Miner's Rock Shelter

State Highway 8, Gorge Creek, Fruitlands

  • Miner's Rock Shelter.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 2371 Date Entered 24th June 2005


Extent of List Entry

Registration includes part of the land in New Zealand Gazette 1986 pp.1900-1901, (Gorge Creek Recreation Reserve) and the Miner's Rock Shelter thereon. (See Plan in Appendix 4.)

City/District Council

Central Otago District


Otago Region

Legal description

Sec 50 Blk III Cairnhill SD, (NZ Gazette, 1980, p.168; 1986 p.1900-1901 Recreation Reserve)


The Miner's Rock Shelter, thought to date from the 1860s is located in a steep gully overlooking Gorge Creek, between Roxburgh and Alexandra in Central Otago. The stone shelter, which makes use of a rock overhang, is built of stacked stone, with a window opening, a door opening and the remains of a stone chimney evident. The shelter is a representative example of the type of shelter used by miners in the 1860s in this area of Otago.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The shelter has historical significance as it was used as a miner's dwelling, at various times from the 1860s, with the latest occupation noted c.1910, and is a representative and relatively accessible example of the kind of dwellings constructed by gold miners in the schist-dominated landscape.

The shelter was recorded as an archaeological site in 1982, along with a number of associated and/or similar sites and structures in the area.

(a) The shelter is important for the way in which it is representative of an aspect of New Zealand's history. During the gold mining era, similar rock shelters were used as habitations, particularly by Chinese miners. Many of these sites as well as others associated with gold mining have now been lost under Lake Roxburgh (formed by a dam at Coal Creek in 1956) and Lake Dunstan (formed by the Clyde Dam in the 1980s), or lost through modification or destruction. The Miner's Rock Shelter at Gorge Creek is important as it is representative of this kind of dwelling, and easily accessible on the Department of Conservation Gorge Creek reserve.

(j) The rock shelter dates to the first years of European occupation and gold mining at Gorge Creek. This historical significance is emphasised by the presence of the monument to gold miners lost in the storms of 1863 and the grave of John Stewart and others who died in the same storm.

(k) The wider historical and cultural landscape of Central Otago consists of both built and archaeological heritage relating to the history of gold mining and associated activities. The rock shelter forms an integral part of this cultural and historical landscape. Formed under an overhanging rock, and walled in on two sides with schist, the shelter blends visually into the surrounding landscape. As Miller pointed out in the 1930s, as the eye becomes attuned to the features of such shelters in their rocky landscape, the hillsides become alive as the eye recognises them. The built heritage of Fruitlands and other areas of Central Otago reflects the use of schist in the rock shelter. Other registered historic places in Fruitlands such as the Cape Broom Hotel and the Butler's Farm buildings, dating from a similar time as the rock shelter, are constructed of this material, as are many buildings throughout Central Otago. In this way, the rock shelter forms an important part of the cultural and historical landscape of the area. At the same time, it is a visual reminder of parts of this cultural and historical landscape that are now lost under Lake Roxburgh and Lake Dunstan.


Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

From the 1860s, Bald Hill Flat, the area in which the rock shelter is found, was the centre of gold mining activity that extended along the slopes of the Old Man Range and the streams running from it. Gold was first discovered on the Clutha River at Dunstan (now Clyde, to the north of Alexandra) in 1862. In the same year, when the Clutha rose dramatically and flooded the Dunstan area, miners moved to prospect in the streams running from the Old Man Range, when gold was discovered on Coal Creek resulting in a rush to the area, at the southern end of what was then Speargrass Flat. Mining eventually focused on the more productive area of the Obelisk Creek flood plains, where the creek crosses Bald Hill Flat.

Gorge Creek and the then nearby town of Chamounix developed as populated areas as a result of the mining. They feature particularly in stories of the 1863 snow storms in the region. In July of that year a rush had set in to Campbell's diggings at the back of the Old Man Range, and reports came through of 500 men snowed in there. Small parties managed to stagger the twenty to thirty miles to canvas towns such as Chamounix, where help was available, and in the spring when the snow thawed, bodies were recovered and buried at the town, as well as at Gorge Creek. Estimates of the numbers of dead varied from thirty to "hundreds." Many of the dead were unknown young men who had ventured into the diggings in search of a fortune, without a traceable identity. Following the severe storms and loss of life in 1863, the route to Campbells Diggings was marked with snow poles which began near the Gorge Creek at O'Brien's coaching house, close to the site of the rock shelter. The snow-pole track is still marked.

A grave stone marker is said to mark the burial place of John Stewart. Stewart was a well-known, popular man in the district who ran a ferry, in the form of a bullock-hide boat, across the Clutha at Twelve-mile beach (near Gorge Creek. His body was later recovered and buried at Gorge Creek, marked by a schist grave stone. Other sources state that 17 men were buried in the grave at Gorge Creek, but only the names of Stewart and several others were identified.

The journals of the nineteenth century missionary to Chinese miners in Central Otago, Rev. Alexander Don, are useful for his descriptions of the kind of shelters used by miners. On January 9, 1901 Don's journal is headed "A day among Troglodytes":

"We counted 21 [caves] - only six occupied - in three miles of the Molyneux [Clutha] River gorge above Roxburgh. In winter, when the great stream is low, the empty caves will have their occupants. We had noon rice and a meeting of two men in one, an evening meeting with three in another, and a very welcome bed in a third. Some of these caves are very roomy and comfortable - cool in summer and warm in winter. But there is absolutely no ventilation, and when the door - usually a thick rice bag - is shut it is almost pitch dark."

A reporter from the Otago Witness visited the grave site in 1910 and also described the rock shelter, whose occupant he noted was a German, although these have been commonly identified as the homes of Chinese miners as the Rev. Don demonstrated. From the grave, he walked on to find a "distinctly primitive" footbridge just below it; "further on is the dwelling of him who built it. It is a hole in a rock, with stones and rock to wall up the mouth. For years this was the habitation of a German up the gullies after gold." A year later, the "cave hut" appeared on a 1911 map, located next to "graves" on Calder's "Survey of the Mount Benger Runs."

At Gorge Creek, close to the Miner's Rock Shelter, a monument was erected by the government in 1928 as a memorial to the mining pioneers who lost their lives in the 1863 storms.

After the end of gold mining days, rock shelters and stone huts were abandoned as elderly miners died or left Central Otago in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the 1930s depression, many unemployed moved back to rework the old gold diggings looking for a meagre income, re-occupying these old shelters. Dunedin journalist Fred Miller, who found himself unemployed at this time, left the city and took up a gold mining claim in the vicinity of Gorge Creek, living in an old rock shelter walled in random rubble, with a window in one wall, a chimney with a fireplace inside and a large stone platform for a floor. Miller describes 1930s Gorge Creek and Fruitlands, thinly disguised as "Appleton" in his book. His old home, the rock shelter, was evidently lower down Gorge Creek, as it now lies beneath Lake Dunstan.

In 1980 the land was declared a reserve for historic purposes (NZG 1980, p.168.). In 1986 the land was resurveyed and set apart as a recreation reserve, to be known as Gorge Creek Recreation Reserve (NZG 1986, pp.1900-1901).

Physical Description

The Miner's Rock Shelter is located on State Highway 8 at the south of an area now known as Fruitlands, where the highway makes a sharp bend at Gorge Creek, a substantial stream that runs into the Clutha River by way of a steep, rocky gorge. It is located within a recreation reserve, along with a monument and gravesite dating back to 1863.

Running parallel to the west of State Highway 8 is the Old Man Range, covered in snow in the winter months. On the slopes of this range are the Butchers, Obelisk, Coal and Gorge Creeks, and the site of the now-vanished packers' town that was called Chamounix, higher up Gorge Creek. These places are important in regional history for the stories of hardship, danger and loss of life associated with gold mining in the 1860s.

Gorge Creek as with other areas along the Clutha were the scene of intensive gold mining activity from approximately 1862 until the early years of the twentieth century. The rock shelter is associated with gold mining, providing housing for some unknown miner during these years. It is located close to two other significant structures: a monument to miners who died on the Old Man Range, to the west of Fruitlands, in the severe snow storms of 1863 stands nearby and the grave stone of John Stewart and others who died in the same storm.

The rock shelter is built beneath a large overhanging rock, walled in on two sides with random rubble schist. This is the kind of dwelling that was commonly used by many miners during the nineteenth century, as the journals of the Rev. Alexander Don demonstrate. Archaeological surveys have also revealed many similar structures throughout Central Otago mining areas. Many of these shelters, along with similar archaeological sites and historical structures, now lie beneath Lake Roxburgh and Lake Dunstan following the damming of the Clutha River near Roxburgh in 1956 and again at Clyde in the 1980s.

In a survey of archaeological sites in the Lake Roxburgh district, Harrison recorded a total of 79 rock shelters in the Roxburgh Gorge. The Gorge Creek rock shelter was described in the course of the survey, c. 1982, as “partially collapsed and fossicked.” The large number of rock shelters identified in the survey area demonstrates that these were commonly used for accommodation by miners. Similar shelters have been identified in other areas of Central Otago. Many other gold mining industry sites as well as associated places such as coach and accommodation houses have been lost in the process of damming the Clutha Gorge. The rock shelter described here, easily accessible from State Highway 8, is important as a representative example of many similar shelters now lost.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
Thought to be constructed 1860s.

Construction Details

Cave / rock shelter walled in with random rubble schist.

Public NZAA Number


Completion Date

22nd June 2006

Report Written By

Heather Bauchop

Information Sources

Don, 1890-1901

A. Don, 1890-1901, Chinese Mission Work in Central Otago: Annual up-country tour, Bliss Pamphlets [Hocken Library]

Gilkison, 1978

R. Gilkison, Early Days in Central Otago Whitcoulls, Christchurch, 1978

Harrison, 1982

A. Harrison, 'Lake Roxburgh Archaeological Survey', NZHPT, Cromwell, 1982

McCraw, 2003

J. McCraw, Gold on the Dunstan, Square One Press, Dunedin, 2003

Miller, 1969

F.W.G Miller, 1969 Gold in the River. A.H. Reed, Wellington

Moore, 1953 (reprint 1978)

C. Moore, The Dunstan, Whitcombe & Tombs, Dunedin, (First published 1953, Capper Press reprint 1978)

New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT)

New Zealand Historic Places Trust

A. Harrison, 'Lake Roxburgh Archaeological Survey', Cromwell, 1982

Ritchie, 1986

Neville Ritchie, 'Archaeology and History of the Chinese in Southern New Zealand During the Nineteenth Century: A Study of Acculturation, Adaptation, and Change', PhD, University of Otago, 1986 [Hocken Library]

Stone, 1996

J. Stone, 'The Archaeology and History of Chamouni.' BA (Hons) dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Otago, 1996 [University of Otago Library]

Other Information

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.