The land south of the Murray proved extremely rich and by August 1850 there was much agitation on the part of businessmen and land holders for partition, since both groups believed they could do better without the encumbrance of the nineteen counties. In August of that year New South Wales was formally broken into two self-governing Colonies. The governor of the new Colony of Victoria celebrated the occasion by opening the new bridge spanning the River Yarra and the capital went wild with high spirits. Guns boomed from Melbourne's Flagstaff Hill, a public holiday was declared and the provincial towns, Geelong and Kilmore, blazed with lights. Two months later the Legislative Council of New South Wales passed a resolution which had the effect of preventing the landing of convicts on the mainland. Events were moving fast. The climax came when Edward Hargraves, dressed in top hat and morning coat for the occasion, panned in a creek near Bathurst and announced solemnly that he had, on 12th February 1851, discovered gold in New South Wales.
The news was disastrous for Victoria. Within weeks of the discovery freemen and immigrants left their jobs and began to move north to the new finds. Businessmen panicked as they saw the infant Colony about to founder. In desperation they banded together and offered a reward for the discovery of gold within Victoria. by July 1851 gold had been discovered at Clunes (north of Ballarat) and Andersons Creek (Warrandyte). Rich strikes at Ballarat and Mount Alexander saw 4000 men and the diggings by September of that year.
The North-east lay in uneasy quiet as the fever spread, Reid on top of the power keg. His hut at Spring Creek was used by an employee named Meldrum who later left Reid to settle on the Ovens near Wangaratta. Meldrum however, had made his own assessment of the region and began organising prospecting parties into the May Day Hills (as Beechworth was then known). While Reid was out on his rounds he came upon a fellow hastily concealing something at his approach. He called out "What luck have you had Howell"? but the man's reply was non-committal. Reid retorted "That's all moonshine. What's that you've got under the bunk?" somewhat abashed the man pulled a pannikin containing 8.1/2 kg of gold from beneath his bed. this, the first find, was considered to have been taken from the bank of the Creek slightly upstream of the present site of Newtown Bridge.
News of the find soon saw thousands of miners trudging in from Bendigo to the fabulously rich Spring Creek. One miner panned $1600 in a mere fortnight and it was a poor claim that did not yield $60 a week, a large sum for those days. further finds followed at Woolshed, Reids Creek, Pennyweight Flat, Madmans Gully and Nine Mile Creek. These were the wild mad days when 8000 diggers of very nationality thronged the fields. The businessmen of the district agitated for the establishment of a town with the result that a town survey was completed by July 1853. Pubs began to spring up everywhere in the atmosphere of easy wealth. One of the first was the Star, which had large theatre attached to it when first constructed in 1852. Closely following was Tanswell's Commercial and by 1874 the town had 61 hotels doing a roaring business. The diggers began to eat in town using their tents only for sleeping, and to encourage this custom the publicans provided entertainment Bands were employed at all the hotels and the female staff were compelled, under the terms of their employment, to dance with the miners at night. Gold proved a magnet to entertainers and the best always visited Beechworth. By 1872 the quantity of beer consumed was so immense that Beechworth established its own brewery in the town, a link in the chain of events that led to the growing of hope in the Myrtleford district.
As this instant town grew and matured it earned the right to elect a Parliamentary representative of the Ovens Gold fields. Even in the short span of years to 1855, marked differences of social status had developed between the diggers based on the techniques they used to obtain gold. First thee were the "monkeys" who worked the streams "wet" and considered themselves superior, wearing black woollen trousers, Napoleon boots and the affectations of silk sashes and gaily coloured handkerchiefs. The other group were the "punchers", who worked the banks and the gullies "dry" and who usually wore moleskins. The rivalry between the two groups came to a head on election day when the Monkeys, led by "big" Johnston, one of the toughest and wealthiest miners in Beechworth, gathered at Woolshed and in a huge and boisterous procession, followed their candidate (Cameron) towards Beechworth. At the vine Hotel, one mile from the town, the procession stopped and horseshoes made from gold supplied by Johnston were fitted to Cameron's horse. Off went the procession again, laughing, carousing and dancing with many miners brandishing banners embellished in designs of solid gold. As the throng surged into the town the police shrewdly withdrew. Here the golden horseshoes were removed, lighter by an ounce. Free beer was distributed to the vast motley crows as brass bands contributed to the enormous din.
In the midst of the bedlam both candidates appeared on the balcony of the Star Hotel and by a show of Mines' Rights Cameron was voted in. The Punchers disputed the result and demanded a poll which was held in the Court House the next day. The Monkey's candidate was confirmed and Big Johnston staged a $600 champagne shout, an enormous sum for those days. Beechworth was the riches of the alluvial fields in the North-east and throughout 1857, when the recovery of gold was at its peak, no less than 14,000 ounces of gold left the town for Melbourne at every passage of the fortnightly gold escort. But the precincts of Beechworth, fabulously rich as they were, could never contain the growing throng of adventures who streamed towards it seeking the golden end to all their cares. In the very year of the Beechworth find, prospectors swarmed throughout the North-east panning each and every stream for signs of gold. Omeo, Myrtleford, Bright, Harrietvill and Porepunkah were all given up to the miner's spade. but one field, and the richest outside Beechworth, held its secret closely.
By 1853 stories of a new Edorado located in upper Ovens bean to circulate and an eager search to identity it began. Henry Pardoe is credited with first revealing this new field to the world, though the canny American was careful enough to delay knowledge of his find as long as possible. Returning to Spring Creek to collect his belongings and organise the members of his prospecting party, he set off again for his new find in the Buckland Valley. In order to put his rivals off the scent, he made a path up the Buffalo River Valley where it was known that some prospecting had been carried out, and at the last station at the head of the valley, began the ascent to the plateau, thereafter negotiating the perilous and difficult drop to the Buckland River Valley. Once camped they began panning and in the first day won 2 kg of gold from the river bed.
Within six months of Pardoe's find 3000 prospectors had made their way to the Buckland Valley with more still pouring in. They squeezed themselves within its narrow limits up and down the river for a distance of some 50 km without benefit of hygiene or sanitation. The normal diet consisted of mutton, pickles, damper, black tea, plum-duff and native birds and animals - but to fruit or vegetables. The result was predictable. In February of 1854 the river was very low and its water, filthy and contaminated by the heavy load of excrement seeping into it, became the major source of infection. More than 1000 diggers perished from diseases such as typhoid and sandy blight, and others were forced out by rheumatism and catarrh brought on by long periods of sluicing in the river waist-deep in water. It was said that the valley was so studded with graves that the river seemed to run through a church yard. Diggers deserted the valley while the river remained low but the fever still rages and by May, only 10 months after the start of the rush, there were only 500 still left on the Backland.
The next year saw a revival of interest in the field as the dreaded "low fever" waned, and this time the Chinese entered the Buckland in force, outnumbering the Europeans live to tone. these new immigrants were organised and industrious, and carefully picked over the abandoned claims, and even the mullock heaps of the Europeans with good success. Racial hatred, originating in the Chinese success and nourished by the marked difference in culture between the two groups became an important theme of life in the Buckland Valley. The Californians resented the Chinese from the beginning as a result of their contacts in the American rushes in 1849. They in turn worked on the English relating tales of Chinese atrocities to European prisoners captured in he Opium War. The opening of the Chinese Joss House at the start of 1857 was an event which crystallised in the European mind one brooding desire to be rid of all the Chinese from the Valley. A few days later, on American Independence Day, a meeting was held at which wild inflammatory speeches were made, and it was resolved to march upon the Chinese and evict them from the diggings.
At first the Europeans were orderly in their actions and allowed the Chinese time to make their way in peace (under threat of arms) but as these self-appointed vigilantes progressed down the Valley, others joined in who saw the opportunity for vengeance and profit. The Joss-House, the Chinese tents and stores and over 200 dwellings were razed to the ground by marauding parties of white diggers. Some Chinese were bashed, robbed and thrown into the river. Others were ordered into mining trenches, shot and the earth filled in. Most were robbed of all their possessions and savagely beaten. The whole riot became so shamefully barbarous that a number of Europeans who had been in favour of ejecting the Chinese turned to help and harbour them from the looting bands.
As soon as the first news of the riot reached Beechworth, a detachment of police set out under superintendent O'Hara Burke and covered the 80 km to the Buckland Valley within 2 days of foot. It was by then too late for the police to do more than make a summary of what they saw and heard. The Chinese had fled in terror of their lives most with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. In all, the Buckland riots were a triumph for intolerance and were the first of a pattern of rising against the Chinese which infected the Australian goldfields, leading eventually to the White Australia Policy. Beechworth too had its bustling Chinese community, which concentrated on the diggings at One, Two and Three Mile Creeks, but the Europeans lived in amity with them. The Chinese had their Joss House in the town and their own section of the Beechworth Cemetery, complete with incense burning towers. The industrious Chinese, so often reviled in the 19th Century, contributed enormously to the modern prosperity of the North-east. it was the Chinese who introduced vegetables to Australia through their market gardens and so changed our diet for the better. And it was the Chinese who persevered with tobacco in difficult years, today one of the economic mainstays of the region.
By 1853 it was plain that the surface gold was becoming harder to find, but the Beechworth yield was maintained by working the gold bearing reefs at Hurdie Flat and Europa Creek. The best of the Woolshed finds were not extracted until the miners learnt how to timber the sides of the shafts and to pump out the seepage water. Big Johnston was the first to make use of the technique, using the timbers of Reid's original woolshed, which had given rise to the name of the find. At Myrtleford a reef was opened up on Reform Hill overlooking the town, and the Reform yielded up to 10 oz. to the ton in the early crushings. The mine was worked for 32 years from its opening in 1854. Other mines in the district were Heap's Reef on the Flagstaff Range, and Quartz Reef. Further up the Ovens the Woolshed Reef commenced operators at Freeburgh in 1861.
It was the mining of the reefs which gave permanence to the gold towns of the North-east. The surface gold in the river banks was the gift of nature, the chance concentration of precious metal by flowing water as the gold bearing quartz slowly broke down under exposure to weather. The quartz deep in the earth was a different task where man had to shrink the weathering of a million years into a day's work. Shafts had to be built to extract the ore and stamp batteries used to crush it. Timber had to be found to shore up the mine roots and to fuel the great boilers that drove the crushes. The mining of gold became less the skill of the handyman and more the discipline of the technically trained. Engineers and surveyors were necessary to direct the work, capital was necessary to fund the enterprise. Employment was established as a whole community became structured around the regular extraction of ore and the separation of its gold. The age of the mining company had arrived.
Sluicing operators employing water races were common throughout the North-east and in Beechworth alone there were 2100 km of registered mining water races of 1865. One of the more interesting in the region is the water race built by the Chinese to Swindler's Gully, so named because they were never paid for the labour they expended. Much of this race, located on the steep slopes of Mt. Hotham, remains intact today.
Beechworth township was the site of many interesting schemes. The sluicing of old abandoned claims began with the formation of a company in 1856 with plans to cut a tail-race through solid granite from Newtown Falls to the flats at Spring Creek. this race was cut with a fall of 1 in 70 for a cost of $7000 and took 18 months to complete. Despite the fact that the tailrace was not deep enough to drain the lower portion of the flat, the company paid its shareholders dividends of $20-30 per month for the next five years. In 1863 a new company, the Rocky Mountain Mining Co. was formed and the race was cut to a depth of 2.4 m through 400 me of rock, operating successfully until deepening ground in the higher reaches of the creek rendered the tailrace inoperative. Yet another company, the Rocky Mountain Extended, was formed with an audacious plan to drive a tunnel beneath the town to emerge on the eastern side of the gorge at a point 200 m below the falls. The work was completed in January 1880 for a cost of $29,200 and the tunnel passed through some 800 m of rock. The sluicing operators continued until 1924 and when the company was would up the tunnel was used to carry water to the Beechworth Tannery. Even now it still serves as an overflow from the lake formed b the mine workings.
In the period 1880-1920 many reefs in the high ranges were exploited, including the Champion on the Razorback between Mt. Hotham and Mt. Feathertop, plus many other sin the Harrietville district, including the Monarch, the rose, Thistle & Shamrock, the Crescent, Mons Meg, Big Gun Extended, the Victory and the Sambas. The last of these, tucked into the range which bears the Alpine Highway beyond Harrietville, still operates. Hard on the heels of the sluicers were the river dredges. If the river banks could provide a profitable yield on gold, how much more efficient would be a machine that was not limited by the fall of land and could float in its own water supply to work on a face 30 metres or more in height. These machines were first developed in the remote river valleys of New Zealand and were introduced to Victoria in 1899. Pearson Tewksbury was the man who fought hardest to establish and then keep the dredges in the North-east. He struggled to perfect the machines technically and chose the sites on which they worked. Startling with a single machine he soon had eleven dredges in operation and became that district's first millionaire. Tewksbury represented stable employment to the townships, paid his men well, and gathered about him a considerable body of support.
By 1904 over 2400 men were employed on 123 individual dredging plants churning up the rich agricultural river flats in the Ovens and Buckland Valleys and at Chiltern and Castlemaine. By 1911 almost 2400 ha had been worked over in this way, of which fully 75% were river flats. However, the fertile soils suffered grievously in the path of the dredge which left a wake of heaped and sterile shingle in its oath. Swift action by the district's farmers, many with properties in the path. Swift action by the district's farmers, many with properties in the path of the advancing dredges, resulted in the formation of such bodies as the Anti-Dredging League, dedicated to the elimination of the dredges from the rivers and creeks of the Ovens Valley. By 1911 the struggle between the miners and the farmers had reached such a pitch that the Minister for Mines visited the Ovens Valley for a tour of inspection, and to meet contending parties. The township of Bright was particularly keen to see a continuation of the dredging which had brought so much commerce to its shops. However the farmers had made their point. The Mines Department subsequently declared a policy that no more dredging leases would be granted or the destruction of good agricultural land.
Entrepreneurs continued their attempts over the next 30 years to re-establish the dredges in the Ovens Valley but were only successful upstream of Eurobin. In 1941 the Tronoh monster was installed at Harrietville, capable of treating 270,000 cu.m per month, and its operation continued for 15 years. Despite diligent attention to the terms of the lease, that tailings be replaced in graded layers with the larger boulders on the bottom and the small particles on the top, all the fine nutrients of the soil disappeared down the river. At Harrietville today great mounds of sterile sand are a silent reminder to the eternal wastefulness of the gold dredges. Elsewhere throughout the barren lands left in the wake of the dredges, the Forests commission began to plant pines to reclaim the land, and these early plantations can be seen around Bright and Myrtleford today.
Eldorado, rich in history, was another site worked by the dredges. After the initial panning, sluicing began in 1855 and by the 1870s was superseded by shaft mining which supported a population of 4000 in the town. Wangaratta (formerly Ovens Crossing) was by comparison only a small place in those days. Not only gold, but tin was mind and this was the first place in Australia where the black sand, or cassiterite (oxide of tin) was identified and later commercially smelted. In 1895 disaster struck the McEvoy Mine when the sudden displacement of a clay bed caused a great inflow of waste rock into the mine. Six men died in the accident - four by the slow death of entombment, for it took 13 days to cut a new drive to enable the b odie3s to be recovered.
The subsequent closure of the mine marked the end of deep mining at Eldorado and its place was taken by the cocks Pioneer Electric gold & tin Mining co. which began sluicing for tine and gold in 1900 and, despite intermittent stops, continued until 1942. another company with a larger dredge began operations in 1936 and continued until 1954 when rising costs made the recovery of the remaining minerals uneconomic. It is this latter dredge which visitors vie at Eldorado today.
Rutheriglen and Chiltern were both regions rich in gold, but after the initial rush for alluvial gold in 1860 the problems of water put further recovery beyond the means of the small miner. Chiltern particularly presented a technical challenge and special skills were developed to work wet ground to depths between 200 and 300 metres. It was basically the significance and commercial influence of the Chiltern fields which ensured that the rail line from Melbourne to Sydney passed through Albury and not Echuca.
Chiltern must have been a colourful if risky place in which to live, for in 1858 the publican Morgan was accused of spreading rumours that men he had employed to skink shafts adjacent to his hotel had found gold. So incensed were the miners that they trussed Morgan up and stood him on the brink of his shaft with a rope around his neck. The miners were on the verge of pushing him in when someone called for a reprieve until the shaft had been checked. gold was found and in a moment the crowd forgot Morgan and rushed away to peg their own claims. the chastened publican recovered from his experience and returned to his hotel to profit from the boom that saved his life.
As sluicing replaced panning an d the exploitation of the reefs commenced, Beechworth took on the role of a centre of administration. From 1852 it had been the home of the constabulary and the goldfields Commissioner for the Ovens District, but with the rise of Rutherglen and Chiltern and the technically difficult search for the deep leads, it also became the natural centre of engineering and commerce. This role for Beechworth was confirmed by the determined efforts of a few individuals, the most important of whom was George Briscoe Kerferd. Kerferd was a Liverpudian who, after a short period on the Ovens goldfields, set himself up as a wine and spirit merchant in Beechworth. The other significant force in the town was James Ingram, a Scot who settled in the town in 1853 and built up one of the largest stationery and newsagency businesses in the Colony. Ingram was the motivating force behind the construction of the Ovens District Hospital, the first stage comprising two wards of twenty beds each, being completed in February 1857. His tireless effort witnessed the completion of the project through the addition of two more wings and the beautiful stone-columned portico (all that now remains of the old hospital by 1864.
Kerferd worked closely with him on this project and was shortly afterward elected to the Borough council. By this stage Kerferd began to sense the fire within himself and with the zeal of the reformer he set about the consolidation of the town's prosperity. In 1861 he was the driving force that led to the erection of the Ovens and Murray Home for the aged, four of the present five wards having been constructed by 1867. Next, and this time as a member of Parliament, he turned his attention to capturing the Mental Asylum which the Government planned for construction somewhere in the North-east. this very large building was completed within two years at a cost of $216,000. As Beechworth progressed so did Kerferd. Admitted to the Bar in 1867, he was made Minister for Mines and Railways in 1869. This latter post gave him the opportunity to pursue his dream of a rail link to Beechworth, and in the ace of the most bitter opposition he succeeded in having the branch line from Everton to Beechworth included in e Railways Construction Bill.
This brilliant, fiery and determined man became Premier of Victoria in 1875 and the next year witnessed the realisation of his dream when the first rain steamed into Beechworth station. Kerferd was also responsible for the town's water supply system, though this legally confused project took twelve years to complete following the construction of the impoundment in 1862. Despite the long wait Kerferd triumphed in the end over the doubting critics for as he turned on the valves to the fire hose, a jet of water shot clear over the top of the Post Office. Kerferd was appointed to the Supreme Court Bench in 1886 and died three years later at the age of 58. He spent the most active years of his life in the service of a town of which he remarked, "the advancement of Beechworth means more to me than my political career". As a result of his work, Beechworth was able to survive the decline of the goldfields by provisioning the great public institutions sited there; the gaol, the asylum, the home for the aged and the hospital. The tannery and the brewery provided further employment.
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