Big River Quartz Mine

Victoria Conservation Park, Big River

  • Big River Quartz Mine. Poppet Head.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Robyn Burgess. Date: 1/01/2008.
  • Winding engine in foreground.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Robyn Burgess. Date: 1/01/2008.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Able to Visit
List Number 7762 Date Entered 27th June 2008


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes part of the land described as Secs 1-4, Blk X, and Crown Land Blk X (under action), Waitahu SD and Pt Crown Forest Land Block IV, Mawheraiti Survey District, (NZ Gazette 1981, p.1420 and NZ Gazette 1958, p591), Nelson Land District and the Big River Quartz Mine and road thereon. This includes buildings and structures known as the poppet head, Mine Shafts, Mullock Heap, Cyanide Plant, Boilers, Winding Engines, Cable Trestles, Condenser Shell, Aerial Ropeway, Battery remains, Pelton Wheel remains, Smelter, Water Races, Miner's Cottage, Winding Engine House, and its fittings and fixtures, the following chattels: mine cages, pulley wheels, zinc boxes, tramway remnants, and the following class of chattels: all objects associated with the Big River Quartz Mine within the boundary. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

Excluded from the registration is the modern Big River Hut, Department of Conservation toilets and signage, and the make-shift hut situated adjacent to the cyanide tanks. The latter, created in the 1960s-70s, is made from components of structures from the mining era which have significance, but the hut itself does not.

City/District Council

Buller District


West Coast Region

Legal description

Secs 1-4, Blk X and Crown Land Blk X (under action), Waitahu SD and Part Crown Forest Land Blk IV, Mawheraiti SD, (NZ Gazette 1981, p.1420 and NZ Gazette 1958, p.591) and Legal Road, Nelson Land District.

Location description

Big River is approximately 29 km from Reefton via a rough four wheel drive track. Other secondary access is via a walking or mountain biking track from Waiuta.


The Big River Quartz Mine, in the Inangahua Valley, south of Reefton, provides a tangible record of the gamut of mining operations at a quartz mine and now is one of the most complete historic quartz mining sites in New Zealand.

Although gold bearing quartz was first found in the area in 1872, it wasn't until the mid 1880s that a road was constructed, allowing heavy machinery for mining operations to be brought into the remote area. In 1886 a ten head stamper battery, aerial ropeway and related machinery were installed. The battery was originally powered by a water turbine but this was replaced by a Pelton wheel in 1892. Both were kept working by water supplied by the Big River Dam and Race. The main working Adit, the No. 1 Adit, was opened in 1888 and by 1890 a shaft was sunk to meet it with the first poppet head constructed above it. In 1895 a Robey semi-portable 'underslung' steam engine was introduced to the site, and the poppet head was rebuilt or realigned. Efficiency was further improved when the relatively new process of using cyanide for gold extraction was introduced in 1898. By 1910-11, the peak of activity, 55 men were employed at the mine. New machinery was purchased in 1912-13, including a new state-of-the-art winding engine, boilers and compressor, to capitalise on the reserves of gold being found. The new machinery meant Big River was better equipped than most of the Reefton Goldfields. The winder enabled the mine to be worked at greater depths with speed and efficiency. In 1914, a sawmill was built nearby at Golden Lead Creek to provide timber for the mine and a coal-mine was sunk to fuel the boilers.

By 1922 the mine shaft reached its greatest depth, reputedly as deep as 602 metres at level 12, at that stage the greatest point reached in any quartz mine in the country. After this, fortunes varied but eventually the mine was closed in 1942. Over time, the mine and many of its associated sites were reclaimed by the bush. Scrappers took out much of the portable remains but a considerable amount still remained in situ when the New Zealand Forest Service assumed responsibility for the various sites. Since the early 1980s, under the Forest Service and from 1987 the Department of Conservation, conservation work including maintenance, repair, restoration, reconstruction and interpretation has been carried out at the Big River Quartz Mine site.

Although at the time of its operations it was only moderately important at a national level, Big River Quartz Mine attracted considerable investment and outlasted many others. As with other gold mining operations, methods used were sometimes experimental, shares rose and fell, numbers employed waxed and waned, pay wrangles sometimes ensued, and the success of the quartz mining itself greatly fluctuated. However, Big River Quartz Mine differed from a number of others in that it did produce a good return for investors, particularly during the 1910s when dividend payouts were high. As a modestly sized gold mining operation, the mine represented a near optimum balance between plant size and ore reserves to maximise return on capital investment.

Big River Quartz Mine involved three major industries - quartz (gold) mining first and foremost, supported by coal mining and timber milling. It employed a range of technology, such as the cyanide process, and had one of the finest steam winding plants on the Inangahua field. Whereas equipment was removed from many other defunct mining areas, the survival of much of the plant at Big River is due to the relatively difficult access to the site. The poppet head is one of only two such structures left on site in New Zealand (the other is at Oturehua) and the zinc boxes from the cyanide plant are relative rare survivors. The boiler and winding engine, as well as an earlier semi-portable steam engine now at the sawmill site, are together very fine and now rare examples of heavy mining technology in New Zealand. It is the survival of the winding engine, boiler and poppet head, adits, aerial mechanism, cages, semi-portable steam engine, sawmill, tramway, cyanide plant and other equipment, and to some extent the miner's accommodation and settlement areas, that make the Big River Quartz Mine site a place of special or outstanding historical heritage significance or value.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

Big River Quartz Mine is significant as an historical industrial site for its gold-bearing quartz mining, and associated coal mining and saw milling history. It was associated with the secondary, more settled, period of quartz mining on the Reefton field. During the depressed period of the early 1890s, it was a mainstay of the field and was a noted producer in 1907-17 when most of the old established mines had closed or were in decline.

As a modestly sized operation, Big River Quartz Mine managed a near optimum balance between plant size and ore reserves to maximise return on capital investment. Many of the West Coast's best known practical miners, managers and mine administrators were associated with the mine such as Thomas Lee, Jack McMahon and Billy Rodden.


The intense mining activity that was carried out on this land before 1900 and subsequently gives strong reasonable cause to suspect that virtually the whole of the area within the boundaries of the historic place has archaeological value. Both the areas of mining activity and the settlement areas have important archaeological values, as recognised by the New Zealand Archaeological Association Site Recording Scheme which has at present five archaeological sites recorded at Big River.


As an industrial complex that included not only quartz mining but also saw milling and coal mining, a range of past technologies were used at the site. Most of the mine's activities involved water and elaborate dams and races were built. Throughout Big River Quartz Mine's operating history, there were many opportunities taken to improve machinery and mining. The last added boiler and winding engine in particular represented the zenith in mining technology when first acquired in 1912. It allowed the drilling of a shaft to the then record depth of 602 metres. The location the poppet head in relation to the winding plant is significant in providing an understanding of the mining technology, the arrangement at Big River Quartz Mine differing from many other mine sites.

Big River Quartz Mine introduced the cyanide plant as a chemical extraction process to obtain gold, a technique that had been developed in the 1880s and was widely used throughout New Zealand from the 1890s.

As well as the application of overseas technology, Big River Quartz Mine has examples of local technological initiatives necessary to keep the complex running. The aerial ropeway which took the ore to the battery operated on a gravity principle and was designed by a local engineer, W E Gardner. Although never completely successful, it served the operation well to its close.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:

Gold mining, as a basic extractive industry, was responsible for the initial prosperity of a number of regions in New Zealand. The West Coast relied heavily on the wealth generated by gold mining and other extractive industries. By virtue of their sheer longevity, a few mines such as Big River and Waiuta remained potent forces in the West Coast economy until the 1940s.

The features and remains at Big River Quartz Mine provide a record of the gamut of mining operations at a quartz mine and their integral settlement areas. Big River Quartz Mine provides one of the most extensive collections of in situ mining features in New Zealand.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place:

Big River Quartz Mine is the subject of considerable interest and esteem, both in the local community and further afield as an industrial complex of national historic importance. The poppet head remains a source of local pride, and has featured on Reefton letterheads, envelopes, logos and it was used by the New Zealand Forest Service as the symbol for the Victoria Forest Park.

(f) The potential of the place for public education:

Big River Quartz Mine is already a place of public education and the Department of Conservation has installed a number of detailed informative interpretation panels around the key features of the site. School and university groups regularly visit the place. The Department of Conservation has held a number of 'Hands on' Conservation training workshops on site, both as an educational tool and as an opportunity to further record and conserve aspects of the place.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place:

The Big River Quartz Mine demonstrates the development and application of technological advances and solutions in the operation of a quartz mine. Its sawmilling and coal mining operations supported the quartz mining and gold extraction processes, and the cyanide plant used techniques that had been developed in the late 1880s. The installation of a new winding engine in 1912 allowed drilling of a shaft that ultimately reached the depth of 602 metres in 1922, which was briefly the deepest for its time in New Zealand.

(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places:

Big River Quartz Mine is the only place in New Zealand where a winding engine, boiler and poppet head remain together as a collection. Together with No. 1 Adit, the aerial mechanism, the cages and other equipment, they make Big River Quartz Mine now a rare type of historic place in New Zealand.

Once common, poppet heads are now extremely rare in New Zealand. The Big River poppet head is one of only two surviving on site nationally. The other is in Central Otago at the Golden Progress Mine, Oturehua.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:

Big River is one of a number of former mining sites in the Inangahua Valley. The road leading into Big River passes remnants of some of the other mines, for example those relating to the A1 (Last Chance) Mine, OK Mine, Cumberland Mine and Golden Lead Mine.


This place was assessed against, and found it to qualify under the following criteria: a, e, f, g, j, k.


It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category I historic place.

Although at the time of its operations, the Big River Quartz Mine was not especially important on a national level, its physical remains now represents one of the most complete historic quartz mining sites in New Zealand.

The Big River Quartz Mine involved three major industries - quartz (gold) mining first and foremost, supported by coal mining and timber milling. It employed a range of technology, such as the cyanide process, and had one of the finest steam winding plants on the Inangahua field. Whereas equipment was removed from many other defunct mining areas, the survival of much of the plant at Big River is due to the relatively difficult access to the site. It is the survival of the on site collection of features and machinery - winding engine, boiler and poppet head, adits, aerial mechanism, cages, semi-portable steam engine, sawmill, tramway, other equipment, and to some extent the miner's accommodation and settlement areas - that make the Big River Quartz Mine site a place of special or outstanding historical heritage significance or value.


On the NZHPT Register there are a number of registrations of places within former gold/quartz mining sites from around New Zealand, although there are also many that have not been registered. The registered places include the Old Golden Crown Battery Building, Thames, c1880 (Register no. 4643), the Young Australian Co Mine Battery, Carrick Range (Register no. 2393), Battery Foundations, at the Victoria Battery Site Ruins, Waikino (Register no. 4602), the Young Australian Mine, Carrick Range (Register no. 342), the Crown Battery Site Ruins, Karangahake, 1891 (Register no. 4673), the Waihi Gold Dredging Plant and Tramway (Register no. 7670), the Battery/Dam/Hut at Carrick Range (Register no. 5616), the Otago Pioneer Quartz Historic Reserve (Register numbers 5636, 5637, 5638, 5639, 5640, 5641, 5642, 5644) and the Government Battery Coromandel, 1900 (Register no. 130). Although some of these places have impressive retaining walls and foundations, such as the Crown Battery ruins, in many cases the machinery and superstructure has mostly been removed or decayed. The Waihi Gold Dredging Plant and Tramway of the late nineteenth century, for example, had its plant largely dismantled for use in new premises at Paeroa (Register no. 7399), though some archaeological remnants are still in situ.

The Golden Progress Mine, Oturehua (1930s, not registered) is notable for having the only other surviving poppet head in New Zealand, although the poppet head at Big River surpasses it in importance as it is older, more intact (still with its winding mechanism) and larger. The Waiuta mine near Big River had impressive large poppet heads but these burned down in 1965 and 1976.

The winding plant at Big River remains as a rare and particularly fine example of technology once common on the New Zealand quartz mining fields, particularly the Inangahua and Coromandel. It appears that just three others remain: an incomplete Inglewood winder of unknown make at Murray Creek near Reefton, the smaller Big River Robey plant which later served at the mine sawmill (and has recently been restored at the Big River sawmill site), and a restored Holmes winder on display at the Reefton Visitor Centre, believed to have been used at the Fiery Cross Mine. There is also a portable Robey engine at the Caledonian shaft, Larrys Creek, but no remains of the winding mechanism.

The boiler, too, is significant as a rare example of steam technology still in its original position at a mine site. There is a single drum boiler with a much smaller brick furnace on the Ajax mine site at Murray Creek, while Waiuta has a furnace but no associated boiler. The Rewanui coal mine near Greymouth has a single-drum Robey boiler.

Although the 10-stamper battery at Big River Quartz Mine was not particularly large - the largest in the Inangahua had 65 - it is notable for serving the entire working life of the mine. A number of batteries do survive elsewhere and around five stamper battery sites, in various stages of survival, are included in the NZHPT Register. These include, for example, the five-head stamper battery in the Carrick Range ('Battery/Dam/Hut also known as Adams Gully Gold Battery Complex) in Central Otago and the Government Battery Coromandel that was used by the Thames School of Mines and remains as a working tourist attraction. At Carrick Range, remnants of a berdan, tumbler and remains of a building and dam also survive.

The Snowy River Battery (or Snowy Battery) at the Waiuta Mine complex is not registered. It processed ore at Waiuta from 1908 to 1938 and some of its features remain alongside in situ cyanide treatment tanks.

The cyanide process, developed in Scotland, had been tested as a world first at the Crown Mine at Karangahake in the Coromandel in 1889. There a number of sites where remains of cyanide plants survive. There are some impressive tall tanks, for example at Karangahake. The cyanide tanks at Big River Quartz Mine are notable as being representative of the shallow type of tank used in the early years of cyanide production and also for the survival of two of the zinc boxes. While zinc boxes remain at some other West Coast mine sites, such as at the Waiuta, Brittannia and Inglewood Mine sites, as a type, they appear to be relatively rare survivors of components of the cyanide process that was once common.

In summary, in comparison with other quartz/gold mining sites around New Zealand, Big River Quartz Mine is nationally significant as a comparatively comprehensive collection of surviving features that include some nationally significant examples (especially the winding engine and semi-portable under-slung steam engine) and some features that were once common but now rare (notably the poppet head, boiler and aerial mechanism).


Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Gold mining was responsible for the initial large scale European settlement of the West Coast and provided its early prosperity. As alluvial sources dwindled, hard rock mining of the 'mother lodes' took over and was important in extending the life of the industry for many decades.

Early attempts at gold mining in the remote and dangerous Big River area, between 1866 and 1870, were largely unsuccessful. The Grey River Argus reported in August 1870 that 'Big River has been rushed at different times repeatedly, but it has never been any good'. Big River's reputation was then as a poor, shallow diggings where only occasional rich patches and small nuggets could be found. The perseverance of some prospectors paid off, however. In February 1871, Shepherd and party discovered gold-bearing quartz, causing a large rush up Big River to the saddle dividing it from the Inangahua.

In April 1872 prospector, James Anderson, applied for a quartz mining lease on the dividing range between the right hand branch of Big River and Snowy River, approximately 20 miles from the junction of the Snowy and the Little Grey. The Anderson Quartz Mining Company, Big River, was soon formed. However, although 'Anderson's tunnel' initially produced ‘very fair' quartz results in 1872, extraction was hard and slow going. Tunnelling sped up with the introduction of a new explosive compound known as dynamite, which the mining company had been given to test, but the company struggled. For some years following little was heard of the Big River reefs.

In late 1881 prospectors began to return to try their luck at Big River. A pack track was created from Devils Creek to Big River, opening up a considerable amount of alluvial ground. This was the beginning of new roading developments that opened up a whole new reefing district.

In November 1881 two claims were established that led to renewed activity at the Big River Reefs. Well-known miner Hugh Duggan pegged out a 4.2 hectare Pioneer claim and Patrick Brennan from Inangahua applied for a 6.6 hectare lease. The following month the two men joined to form a single company, the Big River Extended Gold Mining Company. Samples of Big River quartz were sent to the New Zealand International Exhibition held in 1882 in Hagley Park, Christchurch, raising the investment profile of the company. Overall, the company's success at this time was variable, as a result of the difficult terrain and unpredictable results.

Other companies were also formed. By the end of 1882 the number of companies at Big River is reported as being in double figures. They tunnelled and sunk winzes (inclined or vertical shafts between mine levels), and had a mixture of great fortune and plenty of bad luck.

An eagerly anticipated road was built in 1884-85, greatly increasing the accessibility of the area and coinciding with a general down-turn in the mining industry. Machinery was brought into Big River, some of which came from other less profitable or failed mining ventures. Between 1886 and 1887 a battery for crushing quartz, associated equipment for extracting gold, an aerial tramway to carry quartz from the mine, holding paddocks (bins), fluming and a water race to supply the battery turbine were installed.

The battery, a 10 stamper, had come from the Golden Point claim which had shut down. It was originally powered by a water turbine but this was replaced by a Pelton wheel which provided more speed using a third as much water. Under normal conditions the battery could crush 10-12 tons of quartz in an eight hour shift.

The first trial crushing commenced in May 1887, with indifferent results. Water supply continued to be a problem to work the machinery. Work on creating a massive dam to remedy this issue was started in early 1888, coinciding with a significant quartz find that led to heightened excitement and high shareholder satisfaction.

The No. 1 Adit was started in mid-1888 and by 1890, the process of sinking shafts had begun and the No. 1 Adit was extended to join with the shafts.

In 1891 the Big River Company was formed. While essentially a West Coast concern, it differed from earlier companies in that it had a number of prominent businessmen from major cities in New Zealand among its shareholders. It soon revealed profitable crushings despite harsh winters where the machinery sometimes struggled or lay idle. In 1895 a 12kW Robey steam winder was installed, replacing the old water wheel. The first bath house is thought to have been built nearby around this time.

In 1897, the company decided to run a new process, using a cyanide plant to extract gold from the tailings. It was first operated by a separate enterprise but soon it was taken over and operated by the Big River Company itself. In 1908 the company bought the Sir Francis Drake Company's cyanide plant and it appears that this was incorporated into the previous plant.

In 1907, after the Big River Extended Company had exhausted all its capital, the New Big River Company was formed. This new company had almost immediate success and the mine produced huge dividends. By 1910-11, the peak of activity, the mine employed 55 men. New machinery was purchased in 1912-13, including a winding engine, boilers and compressor, to capitalise on the reserves of gold being found. The winder enabled the mine to be worked at greater depths with speed and efficiency. The compressor drove pneumatic rock drills and other equipment. In addition, in 1914 a sawmill was built nearby, at Golden Lead Creek, to provide timber for the mine and a coal-mine was sunk to fuel the boilers.

A replacement bath house was built around 1913 to the north-east of the winding engine house. Water for the bath house was heated from the boiler in the winding engine house. It allowed miners and their families who lived in settlement areas dotted around the entire mine site, to wash both themselves and, at times, their clothing. A carpenter's shop stood at the top end of the mine road, near the No. 1 Adit. Nearby, across from the winding engine house, a Blacksmith's Shop was built, providing services to maintain the repair machinery for the mine. Two adjacent store rooms held building materials such as timber and items such as candles for use in the mine. Gelignite, on the other hand, was stored some distance away, in a small hut near the bath house dam.

World War One brought mixed fortunes to the mine. Although sufficient gold bearing deposits were found, a labour shortage due to the war cut production significantly.

By 1922 the mine reached its greatest depth, 602 metres at level 12, briefly holding the record for the deepest in the entire country. However, fortunes dived throughout the 1920s and when the last known deposits were crushed in 1927 the mine closed.

The mine remained closed until 1931 when Big River Gold Mines Ltd bought the mine for ₤10,000 and set about attempting to restore its fortunes. Roads, buildings and mine shafts had to be repaired or reinstated before work could begin. The revived mine operation had some useful returns and some years even paid dividends but eventually, with the arrival of World War Two, a lack of skilled miners, difficulties in reopening lower levels and an industrial dispute closed the mine in 1942.

Despite its relatively modest size and its trials and tribulations, the Big River Quartz Mine was among the most successful in the Reefton Goldfields in terms of returns to shareholders, especially during its most profitable period between 1907 and 1924.

Over the years, Big River had been associated with many of the West Coast's best known practical miners, managers and mine administrators, including T H Lee, Jack McMahon and Billy Rodden. Shareholders included some prominent names, including Patrick Murray, Hugh Duggen, Michael Cullen, and Patrick Brennan - all significant names in Big River mining history. At times, the dividend payout to shareholders was notably high (₤112,800 during the period 1907 to 1924). For its relatively modest size, the Big River Quartz Mine reached a near optimum balance between plant size and ore reserves to maximise return on capital investment. During the depressed period of the early 1890s, it was a mainstay of the Reefton Goldfields and was a spectacular producer in 1907-17 when most of the old established mines had closed or were in decline.

After its closure the mine and its associated sites were reclaimed by the bush. Scrappers took out much of the portable remains but a considerable amount still remained in situ when the New Zealand Forest Service assumed responsibility for the various sites. Since the early 1980s, under the Forest Service and from 1987 the Department of Conservation, a range of conservation interventions have taken place at the site. In 1982 and again in 2007, the bracing of the poppet head was replaced, though retaining the original legs and sheave wheel supports (at least from 1895). In 1999-2000 the winding engine house was reconstructed, using materials and a design based closely on photographs of the original building. The construction of a new channel for drainage to the east of the winding engine house allowed, concurrently, an archaeological investigation of that part of the site. In 2007, the semi-portable Robey engine at the sawmill site was restored. All major sites have been signposted and tracks have been cleared to them.

The following is further specific historical information about groups of features at the site:

No 1 ADIT:

Situated approximately 10 metres to the west of the winding engine house, the No 1 Adit was the main entrance to the mine for most of its working life. It was a busy thoroughfare with quartz being trucked out and timber trucked in. Truckers pushed out trucks filled with quartz, emptying them in the bins and returning the truck to the layby for the chambermen to refill.

Started in mid-1888 to work the ‘New Find', it was extended later that year to Cosgroves Block, 18 metres north east. This created a dogleg in the tunnel. When the shaft was sunk in 1890 the adit was extended to connect with it making a total length of 200m. An iron tramway was laid in April 1891 from the shaft to the aerial tramway. About half way along the adit there was a small layby where a truck from either direction could be run off the main track to let the other pass.

An earlier, unsuccessful, No. 1 Adit lies east of the engine shed and is barely distinguishable. It was never connected to the main workings.


The poppet head's purpose was to guide the mine cages up and down the shaft. Steel cables (also called ‘wire ropes') from the winding engine drums ran up the hill, over the sheave wheels at the top of the poppet head and down to the cages in the mine.

The first poppet head was erected when the shaft was first sunk in 1890. However it was replaced in 1895 by the current poppet head, when the original water driven winding engine was replaced with a steam driven engine. Originally fully clad in weatherboards, the poppet head stood more than 12 metres high above the mine shaft, with its sheave wheels at the top enclosed in a gabled weatherboard structure with a corrugated iron roof. The mine shaft began at 671 metres above sea level and reached an overall depth of 602 metres incorporating 12 levels by the time the mine closed. At each level the shaft opened into a chamber 3.6 metres wide, 3 metres high and approximately 4 metres in length. From the chamber to the gold-bearing reef were tunnels 2 metres high and 1.8 metres wide. There were two compartments for the cages and a third from below the No 1 Adit that contained a ladder, pipes and cables for compressed air, pumping, telephone and lighting. The cages ran on timber guides to keep them centralised. Over time, a large mullock heap was created out of waste rock from the mine.

Since the mine closed, the weatherboard cladding of the poppet head was removed and the corrugated iron roofing has gone - a section of it blew into a gully north-east of the poppet head. Rotted remains of the shaft guides and original timber bracing were removed during restoration by the New Zealand Forest Service in 1982, and further restoration work was undertaken by the Department of Conservation in 2007.


The engine (winder) house was the control centre for operations in the mine shaft. The steam powered winding engine lowered men and equipment into the mine and raised the gold-bearing quartz rock that was blasted from the reefs below the surface. Wire cables from the winding drums went up the hill to the sheave wheels at the top of the poppet head and down into the shaft. This particular arrangement differs from many other mine sites.

The first winding plant commissioned in 1891 was a reversible overshot water-wheel, 10.8 metres in diameter. It proved too slow for the lower levels soon to be worked so in 1894 a redundant Robey semi-portable steam engine was bought from the Fiery Cross Company and a new site prepared east of the No 1 Adit. Timber trestles were installed to guide the cables to the poppet head. Ultimately this winder could not work below 400m so the entire winder was replaced in mid-1908 by a new unit built by the Dispatch Foundry, in Greymouth. It was the first winder at Big River to have a clutch enabling the cages to be worked independently of one another. Big River's last winder was ordered in 1911 and was the ‘best of British' design - a Robey type EB coupled directing winding engine with two 500mm diameter cylinders of 900mm stroke. It could work to a depth of 900 metres. The winder was bought direct from the manufacturer, Robey and Co. of Lincoln, England for £1,778 while the cables cost another £323.

An early boiler on the site was replaced in 1912-13 by a boiler by Babcock & Wilcox Scotland, supplied by John Chambers and Son of Wellington for £1,198. A four-sided brick structure, it was reinforced by upright steel members with the furnace, water and heaters located below two very large twin boilers. Ancillary equipment included a Tangye feed pump and patent water heater. The boiler was of the fire tube type with a working pressure of 830 kPa and a rating of 137 kW. The standard Babcock and Wilcox boiler was half the size with just the single boiler. The steam boiler provided power for the winding engine and compressors and hot water for the mine bathhouse.

The boiler used the principle of hot water rising using a thermo-siphon technique. Water tubes were set at an angle above a coal fired furnace. As the water became heated to boiling point it rose and circulated to be evaporated into steam in a steam and water drum. The top part of the tall furnace chimney fell in the 1929 Murchison earthquake but the plant seemed to operate sufficiently without it.

At the opposite end of the engine house from the winding room was the Compressor and Generator room. It had an Ingersoll-Rand horizontal double-acting compressor, rock borer, generator and other power generating equipment.

In 1999-2000, the Department of Conservation reconstructed the winding engine house. Built of corrugated iron and timber, the design of the winding engine house is based on photographs of the original, although the building is not as long as it was originally - the compressor foundations stand on the north side, now outside the building. The new building serves a dual purpose of providing shelter for the remains of the winding plant and of providing an understanding of the original winding engine house, as it is more or less a reconstruction.

Timber cables trestles probably date from the first of the steam winding plants. The trestles guided the cable to the poppet head.


The aerial ropeway (or quartz aerial) carried uncrushed ore that emerged from the No. 1 Adit and was loaded into buckets at the top of the terminus of the aerial and transported to the battery nearly one kilometre away.

Designed by Reefton Engineer, W.E. Gardner, the aerial tramway that transported the quartz down to the battery was supposed to operate on the Otto principle - the loaded buckets going down would pull the empties back up. However, it always required further motive power, initially by horse and later, in 1920 by a Tangye 5x7 vertical compressor and air engine. Components were made by Andersons and Sons of Christchurch and the 1,900m steel rope (cable) came from England.


The battery, its power source and attendant extraction and smelting facilities were integral parts of the Big River mine. The stamper battery crushed quartz rock, transported via the aerial ropeway, to obtain the gold it contained. The battery was housed inside a large corrugated iron and building. A Pelton water wheel drove the battery and associated equipment.

The Battery had been bought from the Golden Point claim and re-erected at Big River in 1886. The battery was originally housed in a complex which included gold extraction machinery. This building was largely replaced in 1915 when the stamper boxes of the battery were renewed, requiring the demolition of much of the building to gain access to them. Extraction equipment, such as blanket tables, berdan dishes and amalgamating plates were replaced at intervals.

The battery house was largely demolished in the 1950s or 1960s.


The process of gold extraction using cyanide was developed in the 1880s and widely used in New Zealand. However, typical of other Reefton mines, Big River Quartz Mine did not introduce it to their operations until the late 1890s. It supplemented the gold smelting operations. With the cyanide process, ore was ground as finely as possible in the battery to form a sand and then mixed with a solution of cyanide to dissolve the gold. The gold and cyanide solution was allowed to trickle through a porous mass of zinc, which acted as a chemical filter and collected the gold.

The first cyanide plant at Big River was installed in 1897 but this was replaced or extended in 1908 when the Big River Company bought the Sir Francis Drake Company's (Merrijigs) cyanide plant.

The Sir Francis Drake plant consisted of three leaching vats, 7 metres in diameter and 1.35 metres deep, and two 3.6 metre by 1.2 metre sumps, which held the potassium cyanide. The three vats were apparently converted to four smaller ones and may have incorporated some of the vats from the earlier plant. The plant also consisted of a boxed race which brought the sands from the battery, a bucket conveyor which loaded it into the plant and zinc boxes, wooden boxes filled with zinc wool of shavings that brought the gold-potassium cyanide solution back to a solid. The lot was housed in a shed which also incorporated equipment to clean the gold prior to its smelting.


Completed in 1914 the No 2 Adit was used for taking timber and coal into the mine until the 1930s. Between 1914 and a temporary shutdown in 1927, coal was also trucked from the No. 2 extension and hauled up the shaft to exit at the No. 1 Adit. The No. 2 Adit was kept open after the 1930s as an escape route for the rest of the mine's life.

Near the No. 2 Adit there was a stable for horses. It was situated near the No. 2 Adit on the side where the tram went to the sawmill.


The sawmill enabled the mine to line the shafts of both its gold and coal mines without having to go to the expense of bringing it in from Reefton. The mill also provided rough sawn timber for building purposes. The mill operated from approximately 1914 to 1926. When first assembled the sawmill consisted of the semi-portable Robey ‘underslung' steam engine and its Dispatch-built winding frame from the mine, a breaking down saw and breast bench, all housed under a open pitched roofed structure. The Robey engine had been purchased second hand in 1894-95 from the Fiery Cross Company and, until it was relocated to the saw mill site, it had functioned as the winder engine for the mine. Several sawmill workers' huts were located nearby.


Installation of the new winding plant in 1912-13 meant that a good coal supply was essential. Coal mine adits and shafts were opened over the years from 1914. Coal production, which averaged over 1000 tons per annum, saved the company a great deal of expense in the post World War One years. The coal mine is in fact some five separate workings spread along the tramline.

The coal tramway was part of the system to transport timber and coal into the mine via the No. 2 Adit located in the Golden Lead Creek basin. The coal and timber tramline started at the winding engine house, travelled along the No. 1 level to the shaft, down the shaft to No. 2 level, along the No. 2 level (which was driven another 1200 ft out to the surface), and from here the tramline followed the Golden Lead creek valley past the sawmill and associated small settlement site to the coal mines. Coal and timber was transported back up through the mine, coal going back up to the winding engine boiler and timber throughout the mine as required, with some timber also going to the carpenters shop near the winding engine house.

The coal tram line and access to the mine shaft was completed in 1914. The 2' gauge steel and timber stretched for more than one mile through the beech forest and went a further 105 chains through the No. 2 Adit to the mine shaft. A single pair of miners worked the coal mines to produce five tonnes per day. The coal was loaded into wooden trucks, and horses would haul the coal up the tramway.


Water was vital for the Big River Quartz Mine operations. There were frequent droughts in late summer and also winter when cold temperatures often froze normal supplies. To regulate water supplies, two dams were built. Big River Dam, first completed in 1888, fed the battery and gold saving equipment while the second, Underwood's Dam, was built in 1892 and supplied firstly the water winder and then the winding plant boiler. The water was fed by an impressive system of races.

The Big River Dam was repaired in 1919 and 1924 but was blown up by vandals in 1963 and is now in a derelict state. The dam was large wooden structure with tiers of squared timber faced with planks and it had a dam gate that controlled the flow of water into Big River. A concrete weir about 1.5 kilometres downstream fed into the race and where necessary, timber fluming which ran a further 900 metres to the steel tank above the battery. The dam was used to supply water to the battery and for up to six months in the event of a drought. The form of the Big River Dam appears to be an engineering curiosity, as it appears to have been based on the timber crib principle at least in the lower part.

Other water supplies included the battery race which, at least until the mid 1890s, lifted water from Murray Creek near the company boarding house and fed it to the tank at the head of the battery Pelton wheel feed pipe. A pair of dams to the south of the winding plant appear to have been built early in the history of the mine to supply water for general purposes, fed by creeks above Big River Dam.


Unlike some mining settlements, Big River never developed into a town proper. Workers and their families lived in houses and huts scattered around the main working areas. There were also at least three boarding houses. The settlement flat area to the east and south of the cyanide plant was formerly the site of a hotel and miners' huts. Only one miner's house (formed out of a relocated miner's hut and an existing cottage) survives on the flat. Now known as Rooney's Hut, it previously belonged to the McMahons, the eastern portion of which had been relocated from its earlier site which was closer to the winding engine house (it was then known as Bone's hut). The company boarding house (later a school house) was to the north, not far from the battery, just off the road to the winding plant.

About a kilometre to the east of the main settlement flat, a short distance from the aerial ropeway, was another collection of dwellings for mine workers and their families. Tin Town was the name given to a row of houses and huts located in this area. At one time, Tin Town had seven timber framed, corrugated iron clad houses, some with corrugated iron chimneys and others with brick ones. After closure of the mine in 1942, they were eventually stripped of their iron and left to collapse.

There are other smaller settlement areas which were the sites of one or more workers' huts. For example, there were several huts between the sawmill and No. 2 Adit site, and further along the tramway. None of these huts survive and for the most part the bush has regenerated. The hut sites are noted on Department of Conservation maps and interpretation signs. Both the Post Office and the School, respectively, appear to have moved around the site from building to building, depending on what was available.

A range of other buildings were situated near to the winding engine house, including a house for the winding plant manager, a blacksmith's shop and a carpenter's shop. The Blacksmith's role was to provide various services including sharpening and tempering picks and rock drill bits and forging specific equipment. The Carpenter's role included ore truck repairs, light engineering, and pipe preparation. The bath house, first built in the 1890s and replaced in c1913. It enabled the men to go home warm, dry and clean after work each day. It also provided families with bathing facilities on Sundays.


In the 1870s provisions for Big River had to be swagged on men's backs a considerable distance. When interest in the place revived in 1881, the Inangahua County Council (with a government subsidy) built a pack track through to Big River. In 1884-5 the pack track was replaced by a road proper.

There were a number of stables at Big River. In 1893 the stables on the settlement flat were replaced. The first motor car was used on the Big River road in 1914, a noted event.

Another road, the so-called ‘north road' was built around the end of World War One - it winds around from the winding plant to the sawmill and coal tram, and was used by drays.

The roads had wide horse benches on hairpin bends to allow lead horses to go right out to the point of the curve and head around on the widest arc. This allowed the last horses and the wagon to be able to negotiate through the tightest part of the curve. Many of the teams comprised up to 15 horses, usually set in pairs, and the wagon.

South of Big River, a pack track to Waiuta was made in three stages over about 20 years from 1892. As it was largely there to provide access for prospectors elsewhere and had little to do with the Big River Quartz Mine, it is not included in this registration.

Physical Description

The Big River Quartz Mine is located in the Victoria Forest Park, in hilly back country the Inangahua Valley amidst bush and surrounded by hills and gullies that were formerly blocks for other mine sites. It is accessed by the Soldiers-Big River Road, the extent of registration of which includes that road from the Alborns Mine Car Park (as marked by a Department of Conservation sign advising that it is 15 kilometres to Big River Quartz Mine and is 4WD from this point only). The road rises and falls in undulating hill country and the road itself is uneven and for the most part its width is suitable for a single vehicle at a time. Although there are a number of historic features near the road along the way towards the Big River Quartz Mine, these are not included in this registration as those features relate to other mines and not the Big River Quartz Mine. The road leads to a flat area (now referred to as Settlement Flat) which is flanked by hills to the east and west. The Big River water course is in fact a relatively small river which runs past the east end of Settlement Flat, between the Cyanide Plant and Battery Stamper area. East of the stream the hill rises to a flat, about one kilometre up the road from the Settlement Flat, where the Winding Plant, No. 1 Adit and other features are situated. The Poppet Head is located about 100 metres up a steep hill immediately to the north-east of the winding engine house and can be seen clearly from the area of that winding plant area. Three aerial photographs included in the Current Photographs section of this report help to show the large scale of the Big River Quartz Mine.

The following brief descriptions of sets of features are set out approximately in the order that a visitor would come across them when visiting the site today:


The cyanide tanks include four at 6.5 metres diameter, one at 5.5 metres diameter, all approximately 1.4 metres deep, and two at 4.2 metres x 1.2 metres. Remnants of filter beds, pieces of pipe and parts of distributors are believed to remain inside the tanks. Beneath the tanks is the drainage system.

Lying on the ground near the tanks are two timber zinc boxes, each approximately 3.2 metres x 510mm with nine compartments.


The only miner's dwelling surviving is at Settlement flat. It comprises a small cottage and one-roomed hut joined together, and is constructed of timber and corrugated iron. Another hut, located close to the cyanide tanks and Department of Conservation interpretation panels, was built in the 1960s or 1970s for use by four-wheel drivers reusing materials salvaged from the mining site. Some foundations and depressions in the ground indicate the location of some of the former accommodation buildings on the flat. Nearby, the site of the company boarding house is identified by a Department of Conservation sign labelled 'school site', as that was its latter function.

All that remains of Tin Town today is four brick double chimneys and piles of rotting timbers and sheets of corrugated iron. Of the four remaining chimneys, three are standing, one is collapsed. They are of simple stretcher bond brick construction.

Little survives of settlement areas near the work places, except for some clearings, remnants of building materials scattered around and other archaeological indicators such as depressions in the ground.


With the loss of the 1915 building and much of the machinery to scrappers, there are only some components of this part of the site left. The stamper boxes remain on their bed logs with shoes, liners and mortars scattered about. The steel pipes and the concrete tank from the water supply are still in place, as is the large steel Pelton wheel. Remnants of the feeder hopper and ore bin floor survive. Nearby, a brick and plastered smelting furnace is largely intact.

A few broken parts of the foundations of the concentrates shed and workshop remain to the north-west of the battery.

AERIAL ROPEWAY, BINS AND ROPEWAY TERMINUS (including wheels, buckets, route, bins (ruins), hand winch & top return wheel):

Only small remnants of the top return wheel, braking system and loading bucket monorail survive. An ore bucket survives in the bush near the road, below the base of a small mullock heap, approximately 20 metres to the south of the winding engine house. Most of the buckets have been removed for scrap and though there are remnants of the ropeway's timber pylons, none are still standing.

Long bolts, the remains of the original water wheel for the first winder, survive in the creek approximately half way between the winding engine house and the battery.

WINDING PLANT (including Winding Engine House, Boiler, Winding engine and Cable Trestles, and Condenser):

The reconstructed winding engine house is a 23 x 12 metre corrugated iron clad structure, with a gable that reaches almost 8 metres. It is constructed of painted corrugated iron, with timber framing and trusses. The windows, similar to the originals, were salvaged from the Addington Railway Workshops, and the building has ventilation dormers at its apex.

The boiler and winding engine retain their key elements, although the winding plant has been stripped of all its brass. The two-drum water tube boiler sits on steel supports with a brick furnace below. Loose bricks lying beside the boiler are stamped 'BRUNNER'.

The condenser shell is currently displayed to the east of the boiler. Concrete foundations situated to the east, outside of the winding engine house, identify the original location of the compressor, generator and generator motor.

The base of the chimney can be seen on the exterior of the north elevation of the winding engine house. Part of the chimney flue can be seen lying on the slope nearby.

The trestles are in a state of collapse. A few upright members are still on site and the rest lie scattered in the steep mullock hill.

No 1 ADIT (NZAA Site Recording Scheme No. L31/3):

The original (unused) No 1 Adit lies roughly 15-20 metres to north-east of the winding engine house and is barely distinguishable. Indications of the location of this original No. 1 Adit were found during the 1999 archaeological excavations carried out by the Department of Conservation, but this original adit site was not relocated during the site visit of January 2008.

The No. 1 Adit that functioned for the life of the mine is currently fenced off for safety reasons. Timber uprights, slightly leaning, remain in situ.


(NZAA Site Number: L31/3):

The poppet head is over 12 metres high with its original heavy Australian ironbark legs, 300mmsq, and recently replaced beech cross-bracing. Bolts are stainless steel, recently inserted to replace iron bolts. An off-centre pair of 1.6 metre diameter sheave or pulley wheels is situated at the top of the poppet head. Remnants of timber ladder rungs and a secondary steel ladder sit at the top south-west corner of the poppet head. A pair of metal mine cages lie on the ground at the base, still sporting their original anti-overwind mechanism and heavy steel thimble. The two-compartment shaft has been grilled over for safety reasons.

Lying on the ground, several metres up a track immediately to the west of the Poppet head, are four discarded pulley wheels. Approximately 10 metres beyond, on the track, are remnants of a metal holding rope or cable.

The large mullock heap is made up of a grey stone scree covering a hill to the north and west of the winding engine house.


To the east of the winding engine house, broken concrete remains of the Bath House lie beneath metal debris. Virtually nothing appears to remain of the Blacksmith Shop, storerooms, Carpentry Shop and Manager's office. These are now either in bush or are adjacent to the area where the channel was dug in 1999-2000.

No 2 ADIT (Golden Lead Creek Adit):

The No. 2 Adit portal has now collapsed. Apart from rusty metal remnants and discoloured water (GPS E 2420160 N 5884350), very little remains of the No. 2 Adit.


There are various adit and winze sites dotted around the Big River Quartz Mine site in various states of repair. An adit that was driven on the western line of reef in 1888 is open beside the mine road, on the north side, before the final climb to the winding engine house. Nearby, just below the road, are other collapsed adits. On the hill to the east, behind the winding engine house, is another open adit which is probably the 75 metre tunnel driven by the Big River Extended, Prima Donna and Alexandra Companies in 1887 prospecting along their mutual boundary.

SAWMILL SITE (including semi-portable Robey winding engine) (NZAA Site Recording Scheme No. L31/5 sawmill):

Situated in a clearing in the bush at GPS E 2420222 N 5884418, the recently restored semi-portable 'underslung' two-cylinder steam engine by Robey & Co, UK, remains in situ at the sawmill. A reproduction steel plate was recently installed on the Robey in place of original brass plate and its timber foundations were recently replaced. Most metal mill components are intact, except the blades. Timber components have largely collapsed, although the Dispatch winder frame has been restored.

Nearby, at GPS E2420081, N 5884247, not on a direct track, is the last heap of laths cut for the mine. They are now covered in moss.

COAL MINE ADITS, SHAFTS AND COAL MINE TRAMWAY (NZAA Archaeological Site Recording Scheme No. L31/6 coalmine and tram):

The near-level tramway runs for 2.1 kilometres through forest. A settlement clearing with rubbish dump is situated off the tramway (GPS E2420321 N 5885015). The coal mine tramway has relics such as collapsed bins, skips and a ventilator alongside or near it. Parts of the tramway proper, including timber sleepers, timber and steel rails, and bridges can still be seen, while the tramway formation remains well defined and in good condition. Various moveable features are located on or nearby the tramway site, such as bracing for a timber trolley which has a tree trunk growing through it. Some of the coal mine adits, their associated shafts can still be located.


Remnants of timber and earth dams of varying sizes and designs survive at Big River. A considerable amount of the Big River Dam and Race superstructure remains in place, some three kilometres upstream from the battery. The remains of the concrete weir, race and timber fluming are still visible.

Underwood's Dam, situated about 300 metres south-east of Tin Town, has earth headworks, formed by the excavation of a small gully, and a partly intact control gate. The outlet race, largely an excavated ditch, is well defined up to the wooden tank near the aerial. Much of the former race to the water winder is also visible.


The Big River Road starts at the point where there is a DOC sign stating that it is four-wheel drive for the next 15 kilometres to reach Big River. Large logs that formed the corduroy base in parts are still visible along parts of the road.

The North Road (GPS E 2419720 N 5884527) can be accessed off the track behind the poppet head. The road has at least one wide horseshoe bend that was constructed to ease the gradient for the dray.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1884 - 1885
Big River Road

1886 -
Battery brought from Golden Point and re-erected

1886 -
Aerial Ropeway and other machinery installed

Original Construction
1888 -
No. 1 Adit

1888 -
Big River Dam and Race

1888 -

1890 -
Shaft sunk and western adit extended to meet it, first poppet head erected

1892 -
Pelton wheel

1892 -
Underwood's Dam

1895 -
Introduction of Robey under-slung steam engine to replace water winder

1895 -
Realignment of poppet head

1897 -
First cyanide treatment plant

1912 - 1913
Large Robey steam winder, boiler, generator and compressor

Original Construction
1914 -
Sawmill established at Golden Lead Creek

1914 -
First of the coalmines opened up

1914 -
No. 2 Adit driven to surface to meet up with the coal and timber tramline

1918 -
North Road

1922 -
Shaft sunk to 602m at No. 12 level

1960 -
Scrapping of buildings and equipment begins.

1982 -
Cross bracing of poppet head replaced

2000 -
New Winding Engine House

2006 -
Robey semi-portable engine restored and new foundations built

2007 -
Cross bracing of poppet head again replaced, bolts replaced.

Construction Details

Construction Professionals:

Boiler by Babcock & Wilcox, Scotland, United Kingdom

Steam Engines by Robey & Co, Lincoln, England

Brick and concrete work by David Panckhurst, Reefton

Aerial ropeway components by Andersons and Sons Foundry, Christchurch (designed by W E Gardner, Reefton)

Pelton waterwheel - Dispatch Foundry, Greymouth or Andersons and Sons Foundry, Christchurch

Battery mortar boxes by Dispatch Foundry, Greymouth

Battery gearing possibly by Dispatch Foundry, Greymouth


Steel, iron, timber, concrete, glass, mullock is discarded rock.

Completion Date

10th June 2008

Report Written By

Robyn Burgess

Information Sources

Department of Conservation

Department of Conservation

McGovern-Wilson, R, Globe Hill Archaeological Survey, prepared for Macraes Mining Company, 1992.

Reg Nichol and Kevin L Jones, Archaeological excavations at Big River quartz mine, Victoria Forest Park, West Coast, New Zealand, Conservation Advisory Science Notes No 289, Department of Conservation, Wellington, 2000.

Latham, 1984

Darryl Latham, The Golden Reefs: An Account of the Great Days of Quartz Mining at Reefton, Waiuta and the Lyell, Pegasus Press, Christchurch 1984.

Mahoney, 1982

P Mahoney [pseudonym Bungi], Big River; National Measured Drawing Competition, New Zealand Forest Service, Hokitika, 1982.

New Zealand Historic Places

New Zealand Historic Places

Wright, Les, 'Big River Mine', January 1995, 26-27.

Nolan, 1981

Tony Nolan, Gold Trails of the West Coast, A H & A W Reed, Wellington, revised edition 1981.

Smith, 2001

Nigel Smith, Heritage of Industry: Discovering New Zealand's Industrial History, Auckland, 2001

Thornton, 1982

Geoffrey G. Thornton, New Zealand's Industrial Heritage, A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1982

Wright, 1993

Les Wright, Big River Quartz Mine: A Worthwhile Speculation, Friends of Waiuta Inc, Invercargill, 1993.

Wilson, 1987

J. Wilson (ed.), The Past Today - Historic Places in New Zealand, Pacific Publishers, Auckland, 1987

Other Information

A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Southern region 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.