The High Country (Kiandra) Gold Rush

By Klaus Hueneke

The Canberra Times

28 August 1976

In the accompanying words of Mr. R. B. Lynche, the Assistant Commissioner for the southern goldfields, the Kiandra gold rush was born.

He was writing an official notification to the Commissioner Mr. P. I. Cloete ("Historic Kiandra" 1959)

18th January, 1860, Dear Sir, I do myself the honour to report to you the discovery of a new GoldField, situated in Gibsons Plains, or "Kiandra" about 50 miles north-east of Tumberumba, with steep mountain ranges and the Tumut River intervening at the foot of a portion of the Snowy Mountains and about 40 miles south-east of Tumut, but over a mountain and severe country

This gold rush was to become one of the most hectic and short-lived in the history of Australia.

At the time it created great excitement throughout the country and along with other gold-rushes led to considerable business and political speculation.

It was a period in which the population of Australia doubled within a decade with almost every man woman and child in the grip of gold fever.

The thought of a lucky big strike and the good life that promised to follow preyed on many a hard working soul and made prospecting difficult to resist.

The idea that gold may have been in the area was first mooted by the Reverend W. B. Clarke in 1852, but it wasn't until the spring of 1859 that worthwhile deposits were found at Kiandra.

Some believe it was the Pollock brothers from the Upper Murray River who made the first find, others vehemently deny it and say it was Gillon, Hayes and Grice from Monaro.

Who it was, is perhaps only of historical interest.

To the miners who flocked to the field in the ensuing months all that mattered was the gold they themselves could find.

And arrive they did by the hundreds, mainly from Victoria in the south over the mountains by way of Ligar's Route and Lobb's Hole, but also from the east via Cooma and Two-fold Bay, the west via Albury and the north via Tumut.

Ligar was a surveyor who devised a route from the upper Murray to Kiandra via the Happy Jacks Plain and Mt Tabletop.

By February/March an estimated 3000 men were on the fields. This quickly escalated for by April the 'Sydney Morning Herald' reported 10,000. Most had walked many miles   over rugged terrain with a few belongings on their backs to get there.

Upon arrival each miner had to take out a "Miners Right" which gave him permission to mine a staked-out piece of land.

Mining was carried out using a number of different techniques including panning with a dish, washing using a wooden cradle and sluicing which required large amounts of water.

To obtain it the miners constructed race-lines or ditches built along the contour and running slightly downhill.

These then conveyed water from small mountain streams and hillside runoff direct to the claim.

Some extended for many kilometres.

The big rush on Kiandra soon spread to other areas as new gold-bearing deposits were discovered.

Two of these, the Four Mile and Nine Mile diggings, are particularly noteworthy.

Both were on Ligar's route and for convenience were named according to their distance from Kiandra.

Initially there were a thousand miners at both diggings with many of them making small fortunes and others waiting for the big strike.

However, with the coming of winter and large falls of snow many miners headed for lower, warmer elevations and other gold fields.

Ligar's Route and for convenience were named according to their distance from Kiandra.

Initially there were a thousand miners at both diggings with many of them making small fortunes and others waiting for the big strike.

However, with the coming of winter and large falls of snow many miners headed for lower, warmer elevations and other gold fields.

According to Commissioner Cloete, only about 200 people were at work at Four Mile by September 1860 - "one puddling machine has been erected, reservoirs built, long-races cut and the ground paying well for ground sluicing".

At Nine Mile He estimated the population at 400 with ground sluicing the main process of gold extraction.

This was severely hampered by the lack of water, especially during the winter when springs froze and the middle of summer when they dried up.

This did not seem to deter the miners however, for by the end of the year a small village with six stores, two bakers, three butchers, four public houses, one blacksmith, a lock up and guard room had appeared at Nine Mile.

Some of these buildings were made of rough hewn timber but others, and especially the miners' homes, chiefly employed calico.

The fireplace was generally outside the tent, being used for cooking as well as warmth.

The men ate salted bullock when it was available but often had to survive on damper (a mixture of flour, water and salt) and onions and potatoes.

It was a real occasion if they had fresh bread, jam and eggs for breakfast or roasted meat for dinner.

If they had gold to take to the bank in Kiandra they often spent some of the returns on a large meal and quite a few pots of beer at one of the local eating houses.

The miners who left the diggings upon the coming of winter did not return as expected and by the second summer there were less than 1,200 men in the area.

The 62,000 ounces of gold officially recorded for the big year in 1860 quickly dropped to 16,000 ounces by 1861 and was less than 2,000 by 1870.

There was a slight increase in production in the 1880s resulting from the introduction of hydraulic sluicing.

In this operation a high pressure stream of water was directed at the work face to loosen the overburden and gold-bearing material.

Hydraulic sluicing required even more water than before and necessitated the construction of storage or "header" dams above the claim, larger and longer race-lines and earthen dams on nearby creeks.

Some of these are still very evident today.

At Four Mile (or South Bloomfield) the header dam for the main sluicing operation is about 3.6 metres high and more than 24 metres long with a lichen-covered mosaic of tightly fitted basalt blocks on the inside face.

It was fed by another earthen wall dam on Broken Dam Creek, about five kilometres away via a race-line that also tapped several minor tributaries.

To convey the water from the header dam to the claim the miners used large metal pipes with a nozzle at the lower end.

The high pressure stream of water was most effective in undermining the work face and breaking down the lumps of clay and lignite.

For the collection of the gold the miners placed numerous wooden boxes in the water course below the workings.

Each box was paved with stones which trapped the fine wash dirt and gold.

The precious metal was collected by removing the stones and retorting (separating) the amalgam of mercury and gold.

Similar hydraulic sluicing operations were carried out about the same time at Nine Mile, Fifteen Mile, Eight Mile and New Chum Hill just north of Kiandra.

New Chum Hill became the largest sluicing operation at Kiandra and had a header dam of 436 million gallon capacity with an earth embankment 14 metres high and over 152 metres long.

To obtain enough water at Nine Mile the miners constructed what is probably the largest old network of race-lines in the Snowy Mountains.

Part of it extends around both sides of Mt Tabletop (1,784 metres above sea level) as a ditch one metre deep and one metre to 1 metres wide.

In one place the miners blasted a cutting three metres deep and a bullock dray wide, to keep the race-line on a slight downhill course.

The lure of further rich rewards must have exerted a strong magical pull for all the work on this 19 kilometre network was done with primitive equipment.

The mechanical shovels, 10 tonne trucks and large bulldozers which were to traverse this country only seven decades later as part of the, massive Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme had not been invented.

Even with all these earthworks and hard labour the problems of adequate water for sluicing continued and at one stage the miners contemplated the   construction of an enormous race-line which was to bring water from the Doubtful River a distance of over 40 Kilometres.

Without benefit of contoured maps and modern day aerial photographs they had worked out that this was a feasible proposition and had convinced the State Government of NSW to appoint a surveyor by the name of Sullivan to survey the line in 1880.

In several places it would have been necessary to construct elevated water viaducts to keep the race-line on the correct level or to devise a method of syphoning the water across.

The largest of these   mountain gaps was at Crooks Racecourse on the Great Dividing Range.

Unfortunately the project was never realised probably because of its enormity and a lack of funds.

Costs of construction were estimated at one hundred pounds per mile.

Had it been built it would have rivaled in extent and ingenuity some of the structures of the 20th century Snowy Mountains Scheme.

To overcome the shortage of water and the increasing amount of basalt overburden which had to be removed as the miners sluiced into the hill at Nine Mile, they drove a tunnel into the gold bearing seam.

Over a period of years this was extended to 609 metres until, during one lunch time (fortunately for the miners) a catastrophic cave-in occurred and the whole project was abandoned.

Today all that is left is a gigantic hole more than 18 metres deep, 70 metres wide and 304 metres long, rusted rail tracks and sheets or iron, the foundations of two or three old huts, the header dam and a network of race-lines. These are particularly obvious in winter when they fill up with snow.

As elsewhere the header dam has been breached, presumably to remove the precious heavy metal valve inserted at the lowest point to regulate water flow.

After 1890 most major operations ceased and except for a short period around the turn of the century when a bucket dredge was used on the Eucumbene River flats below Kiandra, have remained that way.

Mining continued by a few small-scale prospectors and an unsuccessful attempt was made at South Bloomfield to reach and mine the deep gold bearing gravels there.

The company involved was floated in the 1920s and is said to have had Dr Herbert Schlink, the eminent surgeon and enthusiastic skier, as a major shareholder.

He was largely responsible for organising the first successful winter ski crossing from Kiandra to Kosciusko in 1927.

Over a period of 10 years the tunnel of this mine, the "Elaine", was pushed through hard rock for over 182 metres below the gold-bearing gravels.

At one stage there were eight miners working around the clock in three shifts, but mostly it was only two or three.

The operation came to a halt in 1937 because the riser shaft at the end of the tunnel had not struck gold and because of lack of funds.

The manager of the mine, William Hughes, had been Dr Schlink's guide on the 1927 ski tour.

His brother Robert (Bob) Hughes continued to live in the area, reworking many old sites around Nine Mile and Four Mile, until 1940 when he moved to Kiandra itself.

Many, of Bob Hughes's tools of trade, cooking utensils, reading matter and retorting equipment can still be found in various states of disrepair at his old home at Four Mile.

Several old books and magazines by the Watchtower Society lead one to believe that he spent a good part of his time contemplating some form of spiritual salvation.

When he died some years later he took with him a fascinating saga of   hard work, winter hardships, gold fever and the search for the big strike.

Although this finally eluded him, he was almost certainly the last resident miner of the mountains, for the proclamation of the Kosciusko National Park in 1944 put an end to further prospecting.

The Kiandra gold rush and what might appropriately be called the first Snowy Mountains Scheme had definitely ended.

The second scheme of a much more spectacular nature, followed soon after, for by 1949 a group of diamond drillers had set up camp at Three Mile dam above New Chum Hill.

They were the first of many thousands of workers of many nationalities - just like the gold miners before them - who were to divert the waters of the Snowy and Eucumbene Rivers to flow to the west instead of the east.

To do this they had to build enormous concrete and earth dams, mile upon mile of diversion tunnels and hundreds of miles of roads and transmission lines.

The water so diverted was used to irrigate large areas of Australia's dry inland and to drive energy-producing turbines in its rapid downward path.

The engineers of this scheme soon established a direct link with the gold mining days when they used the gold-bearing gravels and sands of New Chum Hill and the Eight Mile area for building power stations, concrete dams and diversion tunnels.

Little did the miners of 100 years ago envisage that the landscape which had cost them so much toil and hardship would be transformed so radically with little regard for the gold still concealed.

Both schemes had harnessed the waters of the high country.