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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 1, Issue 2, May 1957

Goldfields in the Upper Motueka and Buller Valleys

Goldfields in the Upper Motueka and Buller Valleys

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In the early days of settlement vigorous efforts were made to find out what mineral deposits were in the country. It was some few years before gold was discovered but once it became known that gold deposits existed prospecting was carried out in many different localities. I intend to confine myself to the workings carried on in the various valleys at the heads of the Motueka and Buller Rivers. For the most Part these workings were not very extensive and could only be regarded as poor men's diggings.

I believe it would be correct to say that the gold prospectors were the real explorers of much of our back country but, unfortunately, gold seekers do not usually say where they have been or leave maps of the localities. With many of them it was a case of carrying a back-breaking load of provisions out over the mountains and not returning until they were short of food. News of a gold find would usually bring a "rush" of diggers. Many of them would not stay long but move off to see if some other find was better. The tracks which these men followed often led over steep mountain ranges but the lure of gold seemed to overcome the greatest obstacles. Hundreds of diggers passed backwards and forwards through Tophouse at the time of the various "rushes" to the Wakamarina and Buller workings. One lady who, as a girl, lived at Tophouse, wrote that she could remember the occasion when there were 100 diggers at Top-house for the night. The Wakamarina "rush" caused a great movement of gold seekers and at David Kerr's Blue Glen homestead, in the Upper Motupiko Valley, they had to try and provide meals for the hordes passing through from the Buller to Wakamarina. They had a stone oven in which 16 loaves were baked at a time. Some of the bread had to be cooked while the hungry diggers waited and then it was eaten hot, straight from the oven.

To get to the Wangapeka fields from the Wairau or Buller Valleys the diggers either climbed Mount Owen from near the head of the Tadmor Valley into the head of the Dart River or else they followed up the Owen Valley to the watershed and descended the streams running into the Wangapeka River. From the top of this saddle easy walking would lead to either Blue or Nuggety Creeks.

The gold in these areas came from many different geological formations, and experts could tell from which locality any particular specimen had come. While this does not come into our present study it is interesting to hear that the Baton gold always sold for a lower price as these dull little nuggets often contained sand. Wangapeka gold was of reef origin and many old prospectors spent most of their years trying to find the parent reef. That from Tadmor-Sherry was fine alluvial gold and was said to have been deposited by glacial action. That from deposits in the Upper Buller and Howard Rivers areas was in little chunky nuggets. The colour varied from place to place.

Gold at the Baton Valley was first worked about 1856. It was apparently first found by a runaway sailor boy, Batteyn Norman. His name was spelt B-a-t-t-e-y-n, and some few years later the surveyors' reports were referring to the district as B-a-t-t-e-n. Later it was simply spelt B-a-t-o-n. There were soon some hundreds of men working and the packing of provisions became a problem. Tracks for pack-horses were made up the rivers from Ngatimoti and also from the Upper Motueka Valley by way Tadmor and Wangapeka Plain. The old pack track over the Baton Saddle from Wangapeka is still visible. Pack bullocks were at one time used on the trip. John Taylor arrived in the Baton in 1859 after having spent four years on the Collingwood goldfields, and set up a store and hotel.

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A new chum who went to the Baton diggings found that most of the ground near the stream was taken up already so he enquired where he could dig to get some gold. One miner pointed to a large rock in the riverbed and said, "You dig under that and you will find gold." Not knowing any better he did what he was told. He dug all round the rock and got gold, so he cleaned up the riverbed below and then cut some birch saplings and laid them in the river for skids. When ready some of the other men helped him to roll over the rock and skid it out of the way. There was good gold in the gravel beneath and, after all, he had the laugh on the other men, as he made enough money to buy a farm in the Motueka Valley.

While the particulars about the actual number of men working the claims are not now available it would be fairly correct to say that after the first enthusiasm had died down about fifty diggers remained on the field for quite a few years. Some took up land and became settlers and for many years there was a local school. A racecourse with hack meetings brought entrants from districts many miles away. By 1900 there were only a few old timers left at the diggings but in the slump of 1930 many subsidised diggers fossicked over old ground.

From the Baton some prospectors used to go, each summer, over the 4000ft Ogg's Pass from the Skeet stream into the Crowe and other streams on the Karamea side of the ranges. They would take swags of as much as a hundredweight and would not return until they were short of food. No doubt bird life would help to supply their larder. One of these diggers who had run out of food went into the Baton Hotel and said to Mrs Taylor's daughters, "Give me a feed and I will give you enough gold to buy a dress." Gold prospectors with experience both here and in Australia believed that the area near these streams at the head of the Karamea River was some of the most promising gold-bearing country that they had seen. In March, 1883, the Motueka Valley River Board voted £200 to be spent on the Baton-Karamea track.


The Wangapeka gold was, discovered by prospectors either from or going to the Baton about 1859. In May, 1861, The Nelson Provincial Council voted the sum of £100 as a bonus to the person or persons who should discover a payable goldfield in the district of Wangapeka. This was subsequently claimed by William Griffiths, Henry Pilkington, Levi James and James Sharp, each of whom were paid £25 in July, 1862. With the discovery came rumours that gold could be obtained at the Wangapeka run simply by pulling up the grass and shaking the gold out of the roots. In actual fact the best gold bearing area was at Blue Creek and this meant that swags had to be carried through about 12 or 15 miles of bush to get there, as the track ended at Bush End, about 2 miles beyond the present Matariki settlement. This was the end of the open country and the start of the heavy bush in the Wangapeka Valley. Bush End soon became a miner's township with hotel, store and blacksmith's shop. Only about three-quarters of a mile of Blue Creek provided really payable gold but the remarkable thing about this creek is the fact that the ground has been dug over three times and payable gold has been found each time. Different floods had made what is known as "false bottoms" and the gold was at different levels.

In 1869 a reef was discovered at the Rolling River, well up the Wangapeka Valley. A man named Culliford took specimens into Nelson and asked to get the land protected. Apparently he was not taken seriously as he was allowed to buy the land under the Waste Lands Act. Diggers arrived from the Buller and surrounding fields and sat on the ground but were unable to touch it until the question of ownership was settled. The ensuing argument about land titles and legal procedure is a story on its own and does not concern us at the moment. Several quartz crushing companies were formed and machinery was taken to the locality. At the time people in Nelson believed that the golden age had arrived and that a goldmine was right on their doorstep. A railway was advocated and several different routes were suggested. The first at-page 9
Mt. A., Mount Arthur; B, Brightwater; BE, Belgrove; Ch.G., Chinaman's Gully; F, Foxhill; G, Glenhope; K, Korere; M, Motueka; MO Motupiko; N, Nelson; R, Richmond; S.B., Stanley Brook; T, Tadmor; TO Tophouse; W, Wakefield; WP, Wangapeka.

Mt. A., Mount Arthur; B, Brightwater; BE, Belgrove; Ch.G., Chinaman's Gully; F, Foxhill; G, Glenhope; K, Korere; M, Motueka; MO Motupiko; N, Nelson; R, Richmond; S.B., Stanley Brook; T, Tadmor; TO Tophouse; W, Wakefield; WP, Wangapeka.

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to work the reef was not successful. In 1887 Messrs Doran and Culliford again tried to work the reefs but were apparently no more successful. Only one stamper battery was erected and the other plants were left rusting on the hillsides. The transport of these plants calls for a little comment Bullock drays were used from Nelson to Bush End at the Wangapeka. From there it was sledged up the riverbeds and this must have been an extremely difficult task as the Wangapeka has a very rough bed with huge boulders. The last part of the journey was accomplished by the men carrying everything. One 12ft shaft said to weight about 4001bs was a problem and to get it round one rocky bluff corner one man had to carry it as only one man at a time could get round. The machinery was taken into very steep, difficult country.

At the Rolling River a mine township sprang up, complete with hotel, courthouse and lock-up. The timber was pitsawn on the site. The problem of meat supply was easily solved. A slaughter yard was erected and the stock was driven in and killed on the spot. The usual walking track to the goldfield was by way of Spooner's Range, over Pinchback hill from Motupiko to Tadmor and from Sherry River over a high hill to the Dart River. James Chandler erected an accommodation house at the Dart River and one of the terms of his license was that he had to put travellers safely across the river.

Each summer diggers from the Wangapeka field were in the habit of going over into the headwaters of the Karamea, Little Wanganui and Mohikinui Rivers and returning with parcels of gold. Transport of provisions was a definite handicap but various tracks were eventually made.

Regarding communications I have found that many suggestions regarding roads and railways were made at this time. In May, 1861, The Provincial Superintendent in his report to the Council stated that, "The road to the Wangapeka diggings at present in use is the old one over Spooner's Range from Foxhill to the Motueka Valley by way of Norris's Gully. A party is now employed in continuing this dray road up the Tadmor Valley, and across the Tadmor Range to the Sherry and Wangapeka plains; so that in about a month's time a dray road will be opened from Nelson to the head of the Wangapeka plain, within ten miles of the spot where the diggers are actually at work. This last ten miles will be opened as a bullock track in about a fortnight." The report continues by stating "that a new road, by which a saving of 14 miles in distance to the diggings will be effected, has been indicated and partly explored." This last refers to a blazed track made by Mr Skeet from Pigeon Valley through Stanley Brook to the mouth of the Wangapeka Valley. Small sums were granted for this road from time to time but the road by way of Spooner's Range remained the route. However, let me assure you that the road over Spooner's Range certainly was not the present State highway.

On July 16, 1863, Mr W. L. Wrey, Mineral Surveyor, gave a report on a suggested railway. "The only proper road for the main line is from Nelson by way of the Port, Richmond, Moutere, inlet or river mouth, across to the Motueka River, following its valley to the junction of the Wangapeka, thence through the Wangapeka Plain to the Rolling River and as far beyond as the same facility continues…the line is to all intents and purposes practically level…"

In October, 1869, James Burnett, a skilled colliery engineer, who was largly responsible for the development of the Buller coalfields, went to the Wangapeka to make a report on the goldreefs for the Provincial Council. In his report he made the following observation regarding access to the reef, "It might be well to consider whether, instead of making a cart road up the Wangapeka, a light tramway might not be constructed at a moderate price; wooden rails could be used in the first place. Should a tramway be made, it would be necesary to bridge the Dart River. This would not be needed for a cart road at present. Possibly the new wire railway might be sufficient for the ordinary traffic; but as heavy machinery will be required for quartz crushing, the wires page 11will not be strong enough to carry it." Actually it was many years before the road up the valley was constructed.

The gold at Sherry River and Tadmor attracted a large number of diggers at various times. It is hard to say at just what period it was first discovered but gold was being worked on the Tadmor Hill in 1862. Small "rushes" took place from time to time. Of course gold here was regarded as being in the Wangapeka goldfield and consequqently little official information is available. In the "Hand book of New Zealand Mines, 1887." the yield of the entire Wangapeka goldfield area was then put as being about 400ozs to 700ozs per annum. It further stated that the more easily worked parts of the field had been exhausted. In the Sherry River-Wangapeka Plain district many sluicing claims have been worked at various times over the years. In some oases the water was brought in races for about 5 miles to the claims. One very ambitious scheme was a project to bring water from the Dart River in the Wangapeka Valley to a claim in a creek which ran into the Sherry River. A property owner put all the obstacles he could in the way of the scheme, even to building his house so that it would prevent the race being put through his land. On the hill between the Tadmor and Sherry Rivers the difficulty was to get a good enough supply of water to work the pay dirt. In one instance claim holders set out to dig a race for several miles to bring water from the Tadmor River to their workings. After digging most of the race they were beated by an outcrop of very hard rock which prevented the completion of the project.

Just south of the Tadmor village there was a very large bend in the river nearly half a mile from its present course. In the 1870's a large flood caused it to burst through the native bush on the flat and make a new course further to the west. When the river washed down to the papa outcrops, gold was discovered and in 1877 many people flocked to this "rush." Diggers left the Wangapeka to come to the new field, but after a short time only about 100 men were working there, and in eighteen months only a few married men were left. It is an interesting fact that the gold diggers were largely responsible for the Tadmor school being started then. There were not sufficient children belonging to the settlers to get a teacher appointed but with the influx of children belonging to miners a school was quite justified. To get the required number of pupils, children from four years old to people in their teens were enrolled. In Tadmor and the surrounding districts some of the diggers took up land and became settlers and part-time gold seekers. When the goldfields petered out there were hard times for the people. Gold diggers are not usually the type to become settlers or to take care of their earnings. Their gold usually finds its way to the nearest tavern where they have a "jolly good spree." However, there were some who earned enough on the diggings to purchase a bit of land and then, as part-time diggers, enough to keep things going along while the bush was being felled and the land grassed. Some of the present settlers are descendants of these pioneers.

Gold-bearing rock at the Owen was first reported in 1864 when a specimen of conglomerate was brought into Nelson and some very satisfactory assay tests made. In the early 1880's gold-bearing reefs were found and claims were taken up with the idea of working the field. In March, 1885, five of the interested men went as a deputation to wait on the Hon. W. J. M. Larnach. Minister of Mines in the Stout Government, with the object of obtaining a grant for the making of a road to the Owen reefs sufficiently good to enable machinery to be taken to the various claims. The Minister expressed himself well pleased and took the opportunity of wishing the plucky prospectors every success, adding, what was more to the purpose, that if funds were available the Government would hand over to the Inangahua County Council the sum of £300 towards the expense of making the road.

Further findings of auriferous quartz at the Owen River were made in 1886, the discovery being made from seven to ten miles up the Owen River from its junction with the Buller River.

The high hopes that a valuable mining field had been located led to the page 12forming of a number of companies. Claims were pegged, a township was laid out, and quite a large settlement sprang into being. Within a year a two-storied fifteen-roomed hotel was built at a cost of £2000, and a number of other large buildings had either been erected or were in the course of construction.

The Enterprise Company went into a vigorous development policy and built a battery of ten stamps, while another company with a capital of £6000 was formed to provide the field with a battery of twenty heads of stamps. The Enterprise plant was completed and crushing commenced towards the end of 1887 or early 1888. The results of the crushing were not at all satisfactory as the clean-up from 720 tons crushed gave only 72ozs of gold, equal to 2dwt per ton.

Some of the claims were not worked at all as most of the stone was on the surface and the deposits were very broken. Drives put through some of the outcrops failed to give a lead to the continuity of the reef. Actually the outcrops were simply large blocks which had broken away from the mother reef in some earlier age. Some alluvial gold was won from creeks in the valley, while galena, from reefs there, was taken away for treatment; but the reefs were not worked.

The Owen reefs are in the same line of hills as the reefs in the Wangapeka and probably have some connection.

The road into the Owen went over a low saddle about three miles on the Nelson side of the present Owen Hotel. The present road following up the Owen Valley from the river junction was built much more recently.

Gold in the Howard and Upper Buller Rivers. In January, 1860, Von Haast reported the discovery of gold on the Rotoiti River where it enters the Devil's Grip, in the Rotoroa and in the Buller "in such quantities as I think will pay for digging." Within a few years gold was being won in the Buller Valley and the track through here was in constant use. There was a good deal of prospecting done in the vicinity of the Howard River and Lake Station but gold was not found in payable quantities. However, early in 1915 great excitement was caused by the discovery of coarse gold in the Howard Valley and a small rush took place there. About sixty men were soon digging at the head of Louis Creek which was being worked from end to end. The wash was very shallow and consisted of large stones resting on a soft granite bottom and filled in with fine gravel. The gold, which was coarse, was found lying on the granite and stuck in small crevices. In many cases the gold was saved not in sluice boxes but by picking it up with a pocket knife after moving the stones and washing the bottom. A report from the Mines Inspector six months later stated that there were one hundred and fifty men employed and all appeared to be satisfied with their earnings. However, he stated that it could only be regarded as a poor man's field. Within a few years it had declined to the position where only a few lone miners were still working.

One of these diggers who stayed on went to a foundry and had a large hooked rake made so that he could use a bullock team to drag the large boulders out of the stream to get at the pay wash underneath.

Most of the creeks in the Upper Motupiko and Rainy River areas were prospected and limited amounts of gold were won from the creeks. One of the most notable was Chinaman's Gully, so named on account of the Chinese diggers who worked there for some years. It has had quite a varied history and was again worked under the subsidised scheme during slump time. Digger's Creek, nearer Tophouse and Prospector's Creek in the Rainy were so named on account of the gold seekers working there. It was in these hills between Tophouse and Glenhope that the well-known figure, George Moonlight, was prospecting when he was lost. I have talked with people who helped in the search for him. When found dead in a valley near Glenhope he had a walking stick, which he had cut, with him. It is thought that he must have taken ill and was using the stick to help himself along so as to get to the accommodation house at the foot of the Hope Saddle. Normally he would have been unwilling to use a walking stick at all.

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The Wangapeka Gold Dredge. In the 1890's there was a gold dredge boom in New Zealand and likely areas were being prospected for this purpose. The only one to be erected in our particular area was that owned by the Wangapeka Gold Dredging Company, floated in Dunedin with a capital of £21,000. A glowing prospectus was sent out and in the course of time the dredge was assembled in the Wangapeka riverbed near the confluence of the Sherry River. In 1903 it commenced operations but almost immediately difficulties were encountered. It was dismantled to fit a longer ladder and an up-to-date elevator so that they could work to a greater depth and keep the tailings clear of the dredge However, after working for a short time the venture was wound Up and the dredge machinery was sent to Malaya for dredging for tin. The steam boiler had used firewood for fuel but during the time that the plant was working a seam of brown coal nearby was opened up and this was used for firing.

Subsidised gold prospecting and digging during the slump, 1931. One of the few redeeming features of the economic crisis was the reversal of the relationship between the price of gold and the cost of winning it, making it one of the few products which stood at a premium. Revived interest in the old gold workings naturally followed. At first these goldflelds saw great activity and large quantities of gold were won. In time, however, the gold became harder to get, costs rose and the price of gold fell. The ultimate result was that, although extensive deposits of gold were believed to exist, efforts to discover and work them gradually languished.

The Nelson district came within the scope of the Unemployment Board's scheme to assist unemployed men to go gold digging. They received the payment of £1/10/- for married men and 15/- per week for single men for prospecting in approved Iocalitiles, the men being required to provide the necessary equipment. The men retained the proceeds of the gold won, with the proviso, however, that when such proceeds reached a certain weekly figure the payment was reduced or discontinued. A subsidiary scheme was to send out self-contained parties under the leadership of experienced miners or prospectors to approved areas where no direct supervision could be maintained. I believe it would be correct to say that there were more people on the gold diggings during the slump than there had been for 50 years previously. In the Baton Valley there was quite a little activity and some men had quite satisfactory results. In the early days the diggers had put a row of stones down the middle of the creek so as to divert the water either side as required to work the creek bed. It was found that the shingle under the row of stones had never been worked. In the Wangapeka about 120 or so, some with their wives and families, were working. The school was re-opened and it was quite a busy valley. One big job of work which was undertaken as an employment measure was the opening up of the old track into the Crowe River on the Karamea side of the mountain. This track over Kiwi Saddle, like many others, had been wrecked in the Murchison earthquake in 1929.

Workings in the Howard Valley and at Maud Creek near Lake Station were the scenes of much renewed activity when subsidised parties started working there. There was native bush near at hand and the men made their own bush whares for the winter with axe-hewn timber. Possibly some of them made good money but they certainly earned it, as they were working in wet muddy conditions all the time. Gold digging, though hard, holds an unfailing interest for those engaged in it. It has a sustaining effect on a person's Independence of spirit, and in this case gave the men some opportunity of financial independence.

Galena reefs at the Wangapeka. In 1911 George Von Belle found reefs in the spur between Blue and Nuggety Creeks in the Wangapeka. A drive was put into the hill for 150 feet and other formations were prospected but without satisfactory results. The Blue Creek Syndicate was formed about the same time to work on a reef near Von Belle's. This showed a higher mineral content but the project was not proceeded with.

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In 1917 The Colossus Company started working a reef near the same locality and put a drive in for 250ft. A small battery was brought to the field but it was not erected. It was during these ventures in the present century that the road was made right up into the Wangapeka Valley.

In the late 1920's coal seams in the Clarke Valley, a tributary of the Baton, were prospected and small mines operated during the 1930's but these were eventually abandoned.

In conclusion, I should like to point out that gold diggers had to buy a miner's right which granted them various privileges. On occasions prospectors would jealously uphold these privileges and demand the concessions which they believed they were entitled to. One of the strangest uses I have heard miner's right being used for was at a school committee election. Rival factions were each trying to sway the election and get their particular party elected. To decide the issue beyond doubt one section took out miner's rights for each of the family and they then had the privilege of voting as householders.