Kiandra and The Rip-Roaring Days

By Jim Hodge

12 September 1974 The Canberra Times

In the Alpine spring thaw around Kiandra the last of the snow, traces the gaping mouths of dead mine-shafts, sites of long gone camps and clusters of buildings, weathered tracks and overgrown, washed-out roads now leading nowhere.

With about a dozen residents, the village has a pub-chalet once a police station, a group of lonely headstones on a cold mountainside, and little else: but it has been a rowdy, cosmopolitan, calico-lent town of 15,000 steamy- breathed citizens.

More than a century back its snow-grassed, granitic peaks frowned down on for-tune-hunters from all parts of the globe.

At the time of the first great national mining boom, which doubled the country's population in a decade, Kiandra's was the most tumultuous, and shortest-lived, of all the gold rushes - and the least documented.

Poor men struck it rich overnight. High-grade nuggets were dug with a few strokes of pick and shovel, or appeared in pan after pan at muddy creek sides.

But the find proved alluvial, most of the glittering harvest being won in a few months.

On the shoulder of a 1400 odd metre peak between Tumut and Cooma, the old centre was also the cradle of skiing as an organised sport- in the 1860s, a miners' and camp-followers' pastime.

Until Cabramurra was built by the Snowy Mountains Authority, Kiandra was the highest permanent settlement in NSW, and remains regularly in the news for low temperature readings.

So it might have been expected that the snowbound community would pioneer skiing, as reported in news papers of 1861.

Only in Norway do there seem to have been competitions before then.

Skiers these days flock elsewhere, leaving Kiandra like a poor relation of more fashionable snow spots.

At first. Aborigines thrived in that high country, roaming the headwaters of the Snowy, Tumut, Eucumbene, Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers in bands of up to 500.

Mining and settlement brought their tragic end, only place-names remaining to their memory on local maps - Kiandra itself (perhaps originally "Gianderra"),Tantangara, Yarrangobilly, Tooma....

Exploring pastoralists probing the ranges were drawn to treeless, well grassed valleys calling for no clearing before sheep and cattle could be driven in.

Those frost hollows did not allow seedlings to root and grow.

Sheltered by ridges where snow gums arched to higher altitudes, they did make snug grazing spreads in the sparking spring, summer and autumn.

It was these settlers who found the gold, on regular warm-weather fossicking trips.

They had been taking it out quietly for years before someone less discreet broad cast the news, and brought in the clamouring crowds.

Then came another international invasion, when modern miners swarmed in to build the Snowy Mountains Scheme, at times reopening crumbling gold diggings to bring out stone and sand for construction projects.

Snowy engineering once more turned the Kiandra story full circle, for the first uses of both channelled waters and power from the Snowy River had been for sluicing for minerals and driving machinery last century.

Finally the Kosciusko State Park, sweeping in a mountainous belt 40km wide, 170km northward from the Victorian border embraced the Kiandra district.

In the rip-roaring days, the richest gold finds were made near the township.

Sluicing for Kiandra gold with a "giant nozzle" in 1897, after prospecting bad given way to company operations.

They drew a foreign legion of battlers, clerks and seamen and well-heeled, pink cheeked gentry, labourers and scholars, new chums and whiskered, hard-handed, country-wise bushmen, parsons and bushrangers, a handful of hardy wives and "dance-girls", police and bankers and storekeepers, and shanty men plying grog of fearsome formulation.

Included even were bands of patient Chinese, who immigrated in thousands in the 1800s to try for easy riches promised in the new southern land ... drawn by ship owners who spread the word along the Chinese coast, promoting a profitable passenger trade.

At Kiandra the Orientals became porters, lugging stores for weary miles over stony tracks too tough even for pack-horses.

Police, soldiers and "vigilance committees" of miners guarded gold consignments to Cooma, not always successfully.

When bushrangers plundered one coach, records show the loss of gold "and half notes"; it was the custom to slice bank-notes in two, sending each section in different mails, to foil the robbers.

Early skiing, then termed "snow-shoeing". Australia's first organised snow sports were held at the mining centre.

Fifteen years ago the Cooma-Monaro Historical Society published a 74-pagebooklet marking the centenary of the Kiandra gold-rush.

It contains contemporary reports bringing those times to life again.

In the one restaurant, Kidd's Hotel; "Such a crowd . . . gold   commissioners, squatters, swells come to see the rush, burly diggers just as they had left their claims, bullies, loafers, natives, all pierced with cold and impelled by hunger, that great leveller, jostled and pressed eagerly . . . The eating-room and goal for so many was a long one with only one door, a contrivance of the Yankee proprietor to prevent guests leaving without paying,

"Two narrow tables ran along its length, with just enough room between for servants to move ..

The bar was to one side, the other being flanked by sleeping compartments.

"Comestibles were handed in through a porthole from the kitchen. Candelabra formed of squares of battens with candles stuck in the corners hung from the rough rafters.

"Long before mealtimes, seats intended for 50 were crammed with 70 or more, passing the time in horse-play.

At last the portcullis was opened, to cries of 'Irish stew', "liver and bacon', 'roast mutton', and the clatter of plates and knives.

As the meal proceeded, yells for waiters came from a dozen places at once.

Fellows started up, holding plates for second servings, while the cook's mate screamed out orders from the kitchen . . .

"When supplies were eaten up and favourite dishes were declared 'off', the aspect of affairs changed; men became quarrelsome and were violently expelled . . .

The room was cleared up, and filled with drinkers and gamblers, and lastly, it was covered up, table and all, with shake-downs, becoming for the night a barracks . .

In a slab-sided dance-hall: "Some 50 muddy-booted diggers stood about smoking, chatting. A few were dancing.

There were only three dance-girls, and those men fortunate enough to secure one as a partner found it hard work on a floor an inch thick in mud . . .

Hairy faced fellows in pea-jackets with pipes in their mouths were dancing together. After every dance each girl was expected by the owner to entice her partner to the bar".

But the party was almost over.

In 1860, 67,687oz of gold was "officially" won, and although mining went on for years, this figure was never again approached.

A few ever hope-fulls lingered on as yields dwindled.

By March, 1861, the Sydney Morning Herald reported:

"Great exodus from Kiandra. Many dread the coming winter. Not more than 200 diggers left, or perhaps 250 .... Nearly all have gone on to the new field at Lambing Fla.