed it nightly for several weeks to crowded houses, at 5/- a head. Interest was kept alive by the impotent rage of the victim who had an ungovernable temper.

About this time, too, an interest in farming developed and the undulating country in the district came under cultivation. Fresh eggs sold at 1/- each, butter was 5/- a pound, milk 1/- a pint, green gooseberries 1/- a pint, and beef and mutton were 1/- a pound. If prices were high, so were wages, and as farming machinery was practically unknown, crops were cut by the hook or scythe, and the click-clack of the flail was heard in the land. Ploughmen were earning £4 to £4/10/- a week, farmhands were paid £3 to £3/10/-, while men cutting oats with hooks received 15/- a day. From this beginning the farm lands have been developed, many being irrigated, and today splendid barley, wheat and oats are grown in the district. In addition, a flour-mill and a cheese factory are in full production.

In 1888 there was still considerable argument about the name of Arrowtown. The official name of the local post office was Arrow River, while the telegraph office, situated under the same roof, was known as Arrowtown—by which name the pleasant, dreamy village is known today.