The Vulcan Hotel has special historical significance representing the importance of hotels in small isolated gold mining communities, and as a building which epitomises a nineteenth century hotel in a gold mining town still used for the same purpose. In 1872 there were 220 licensed hotels on the Otago goldfields, one for every 200 citizens. Hotels were an integral part of goldfields life, and few remain which provide insight into the nineteenth century life in a small town.
Aesthetic Significance or Value
The Vulcan Hotel, set on the main street of the small settlement of St Bathans, is an iconic building set in a dramatic location. The Hotel with its modest mud brick, its small scale and intimate interior further emphasise the sense of being part of vanished past and has special aesthetic appeal, as recognised by photographer Robin Morrison in his work. The once thriving settlement located alongside the Blue Lake (flooded sluicing workings) is set in a spectacular gold mining landscape. The Hotel has special aesthetic significance due to its setting in the remnant St Bathans township, and its spectacular location across the road from the sluicings.
Archaeological Significance or Value
The Vulcan Hotel has operated on this site since the 1860s and has the potential to provide an insight into the operation of the hotel and the occupation of the site through archaeological methods.
Architectural Significance or Value
The Vulcan Hotel has architectural significance as an example of nineteenth century hotel architecture built using vernacular materials. It is a significant example of a hotel building typical of small goldfields towns. The false front with ‘Vulcan Hotel’ emblazoned on the timber sign is a special element, iconic in its own right, but also typical of goldfields architecture which presented a respectable front to the world which hid the often temporary structures behind.
Technological Significance or Value
The Vulcan Hotel is built of mud brick, a building method common in the early periods of settlement in Central Otago, and used readily available materials. The technique is no longer used and examples of this construction method are becoming increasingly rare because structures are vulnerable to collapse once exposed to the weather. A small number of significant examples of the technique survive in the historic town of St Bathans and the Vulcan Hotel is an important and well preserved example.
Social Significance or Value
Hotels on the goldfields were important meeting places, beyond the obvious gathering place. Hotels were used for other social functions: as meeting places for groups such as lodges, sporting and cultural groups, and also for coroner’s inquests. The Vulcan Hotel is significant as a community meeting place for almost 140 years.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
The Vulcan Hotel is representative of the history of small gold mining towns, and the services that grew up to cater for the needs of the residents as well as the travelling public. As part of the wider network of travellers’ accommodation throughout this isolated area, the Vulcan Hotel illustrates the importance of hotels. As a business that has operated for over 140 years the hotel is an important part of the history of the local community, and has special significance. The Vulcan Hotel is associated with the gold mining period, a series of events in Otago’s history which had a profound effect on the history and the landscape of the region.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place
The special esteem in which the Vulcan Hotel is held is evident through members of the community banding together to purchase the Hotel to keep it operating.
(f) The potential of the place for public education
The Vulcan Hotel has on display historic images and other material which provides insight into the history of St Bathans informing its patrons, local and visitors alike about the history of gold mining and of the township.
(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place
The Vulcan Hotel is a significant example of mud brick construction. In the nineteenth century mud brick was a common building material, making use of the available resources in an area where there was little timber that could be used for building. Surviving mud brick buildings are significant the majority have been lost due to weathering and lack of maintenance.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape.
The Vulcan Hotel forms a special part of the outstanding historical and cultural landscape of St Bathans. The small scattered settlement, with its cluster of buildings on the main street, set in the dramatic relic gold mining landscape is unique in New Zealand.
It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category I historic place.
With its mud brick construction and façade opening directly onto the footpath, the Vulcan epitomises the characteristics typical of buildings thrown up in gold mining frontier towns, such as St Bathans, to cater for the arrival of large, transient populations. The Vulcan, set alongside other intact historic buildings which attract visitors to the once bustling town now home to handful of residents, has survived for almost 130 years. The Vulcan Hotel is the only business in town and the only surviving hotel building. Its form is typical of the gold mining period where hotels were crucial to communities, and its false front, mud brick and diminutive scale make it a very good representative example. The Vulcan Hotel, a tourist attraction in itself, continues to provide accommodation for the town’s visitors and remains a gathering place for locals. With its mud brick construction and vernacular style the Vulcan Hotel is a special and iconic element of the historic St Bathans archaeological landscape.
Mud brick, timber joinery, corrugated iron roof.
Maori had settlements in Central Otago, associated with early occupation. Six were known on Lake Hawea (Te Taweha o Hawea, Mahaea, O tu Purupuru, Turihuka, Te Taumanu o Taki and Pakituhi) and one near Cromwell (Wairere). The moa-rich area was known for camps where moa were butchered and cooked (for example there were large sites in the Hawksburn and Happy Valley areas, as well as the Nevis Valley), and there were quarries used for stone tools in the region of Tiger Hills and Mount Benger. The swampy plains in the Maniototo provided eels and other food resources. Though Maori are known to have joined the goldrushes, little is known about their participation in the rush at St Bathans. There are no recorded Maori archaeological sites in St Bathans.
The history of gold mining in Central Otago began with Gabriel Read's discovery of gold in Gabriel’s Gully, near present-day Lawrence, in 1861. The following year Hartley and Reilly left this gully and travelled further into Central Otago. They spent the winter prospecting in the now-flooded Clutha Gorge between present day Clyde and Cromwell, finding enough gold in the area to travel back to Dunedin and lodge 87 pounds with the Gold Receiver. Gold was quickly discovered in other parts of the region, including places such as Arrowtown and Queenstown, and in 1863, at St Bathans, leading to the birth of the town. First known as Dunstan Creek, the name was changed to St Bathans in 1866, after St Bathans in the islands of Iona in Scotland, famous from the time of early Christians. At the height of the rush, the population in the area numbered around 2,000, with thirteen hotels catering to local demands during the 1860s. The town had two banks, a police station, courthouse, jail, hospital and many businesses. A Tyree photo dated circa 1864 shows St Bathans’ main street with timber, stone and corrugated iron buildings opening directly onto the footpath.
There were an estimated 78 goldfields in Central Otago, boom towns sprung up to service the gold diggings, and disappeared just as quickly as the gold returns for the itinerant miners. Little remains of these places. Historian John Angus writes '[w]hen the miners decamped so too did the commercial section of many of the early towns. This pattern was repeated many times, often at remote locations in Central Otago. But some settlements remained, undergoing a sort of metamorphosis to become service centres for the subsequent stages of more stable mining.’
Publicans were important in these developing communities and were among the earliest residents. Goldfields administrator and politician Vincent Pyke wrote that the storekeeper and publican were the start of the community that only became 'a proper town’ with the government official and the surveyor. Writer Anthony Trollope, a visitor in 1872, commented that there were three successive styles of architecture: canvas, in which residences, business establishments and government ‘buildings’ alike were tents; a corrugated iron period, for it was portable, very easily shaped, capable of quick construction, and it keeps out the rain’; and finally wood and stone. The last were seldom seen in Central Otago towns at the time of his visit.’
Towns developed haphazardly. Historian John Angus writes that gold mining towns were often an ‘incongruous jumble of handsome stone hotels and public buildings, ornate shop facades often masking bare corrugated iron sides, and ramshackle tin sheds.’ These were often ‘frontier towns’: ‘hotels, illicit sly-grog shops, gambling booths and what Europeans called the ‘opium dens’ of the Chinese. Over the towns there often remained an air of impermanence.’ St Bathans was typical of impermanent impromptu development, reflected in its fourteen hotels, of which now only one remains, the Ballarat Hotel (now known as the Vulcan Hotel).
In 1872 there were 220 licensed hotels on the Otago goldfields, one for every 200 citizens; by 1980 there was one for every 2,500. Hotels were an integral part of goldfields life, David McGill notes that it was said that you needed ‘one drinking hole for every thirty miners.’ There were, for example, 22 hotels between Queenstown and Skippers, St Bathans had 13 hotels for its 2,000 inhabitants, Hills Creek had 13 and far less people. Macraes Flat also had 14 hotels, nearby Nenthorn 22. In Southland towns such as Orepuki, Round Hill and Garfield sprung up in the goldfields areas, and disappeared equally fast, overtaken by coal mining and farming. On the West Coast towns such as Stafford had some sixty businesses, a third of which were reported to be hotels, none of which survive, and places such as Brighton (near Charleston) which saw 160 buildings erected in five weeks, including 53 hotels (none of which survive).
Hotels on the goldfields, like those in Dunedin, were important meeting places, and were social centres. Geographer and historian Ray Hargreaves writes that hotels were used as meeting places for groups such as lodges, sporting and cultural groups, and also for coroner’s inquests. Halls attached to hotels were often used for electioneering and as the location for polling booths, in the case of St Bathans though there was a public hall which served these functions from the 1890s, but it was built by the Vulcan Hotel license holder of the time, Michael Nolan.
The Ballarat Hotel
The first hotel proven to be on the site of the current Vulcan Hotel is the Ballarat Hotel. A newspaper report from July 1868 records that Patrick Hanrahan (d.1916) opened his ‘new house’, a replacement for his earlier hotel the Cornwall Arms which burnt down after a fire started in a guest's room some weeks previously (it is not clear on which section the Cornwall Arms was). Irish-born Hanrahan had arrived in St Bathans with three siblings and their widowed mother in 1863-4 where he joined those seeking their luck gold mining.To show their support to Hanrahan and his wife, the community gave a complimentary ball and supper to mark the opening. The celebration took place in the new billiard hall which was attached to the hotel. Over one hundred people danced until dawn accompanied by McGillvery’s quadrille band.
No description was given of the new hotel (bar the existence of the attached billiard hall), but a photograph from 1877 gives a view of the exterior of the premises. The image shows two adjoining corrugated iron structures with false fronts proclaiming ‘The Billiard Saloon’ and ‘The Ballarat Hotel, P. Hanrahan.’ These are both single gable structures with signage on the gable ends. Both have central doors flanked by symmetrical sash windows. The Billiard Saloon windows have four lights with a flat arch at the top. The hotel windows are paired six-light double hung sash windows. As with other nearby structures, they are roughly clad in corrugated iron and stand directly on the street front, doors opening to the rough road outside, flanked by similarly rickety looking buildings.
The hotel was apparently rebuilt in mud brick by Hanrahan in 1882, with Thomas Griffiths and John Gallagher as the builders. Mud-brick construction involves shaping bricks in wooden moulds from a mixture of clay and straw. The bricks were air dried and then laid using lime mortar or clay slurry. Architect Jeremy Salmond suggests that the technique may have come to New Zealand along with the rush of gold diggers from the American west. Due to climate (and the lack of any other building materials) mud brick was suited only to the very dry areas such as Central Otago, and even so surviving mud brick buildings are relatively rare because of their vulnerability to weathering. The technique was popular in gold-mining settlements and many of St Bathans’ buildings were of mud-brick. Most have now disappeared, but key remaining examples of the technique include the Vulcan Hotel, the Public Hall (Record no. 2256), Vulcan Hotel Billiards Room (Record no. 2255) and St Patrick’s Church (Record no. 3210).
By 1887, Hanrahan was bankrupt and the title transferred to John Ewing, St Bathans’ most prominent miner and, for a time, one of the area’s wealthiest citizens.
Three years later Ewing sold to Michael Nolan. Michael Nolan turned his hand to improving the hotel and by 1893 was advertising that this ‘well-known Hotel has undergone a thorough renovating’ and was ‘now in a position to offer first-class accommodation to travellers and others.’ A large number of different owners follow.
By the 1930s mining was in decline, leading to a downturn in the small village. By 1934 the Kildare Lead mine was abandoned as the local council was concerned that the further excavations would endanger St Bathans’ main street and buildings, located less than 100 metres away. The huge hole (known as the Glory Hole) created where Kildare Hill once stood eventually flooded, forming the Blue Lake, now a notable feature of St Bathans gold mining heritage landscape. Mining operations ceased after the 1930s and as the population dwindled buildings were either demolished or moved elsewhere.
The Vulcan Hotel
In about 1931 the name of the Ballarat Hotel was changed to the Vulcan, after the Vulcan Hotel (around the corner to the north-west of the Ballarat) was destroyed by fire.
Around this period the St Bathans Township slowly declined. Where the main street once had some forty businesses, there remains a small straggle of original buildings still standing, mostly located on the west side of the road. The public buildings include the hall, former gold office, and post office. Private buildings include the former billiards rooms, the hotel, the former jail and a number of residences. The Anglican and Catholic churches stand at either end of the town, and the stone ruins of the school are located above the main street.
The few surviving buildings in the dramatic archaeological landscape became an attraction in themselves, with the hotel being a particular draw card for visitors. In 1977 when resident and historian Gladys Nicolson-Garrett was writing, she described the Vulcan Hotel as ‘one of the most pleasant and homeliest village pubs imaginable and if one wishes to rediscover the simplicity of the past or to recapture the atmosphere and general life-style of an old gold-mining township one should dawdle at the Vulcan Hotel and enjoy tranquil surroundings.’ At that time journalist, photographers and television people had visited the hotel to view the private collection of historic material held there.
In 1987 the Vulcan was again on the market. A number of local residents formed a company, Vulcan Hotel Ltd, and purchased the hotel in order to retain it in local hands. This company continues to own the property.
In 1998 the company was discussing the possible sale of the Vulcan, with the vast majority of shareholders opposed to any sale. At that time a revamp of the building was considered a necessity ‘to preserve its image and an upgrade of the showers and toilets was urgently required.’ The Company decided not to sell the Hotel, and to continue with an upgrade. A six month survey of guests found that most wanted the building retained as is. The Hotel at that time had three bedrooms with accommodation for seven guests.
In the 1990s and early 2000s the Vulcan gained some notoriety for its ‘resident ghost.’ Articles appeared in the Otago Daily Times and the Hotel featured in the 2005 television series ‘Ghost Hunt’, and the resulting book. Photographer and Robin Morrison, well known for his ability to instil the ‘ordinary the gift of difference’, and whose images form part of New Zealand’s national identity, captured the Vulcan Hotel’s aesthetic qualities in his images of the building.
In 2010 the Vulcan Hotel remains a significant gathering place for locals and visitors alike, its special historic ambience welcoming locals and visitors alike, and drawing people into an understanding of the spectacular goldfields history and landscape.
Report Written By
Janet. C. Cowan, Down the Years in the Maniototo: A Survey of the Early History of Maniototo County and Naseby Borough, Otago Centennial Historical Publications, Whitcombe and Tombs, Dunedin, 1948
Department of Conservation
Department of Conservation
N. Harwood and P. Woodmansey, Historic buildings appraisal, St Bathans, Otago, Department of Conservation Science Internal Series 185, 2004
R. Gilkison, Early Days in Central Otago Whitcoulls, Christchurch, 1978
Ray Hargreaves, Barmaids, Billiards, Nobblers and Rat-pits: Pub life in goldrush Dunedin 1861-1865, Otago Heritage Books, Dunedin, 1992.
Frances Porter (ed), Historic Buildings of Dunedin, South Island, Methuen, Auckland, 1983.
To ensure the long-term conservation of this place, the NZHPT recommends That the Central Otago District Council amend its district plan to recognise the Vulcan Hotel as a Category I historic place. (NZHPT Registration Recommendation 20 August 2010).
A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Otago/Southland Area office
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.