The history of gold stretches as far back as the beginning of civilization. Humans have long since realized the value of gold for both decoration and currency due to its rarity, lustre and ease of exchange, and while it remains a global business with no shortage of big and small scale mining operations and reality TV shows, especially in America. In New Zealand the discovering and reliance of gold in the nineteenth century was an important part of our economy and livelihood, and for many, a way out of poverty.
The first recorded discovery of gold in New Zealand all started with one man, an Australian by the name of Charles Ring. Upon arriving on our shores in 1841 from Tasmania, Charles set out farming, selling two cargos of cattle for pastoral land near Onehunga, Auckland. Land was hard to come by, but that soon changed with the worldwide discovery of gold that soon lead to ‘gold rushes’ in America. With the hype impossible to ignore any longer, Charles, along with his brother, Frederick Ring, obtained passage onboard the brig, Fanny that arrived in Australasian waters in early 1849.
Known as ‘49ers, a term used to collectively describe gold prospectors, the brothers experienced several adventures and after three months passage arrived in San Francisco and became engaged in the work of gold digging which was initially successful. That luck soon ran out when upon leaving Yuba for Sacramento for a new ‘rush’ on the coast, he and other men were shipwrecked, with Charles losing his wares he had brought with the intention of storekeeping. Demoralized by his ill luck, he decided to return to New South Wales, but not New Zealand. Through the consequence of an inefficient look-out, his next boat became shipwrecked again, this time on a coral reef off Fiji . In gallant attempt to reach Queensland in another open boat, enduring more hardships and ill provisioned, they were eventually rescued mid-ocean by an American whaler, and upon hearing the desperate straits of hunger and thirst from the rescued passengers the Captain altered his course picking up more shipwrecked passengers and landed them all in Auckland, New Zealand.
On their arrival back in Auckland in 1852 they headed for the hills of the Coromandel Ranges searching for that elusive gold, as offers of £100 were rewarded to anyone who discovered a payable goldfield near Auckland. When the reward was increased to £500, Charles Ring was the rewards claimant, after discovering golden flakes in his pan at Driving Creek, near Coromandel Town. Although his find only led to a small patch of alluvial gold, with only £1,200 worth found by April 1853, the small strike attracted prospectors from all over where little more was found until quartz reefs were uncovered within the Coromandel in early 1860s.
The first big strike of gold occurred near Thames in August 1867, when a speck of gold was seen in the rockface of a waterfall in Kuranui stream, and soon the foothills were swarming with men eager for their own findings. The alluvial gold’s accessibility soon ran dry after a month and it wasn’t until a decade later more reefs were uncovered and Thames became New Zealand’s first goldfield, through negotiations with its Maori landowners.
However, it was soon discovered that mining quartz was a difficult task and the Coromandel terrain added to the difficulty of mining gold bearing quartz proving hazardous, as rocks, trees and bush were burrowed and removed leaving it stripped bare and unsafe. With the gold deposited deep in hard rocks, rather than previous accessible alluvial gold, Quartz reefs required heavy machinery and needed capital investment to tunnel, mine the ore, crush it and separate the gold, favoured by large companies who gradually took hold of the operations from individual miners. Setting up stamper battery machines (or stamp mill in today’s terms) was the start in large scale mining operations that were powered by either water or steam and crushed the rock ore from the mines to extract the final product- gold. The Coromandel Gold Stamper was commissioned by the New Zealand Government becoming one of the first stamper batteries in New Zealand to be started with a diesel motor that powered most of its plant.
Although the quality value of gold extracted was high during this period, recoveries of it were low despite the introduction of heavy machinery and so, the first commercial use of a new process involving a cyanide solution was introduced to recover more gold. The first cyanide plant was established close to Waihi at the Crown Mine in Karangahake in 1889, followed by six other plants by 1882, within other areas of the Coromandel and Thames. The process allowed a higher percentage of gold to be extracted from rock, making more mines viable. The cyanide or Macarthur-Forrest process, named after its inventors, John S. MacArthur, Robert W. Forrest, and William Forrest, included three steps of contacting the finely ground ore with the cyanide solution, separating the solids from the clear solution and then recovering the gold by precipitation with zinc dust. Today, despite increasing public opposition in many countries, cyanide is still widely used for the processing of gold from ore.
With the influx of gold extraction due to the cyanide process, Thames revelled in the boom of its gold rush between 1868 to 1871, and although Otago paved the way with its own gold rush eight years prior in 1861- 1864, Thames and its industries received a much needed boost in population as one of New Zealand’s then largest towns. Infrastructure increased at a rapid rate to meet rising demands with gold production topping one million pounds sterling at its peak.
Gold fever was as contagious as was Scarlet Fever in the nineteenth century, but also short-lived. With more gold fields established and mined, it helped to develop New Zealand’s economy by attracting people, investments, shipping and resources. This resulted in a dramatic expansion in our population which had previously been affected by major events that affected immigration, although this was also offset by the social and environmental issues that mining brought with it, deforestation and pollution into local rivers.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, gold mining production declined due to a decrease in supply and demand and its falling prices. As the hard rock mines closed and gold dredging diminished, more than fifty years passed before a resurgence in gold exploration and production in the mid 1970’s began, reaching its peak in the mid 1980’s where a string of new gold discoveries were made in Waihi, Otago, and Reefton, before legislation banned mining on Department of Conservation Land in the Coromandel and other areas in the mid 1990’s.
Today, gold is still mined in New Zealand by OceanaGold Corporation, a mid-tier multi-national gold production company that owns the Waihi and South Island gold mines and remains a vital part of New Zealand’s economy for export. For individuals, a mining permit is required from the Ministry of Economic Development for most areas, with the exception of sixteen areas where the public are allowed to pan for the commonly found alluvial gold, or use gold sluices. All these areas are historic gold mining areas covered by the Crown Minerals Act 1991 and are restricted to hand held, non-motorized, fossicking methods only.