The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 6 (September 1939)
Gold Rush at Charleston — Adventure - In the Old West Coast Days
Quietly the purple dusk gathers Charleston into its safe keeping; gently, as the sleep of a tired child, day slips into night and undisturbed peace settles on this one-time El Dorado. Perhaps the ghosts of those early pioneers come from the past and look in vain for the business places, the hotels or the houses they knew so well. Perhaps they search again by dim candlelight for the elusive gold on those deserted beaches or hills. Perhaps ghosts of forgotten ships anchor in Constant Bay or sail up the dark waters of the Nile River to make fast at the tiny wharf. Perhaps in the starry stillness this phantom town takes shape and the romantic past becomes a reality.
You are not alone in this place of memories; the silence does not oppress you nor the ruins sadden, for time has mellowed this desolation, and romance has cast a halo over bleaching wood and grass-grown streets. The years have taken their toll and now, at long last, the future holds no secrets and the past is a story blazoned in gold. Here it was that the colourful history of the West Coast was written, here all the stirring scenes connected with any great gold-rush were enacted, and here the foundations of a rich province were laid … and yet, to-night, the only sound breaking the stillness is the booming of the sea. It is with difficulty that we remember that Charleston was once a name to stir the imagination, and that gold in almost unlimited quantities was won from its bleak hills and beaches.
The Charleston rush was probably the greatest in the history of the Coast, thousands of diggers coming from the South and many more from the Australian gold-fields, and overnight, as it were, a city had sprung into existence. The height of prosperity was reached about the period 1866–1870, when the town had a population estimated at 14,000. Life was pulsating where formerly the only living things were the sea birds. Boats sailed into Constant Bay bringing food and commodities to the eager crowd on the beach, and it is related that at least two boats were wrecked at the treacherous entrance. So treacherous was it that rings (which may be seen to-day) were attached to the rocks at either side in order to steady the boats and so prevent their being dashed on the rocks. The last boat to attempt to enter this Bay, the Shepherdess was also wrecked. Boats, too, sailed up the Nile River to unload at the old wharf. Tradition says that this river was named after an ill-fated ship which mistook the mouth of the river for Constant Bay and as a consequence was wrecked.
In the days of which I write there were in Charleston seventy-two hotels, two breweries, three schools, one hospital, three banks, several churches, a courthouse, dance-halls, and the scattered homes of the diggers. There were no casinos as such after the ‘eighties, but in their day they were certainly a highlight in the business of Charleston. The takings of some were said to be one hundred pounds per week. There was considerable rivalry for the dance girls and also for the barmaids. The takings at the hotels were so great, that in some cases the tills were not sufficiently large to hold the money, and in one particular instance it is said that the notes were thrown into a small room opening into the bar. Charleston had a newspaper, too, a journal of high literary value edited at different times by the late Mr. Thomas Dwan (who was later well-known in Wellington), Mr. Thomas Dollman, and lastly by Mr. Patrick Kitson [sic: Mr. Patrick Kittson], a man of outstanding ability. After the death of Mr. Kitson the “Charleston Herald” was edited and managed by his wife and family. All the children, three daughters and two sons, died in their youth, leaving their mother alone. Even to-day old copies of this paper arouse considerable interest.
From the four corners of the earth they came, that adventurous band of diggers, many of them with their worldly goods tied in a pocket handkerchief; they forded creeks and scaled frowning rocks and overcame every obstacle that beset them. The century-old silence of the bush was broken by the ring of the bushman's axe; the solitude of the beaches was rent by the digger's pick and shovel; the wealth of ages was won and gloated over and exchanged in canvas bags over the bank counter … but the silence hangs heavy to-night.
The kindly earth offered homes and hope and high adventure to those thousands of gold-thirsty men, and unquestioningly and unstintingly, it gave up its store. They robbed it of its gold and gave nothing in return save their youth and faith and energy. These were the sacrifices laid on the altar of ambition; but the gods of earth and tree waited patiently, for these few years were little in the ageless eras of their reckoning, and they would wreak vengeance in their own time and in their own way, and meanwhile the gold-seekers toiled and planned, and lived and loved.
It is difficult, if indeed at all possible, to reconstruct the past, but in the stillness of the summer night we wonder, and we see Charleston as it might have been; busy men and women going about the business of life; shops and offices; the voices of the children at play; the casinos with their tinsel and lights and laughing girls; the banks where the men sold their gold. We recall the many interesting tales of old Charleston where practical jokers seemingly played a prominent part, and then we remember that they sleep their last long sleep, round the ruins of St. Patrick's Church, the men and women who helped build our country, with their fortunes, lost or won, forever behind them. Others have found a last resting place on the Nile Hill beyond the town. Everywhere are reminders of a community that has vanished completely and for all time. Charleston might be well substituted for the “Auburn” of Goldsmith's “Deserted Village” but for the fact that whereas the wandèrer might return to his neglected lands, the digger cannot find the gold that is gone.
Of all the hotels only one remains bearing a name that speaks of other times, “The European” —a pathetic reminder of days when money was easily and quickly earned and as easily spent. There remain, too, but one small school, a church, small post office and a few houses. The large heaps of gravel to be seen everywhere are evidence of the mining operations so extensively carried out in former years but written into the history of the Coast. As the claims were worked page 30 page 31 out the population drifted, mostly to Westport, where to-day you may meet a few of the pioneers and many of their descendants.
You drive in the starry night past another reminder of the years long gone, the “Shamrock Hotel,” which is the last remnant of a town once rich beyond dreams, and in a little over an hour you are in Westport, where the Buller meets the sea, where the cargo boats take off with the tide for foreign ports, and where past and present are so inseparably interwoven. Gone, indeed, are the feverish years when gold was to be found but for the seeking, and gone, too, the men who sought it, but their spirit lives and the torch they lit burns brightly still. Long, sweet sleep to them all, and may time leave undisturbed the peace they have won.
Two Historic Railway Scenes
(Photo., courtesy “Picture Post,” London.)
These interesting pictures show (above) the opening, at Christchurch, of the first railway in New Zealand, on 1st December, 1863, and (below—also in 1863) Mr. W. E. Gladstone in the first Metropolitan train in London. Mr. Gladstone is seen with his arm on the rail sitting between the gentlemen wearing the white top hats in the “carriage” on the right. “In 1863, William Ewart Gladstone was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and railway development, helped by his Railway Act of 1844, was at its height. The Act provided compulsory third-class accommodation in trains. And so it was appropriate that Mr. Chancellor Gladstone, with other Cabinet Ministers, should sit in an open carriage at the opening for traffic of the first section of the Metropolitan and Metropolitan District Railway, which linked Paddington and Holborn. The railway was at once a big success, and in the first six months of 1865 it carried more than seven million passengers.”
In your very comfortable and up-todate hotel you lift your glass to the ghosts of Charleston.page break page break