Mountain miners left legacy worth saving

SHARE

Volunteers restoring Glenorchy’s scheelite battery deserve encouragement from the business community.

Hardy scheelite miners, like those who dug for gold, left the Wakatipu a colourful heritage, with the ore helping differentiate the district as a tourist attraction.

Graeme Railton, an Arrowtown contractor, heads the Glenorchy Community Association subcommittee coordinating restoration of the battery, about 3km up Mount Judah.

He says it mainly needs restoration of the water line that provides power for the machinery to crush ore-bearing rock. The project could “burn up $100,000 quite comfortably”.

Railton was one of the last scheelite miners, working a mine about 6000 feet (1829 metres) above sea level on Black Peak. He cut a road up with his bulldozer and worked the mine in summer over weekends and holidays. A mine at Temple Peak, across the valley, was even higher.

Tungsten from scheelite is hard and has an extremely high melting point. Prices soar in wartime when it’s used for armour plate and big-gun barrels. Other uses include radiation shielding, electronics, light bulb filaments and rocket-motor nozzles.

When Railton started mining about 1980, tungsten was about $US12,000 a tonne. The industry died when the price fell to $US3000 around 1990. China produces about four-fifths of world tungsten but recently became a net importer, pushing the price to around $US20,000.

Conservation and planning consents make mining resumption at Glenorchy unlikely. High country tenure review put the battery access road on private land but the Department of Conservation has built a 25-minute walking track to it from parking at the Buckler Burn.

DoC has done repair work on the battery’s two buildings and put up explanatory charts.

Volunteer helpers include Jim Dodge, a retired geologist from White Horse, Canada, on summer visits.

Railton envisages that when water is restored, the battery could run on open days or at other periods.

A DVD of the scheelite industry provides some income for the restorers. It sells for $29.95 at Arrowtown’s Lakes District Museum and some bookshops. Of this, $20 goes to restoration.

Pat Paulin, a retired primary teacher at Frankton, born into the third generation of a scheelite-mining family, wrote the script.

Paulin was upset when walking around old scheelite sites 20 years ago by their deterioration and signs of
vandalism. He decided to use decades of experience preparing slide presentations for classes, and began collecting photographs.

About 95 per cent of the DVD is video of mines, and interviews with surviving miners. Invercargill father-and-son firm Beck Industries used a helicopter to take some of this, and edited the disc.

Doug Beck takes a keen interest in Wakatipu mining. He mapped Macetown in the 1980s and recently has been working at Skippers Creek, beyond Skippers Canyon.

His son David said they circled all the peaks mined and landed on Black Peak. They used a 4WD for other parts of the three-day DVD shoot.

Neill Birss will chase up your biz tips: neillb@maxnet.co.nz