The discovery of gold in the Arrow and Shotover Rivers brought thousands to the Wakatipu. Towns like Macetown, Skippers and Bullendale were abandoned when gold ran out, but Arrowtown and Queenstown kept growing. Louise Scott goes digging
There’s a bit of debate about who first discovered gold in the Wakatipu.
Jack Tewa, a shepherd for Queenstown founder William Rees, accidentally found some in August 1862, on the Arrow River’s banks. By the following month, John McGregor, Thomas Low, John O’Callaghan and John Cormack had jumped on the bandwagon.
But credit often goes to William Fox. Today’s Arrowtown was originally known as Foxes.
The men desperately tried to keep their find secret in a bid to extract as much gold as possible before the rush.
Lakes District Museum boss David Clarke says once word was out, goldminers flocked in their thousands.
Not all were seasoned miners. Many were working-class folk who simply upped sticks in a bid to make their fortune. Some were already living in New Zealand, but many weren’t.
Whitechapel, near Arrow Junction, was known as little Denmark. There was a strong Irish contingent, a dodgy bunch known as the ‘Tipperary Men’, who were noted as claim jumpers.
There were also professional miners who had previously worked in America and Australia.
Of these, Fox soon established himself as top dog. His self-appointed job as “commissioner” meant he was responsible for sorting claims on land and allocating plots to would-be fortune-seekers.
Clarke says he had a tough reputation and punch-ups weren’t uncommon. They could be over protecting claims or making sure no one nabbed your gold while you were sleeping.
Clarke: “The constabulary were very quickly dispatched. They [provincial government] recognised from experience there could be trouble, a bunch of guys together, fighting over gold.”
Rows also started over food. Many were starving and there weren’t enough supplies to support a growing community. In the early days it was mainly single men, living in makeshift tents, with no real infrastructure.
Clarke reckons these were the party days, when grog-shanties popped up all over Queenstown and Arrowtown from the Arrow River right along to the Shotover.
“There are bowling alleys, rat baiting, dog fights, games of skittles, guys out the front of every establishment touting for business. All you had to have was a supply of booze and a tent.”
When hotels and pubs opened they struggled to get barmaids, as the single men in the fledgling town snapped them up as wives. To rectify the situation they started to advertise for “ugly” waitresses, hoping this would prevent romance blossoming.
The initial miners had easy pickings of gold, with one tale describing gold nuggets in Bracken’s Gully, Arrowtown, “as thick as peas”.
As the boom continued the fledgling towns changed shape. Wives and children joined the men and Arrowtown and Queenstown got permanent infrastructure, including water supply, civic buildings and churches.
The gold rush also attracted entrepreneurs. Grain was planted on the site of today’s airport. Flour mills were built and sawmills popped up as building demand increased.
Then the easy gold started to run out.
Clarke: “Those that decided to stay started company mining, which is when they pooled resources and started to get into other forms of mining - sluicing, hydraulic elevation - which is where they suck gravel up from the bottom [riverbed] like a vacuum cleaner.
“They started bringing in big pieces of machinery to do it and building water races - doing all this without getting paid, on the expectation there is going to be gold.”
A new rush on the West Coast led to an exodus in the region.
This was also when the Chinese were invited by the government to stimulate the economy. They tended to keep themselves apart from European settlers and were subject to persecution.
When the search for gold in the local rivers started to dry up, those remaining turned their attention to quartz mining.
Macetown was one settlement that went through all the mining shifts, but its days were numbered.
“It had a long life, there were schools, churches and halls. Then overnight basically it wasn’t economical any more and the town closed down and became a ghost town.
“Skippers limped along - it had the benefit of reverting back to farming, but there was no farming at Macetown,” Clarke adds.
Queenstown and Arrowtown were well-established, with the first councils set up in 1874, but the population continued to decline. Clarke says the Wakatipu reverted back to farming, with tourism slowly developing as miners left.
“Tourism isn’t a new thing and Queenstown was promoted as a bit of a spa town in the late nineteenth century.”
Where We Come From explores the Wakatipu’s history, with help from Lakes District Museum