Nevis Road, Robertson Road, Schoolhouse Flat, Nevis Crossing, Craigroy, Ben Nevis, Lower Nevis Valley
Ngai Tahu has a long association with Central Otago and its rivers. Te Runanga o Otakou considers the Nevis holds many values for Otakou including kaitiakitanga, mauri, waahi tapu, waahi taoka and traditional trails. The traditional name for the Nevis River is Te Papapuni. Maori trails in the South Island high country provided significant social and economic links. These trails tended to follow valleys. Occupation sites recorded show that Maori butchered moa in the vicinity of Schoolhouse Creek, with remains of a camp site and moa butchering site nearby dating from around the fourteenth century. This site is thought to have been a large one, where as many as 2000 moa may have been butchered. The importance of the Nevis to iwi is illustrated by its inclusion in the Otago Regional Plan Water 2004.
Reko (c1803-1868) led pastoralist Nathanael Chalmers from the Mataura River to the Nokomai and into the Nevis River in 1853, the first European to see the remote valley. Reko, who had lived near Kaiapoi, and who had shifted close to Tuturau in Southland, had a detailed knowledge of the interior, drawing maps for visitors. He became a well known guide.
The first pastoral stations in the Nevis Valley were (from north to south) the Kawarau, Hawksburn and Lorn Peak Runs. W.S. Trotter took up the neighbouring Rockyside Run in the Upper Nevis in 1859, running sheep from Moeraki, through the Maniototo and over the Carrick Range, through the Lower Nevis Valley. Historian James Herries Beattie recounts that getting over the Carrick Range was no mean feat and was an arduous job even in good weather.
J. Paterson and Company took up the Hawksburn Run which took up most of the Lower Nevis basin in 1859. In 1871 when Graham and Walton leased the land there were 12,000 sheep on the run. Kawarau Station took up the remainder of the valley. In 1890 the Australian and New Zealand Land Company, leaseholders of the Kawarau Run, acquired the Hawksburn Run.
After discovering gold at Nokomai, near the southern tip of Lake Wakatipu, miners made their way back to the Dunstan via the Nevis Valley finding gold in its headwaters in October 1862. By November 1862 newspapers were reporting a rush at the head of the valley, the middle gorge and the lower valley. By autumn 1863 the Nevis field had prospered and a small town developed, and social networks and sites formed, including 'The Grandstand' where races were held. The first township site (occupied up until sometime before 1865) was on the eastern bank of Commissioner's Creek close to 'Camp Terrace' and the Warden's Camp itself. Opposite the town and at the mouth of the gorge were terraces worked for gold. Thirty claims were working, some with very good returns, Kelly and party, for example returned £400 per man for six weeks' work.
The first Nevis Township provided services for the some 1500 miners. In 1862 the ‘brisk little place' contained 60 thriving businesses running in a line along a ‘street'. The remote location influenced the construction of the town; the narrator described the tendency of the buildings to be diminutive because of the high cost of freight. Freight costs and the lack of timber meant that the local stone was used for walls, seats, benches and counter tops. Many of the businesses and residences would have been under canvas, perhaps with sod or stone walls, with a canvas roof. The primitive facilities extended to the Warden's Camp which was only a canvas tent, with no provision for security, not even a safe and no resident police (the nearest police station being Clyde). Scarce building materials meant high value was placed on timber: one storekeeper arrived back to his 30 by 20 foot timber framed premises to find that the building in its entirety had been removed.
North of Lower Nevis Township the next sets of workings were at ‘Stonewall Jackson Gully' and ‘Stuart's Gully.' Further to the north there were workings known as ‘Sherwoods, Ryder, Flemings and Coal Gullies.'
The landscape of the lower valley was noted:
‘there is a large flat, seven miles long by about three wide, terminating on either end by a gorge.This is a remarkably fine valley; the soil is a rich black loam and of great fertility. It is bounded on one side by the lofty Remarkables, and on the other by the Carricks, and presents a most romantic appearance. Terraces running from the foot of the ranges skirt the river on either side, some of which have been wrought with considerable profit.'
Isolated residences were dotted along the Nevis River heading south, serving the miners working the rich gullies. One was Stuart's Store, one of the ‘oldest establishments' in the Nevis. Proprietor John Stuart provided a refuge from the dangerously inclement weather. An incident in August 1863 illustrates the harshness of the winters and the dangers even for settled miners. At the Nevis in a gully opposite Stuart's store were ‘two lone huts exposed to the full fury of the snow drift; in one of these huts were three diggers, in the other two; the inhabitants of the former finding their dwelling place enveloped in snow, escaped by means of the chimney, and had to roll themselves down a steep declivity to escape. Of the two dwellers in the other hut, they saw nothing, and could not make them hear, and when taking a last look at the deserted dwelling, nothing more could be seen but a small portion of the top of the chimney, not bigger than a roan's head.'
The township moved: Warden Carew was calling it the ‘new township' in 1865. Carew described the new site as a ‘low terrace' poorly sited as the ground was ‘wet and swampy.'
Warden's reports emphasised the cold. The warden wrote in 1865: ‘the Nevis is so isolated and remote from every centre of population that it is just beginning to be discovered. This cold, sequestered, and ice-bound region, hemmed in on all sides except where it opens to the Kawarau will probably never attract a very large population. It will be storehouse of wealth to the hardy adventurers who are prepared to brave its inclement climate.' The population of the second township reached a peak in 1866, declining afterwards, with only fifteen to twenty families becoming settled residents of the valley.
Goldfield's Commissioner Vincent Pyke (1827-1894) recalled the primitive existence at the Nevis holding his hearing at Commissioner's Creek: ‘There was no building to hold court in, only a tent of single calico. This, when I entered it, and got in a table and a chair, seemed at least clean, for the earthen floor was hard frozen, and a kindly Irishman brought a bullock hide from my chair to rest on. All went well, though coldly enough, until the people who quickly filled the little tent to suffocation had been a little while in the place. Then the ground began to thaw and the clean floor became noisome, filthy mud; the hard, stiff bullock hide became soft and flabby to say nothing of its stinking, and the legs of my chair sinking down into the swamp I had great difficulty in keeping my position. Not a bit of board was to be had to put under the chair and I had to manage the best way I could be frequently shifting the chair.'
Needless to say Pyke considered the ‘most interesting and least known' mining district one where the lives of the miners was ‘a very hard and desolate one.'
The first gold workings in the valley were paddocking (digging a pit down to the gold bearing layer and working the spoil from the pit) and cradling close to the Nevis River. Ground sluicing had begun by 1864. Ground sluicing involved the use of running water played over a working face to break down gold-bearing earth. The gold was recovered in a sluice box (an open-ended wooden structure with riffles running across it covered with coarse matting. Mining spoil was washed through the box and the heavy gold stuck in the matting). Early sluicing involved diversion of water from riverbeds (with associated tunneling, cuttings or wing dams to divert the stream). Mining on river terraces saw water from higher elevations directed at the face of the excavation to separate gold from soil and rocks. Warden E.H. Carew wrote that the Nevis goldfield was ‘remarkable for its steady yield of good wages than for rich patches.'
The gold workings changed the landscape. In 1865 the workings stripped about 12 feet (3.6m), the depth of wash dirt being three or four feet (1-1.2m). The ground was drained by ‘several deep tail races' cut to intersect the claims. Mining debris made already difficult travel even more challenging: ‘The track is along a level grassy flat, intersected with numerous water courses running down from the Remarkables. These streams are rapidly covering a large extent of ground with sludge, brought by the tail-water from the sluicing claims on the terraces, a little distance to the right of the roadway. In time this sludge nuisance promises to be something considerable. The ground which is being covered up is doubtless highly auriferous, and is sure to be worked at some future time. Another thing - if not stopped or diverted into a channel, cut for the purpose, this tail-water by spreading over a large surface, will speedily convert the flat into a vast quagmire, and in all probability stop traffic.'
The 1866 mining surveyor John Drummond reported on the population and activities: 243 people were engaged in sluicing, with a further 17 involved in ground sluicing; Thirteen people were involved in storekeeping; five in keeping public houses; three in packing (that is carting goods), and 28 in other employment. There were 130 sluice boxes in use, 5 waterwheels, 30 pumps, and water races totalling 87 miles.
In the late 1860s hydraulic sluicing was introduced. Water at high pressure was directed through nozzles to break down banks of earth. Water was brought to the claim, often from some distance, to a point above the workings. It was piped down to the nozzles, with the fall providing the water pressure. Hydraulic sluicing, in common with other mining methods, formed an integrated system of workings, with races, dams, working faces and tail races, and associated huts.
Around this period, proposals made since the mid 1860s by Otago business interests to bring in cheap Chinese labour were realised. Miners at Nevis and Bannockburn had organised a petition protesting against the project but after some initial hostility, relations settled down. In 1868 the Dunstan Times recorded that: ‘some months past a considerable portion of the European population evinced a most selfish and unwarranted antipathy towards the Chinese who fist ventured to earn their living in that district but nearly all the ungenerous-minded miners have left and the sensible men who have remained are treating the Chinese with all the courtesy necessary to make the strangers feel at ease. The European miners are doing sufficiently well to make them feel perfectly satisfied with their lot.'
In 1868 the Otago Witness reported: ‘The number of Chinese at the Nevis is very considerable and has led to the formation of a Chinese camp. Several stores, a couple of butchers' shops and a blacksmith's forge have been started supplying John.' By 1869 around 300 Chinese miners were living in the Nevis. There were more Chinese miners than Europeans on the Nevis goldfield during some periods. The Chinese population remained steady through the 1870s, but declined in the 1880s, dropping to around 50 in 1880, and less than half that in the early 1890s. Some of the Chinese mining claims can be identified through survey information. SO 1941 shows the location of two such claims in 1889, although clearly Chinese mining was far more extensive than this. Former resident and historian Gavine McLean, who talked with old residents, writes that 500 Chinese miners camped on ‘Chair Flat' by Commissioner's Creek.
The isolation and the cold led to the Nevis Valley having a certain infamy. A reporter visiting the Nevis in 1872 gave a lively description of his easy descent into hell. His gentle 3000 ft climb over the facetiously named ‘low saddle' raised his ire. The hotelkeeper he met at Nevis Crossing gives an interesting image of a goldfield's store: ‘We found a long spare bilious melancholic man, behind the counter, wearing a large red night cap surrounded by all the heterogeneous mixings of an up-country store: soap, sardines, gum boots, castor oil, Crimean shirts, sluice forks, and similar ingredients for comessation.'
The writer then turned his attention to the budding Nevis township itself ‘not afflicted with mayors or policemen, priests or paupers, having neither a gaol nor a church, the Nevis can only be considered a settlement in embryo.' He continued his description: ‘It is a dual town. It contains two houses - no more. They are both hotels, stores and butchers shops. They appear to have been built and furnished from all the job lots and deceased effects in New Zealand. You enter one door and see Dr--- will see his patients from 10 to 4; another that you are entering the Bank of New South Wales; while one butcher's shop is, I am informed, the remains of some old Methodist chapel. All the sardine and kerosene tins in the Colony one would imagine had been collected to cover it in - and such a dismembered arrangement in the way of habitations is a hard thing to be found.'
A topographical survey shows the general layout of the Lower Nevis and Nevis Crossing in 1881. The road to Cromwell descends the Carrick Range on the east, reaching the cluster of buildings at Nevis Crossing. The Nevis River is bridged there; with two bridge reserves surveyed (the more southern one has a bridge across the river). Here the track branches, to the north the bridle track to Gibbston heads over the hills, and the Nevis Road continues south. On the west of the Nevis River the road passes isolated huts alongside the road. There is a shepherd's hut up the Nevis Burn alongside the bridle track to Gibbston. On the slopes of the Hector Mountains there are workings and huts at the headwaters of a stream. Travelling south there is a cemetery on the east of the road, a cluster of huts and houses and then the township at Lower Nevis. Two water races run alongside Commissioner's Creek.
Though returns declined in the 1880s, towards the end of the century hydraulic elevating and dredging marked the resurgence of mining. Hydraulic elevating involved the raising of the gravels from a low level, to a higher level using water under high pressure. The hydraulic elevator piped water via a delivery pipe into a pit where the gravel and water from sluicing had collected. High pressure water sucked the slurry into the pipe and pushed it upwards. The slurry was raised, often above ground level to sluicing boxes, where the tailings could be disposed of. Tail races were constructed to dispose of the debris. By the 1890s these elevators were raising material up to 150 feet (46m, in stages) or up to 90 feet (27m) in a single lift.
Hydraulic elevating began in the 1890s and continued for the next fifty years. New water sources were brought in to provide the additional water required for elevating. Several groups, including the Adies had elevators working by 1892. An 1898 map shows the claims in the area at that time: major claims included Our Mutual Friend (covering 15 acres), Keep-it-dark, and Rip and Tear, and the claim run by the McLean brothers.
While coal had been mined in the Lower Nevis as far back as 1863 (with Patrick O'Brien operating as a coal merchant for the township in the 1880s, and Sam Clark at Nevis Crossing) it was with the dredging boom that the coal attained its true significance, supplying the dredges at an economical rate. Three pits are shown on an 1880 sketch plan: one by Nevis Crossing, one at Schoolhouse Creek and the other at Coal Creek. Coal was ‘quarried out' and a dray backed into the quarry, loaded, and for it to discharge its load into the bunkers of the dredge. Any outcrops accessible by dray were exploited to supply dredges into the 1930s.
Dredging occurred alongside hydraulic elevating. In Central Otago the first indication of the dredging boom was in 1889 with the pegging off of claims along rivers and streams. The renewed gold fever provided hope in the economically depressed late 1880s. Dunedin capitalists provided capital for the dredging companies.
The dredging prospects in the Nevis were discussed hopefully in 1894 with correspondent William Watson writing ‘we have the Nevis Valley, a wide flat with abundance of coal everywhere. Tons of gold have come from the Nevis by the wingdam method of working, and there is a wide field there yet for dredging.' In mid 1896 parties of miners put together dredging claims with dredging plants ordered and likely to be delivered during the summer period from Garston when road conditions made delivery possible. In January 1897 a number of dredges were under construction and that the locals were anticipating the ‘great things.'
By 1897 the first dredges were operating, and while they had the advantage of cheap readily available coal, the remoteness of the valley and the associated expensive transport did limit dredging operations. The valley itself also limited the dredging as there was only room for three claims and though there was more ground, it was questionable whether it would pay or was dredge able. In 1899 there was still optimism that the Nevis was a dredging field with a ‘bright future before it.'
By 1899 the length of the Nevis Valley from Nevis Crossing to the Sugar Loaves in the Upper Nevis was pegged out for dredging claims. Dredging was the predominant industry from the 1890s with eight dredges operating and was important within the community as a provider of employment. Most dredges employed six men and a dredge master. In 1896 Williamson and Lawrence applied for 50 acres at Lower Nevis for the Eldorado Gold Dredging Company; Henry Schumann for 50 acres for the Lower Nevis Dredging Company, as well as Mrs Silk's Nevis Dredge. Six dredges were still operating in 1902. By the end of World War One dredging had declined in Otago generally, and this trend was reflected in the Nevis. Dredging continued in the Nevis into the 1940s, and with few dredges surviving the 1920s, this made the Nevis remarkable in its continuity of mining.
Survey plans show the locations of a number of dredge claims: Ngapara No. 2 Company (1897), the Nevis Gold Dredging Company (1902), The Crewe Gold Dredging Company (1910), the Lower Nevis Gold Dredging Company (1914), the Nevis Crossing Gold Dredging Company (1915), and the claim of Sydney Charles Fache (1936). As companies folded and were re-born, dredges were renamed and reused so the history of dredging is complicated.
The difficulty of transporting dredging equipment highlighted the importance of communications in the Nevis. To run a dredge in the Nevis was a huge undertaking as the already steep climb over the Carrick Range could be fatal for the horses pulling the heavy dredging equipment. Old residents recalled that the road to the Nevis was ‘strewn with the whitening bones of faithful horses.'
Residents were dependent on the road and harsh conditions meant that they could be cut off. In August 1903 after an unexpectedly fast thaw a build up of foot thick ice that joined the flow of the Nevis River carried away ‘the foot and pack bridge' over the river at Nevis Crossing. There was no boat or chair which could provide a means of crossing, and foot and even wheeled traffic was considered risky. By 1904 a ‘sheep bridge' was the only means of crossing the Nevis, and this had to removed to allow the rock on which it was built to be blasted away to form piers for a new bridge. This left pedestrians ‘after crossing the Nevis Range, to have to wade through the cold waters of the Nevis almost up to the waist.'
In such an isolated community communication was vital. Hamel notes that the strength of the community ties was such that by 1900 nearly every house was connected by a party-line telephone system. Old house sites are marked by lone telephone poles, and the line over Duffers Saddle constructed in the late 1890s is visible in places.
Underlying the miners' residency in the Nevis was the right to occupy land, which linked to wider government land reforms. By the beginning of the twentieth century the land reforms encouraged the break-up of large runs. Gold mining communities were quick to take up these opportunities. Leaseholders were generally able to freehold their land by 1912.
Gold mining historian John Salmon notes that William Adie at the Nevis was one pioneer gold miner who took up land and became a ‘prosperous smallholder.' Other residents on less formal tenure, such as Mrs Korll at Nevis Crossing, were able (after a long battle) to obtain leases of land they had long occupied. Mrs Korll had fenced in and cultivated a piece of ground at Nevis Crossing for a period of thirty years, and her leasing her homestead had been ‘strenuously opposed' by the ‘local squatters.' The buildings and fences were erected at a time when materials had been expensive, and locals considered it an injustice that she had been subjected to such treatment.
Nevis locals were keen to support the subdivision which they hoped would lead to the ability to set aside 50 acre sections which would allow landowners to keep cows or horse without being at the mercy of runholders, and to establish small dairy farms which would mean that isolated settlers would not have to pay for the cartage of milk and the like over the mountain ranges. An old resident William Masters wrote to the Otago Land Board suggesting that areas be reserved on the Kawarau runs for future settlement. The Board resolved that a block of about 500 acres be set aside for ‘small settlement' on the east side of the Nevis River opposite Lower Nevis Township. The vast Kawarau Run was subdivided in 1909 and the smaller leases sold, with Runs 345A, 345B, Craigroy and Carrick dating from this period, with the ‘break up' homesteads and out buildings probably dating from this period. In the Nevis basin small sections (78-95 acres) were surveyed off on the east side of the Nevis River alongside Robertson's Road, with William Robertson himself a noted as an owner on the survey plan.
By 1920 the Lands Department had made it clear that all Nevis residents could run two cows, two calves (up to a year old) and a horse on the pastoral run for free (any other stock had to be negotiated with the leaseholder), and that all the land the residents had fenced into ‘paddocks' was ‘safe.'
Mining declined in the 1920s. One bright hope was the Upper Nevis Gold Dredging Company formed in 1926, managed by Sydney Charles Fache. With a declining population and the school and store struggling, this venture seemed like a panacea. It was a failure. Gavine McLean writes that the collapse ‘spelt disaster to the small community, of the dredge settlement, and the lower township.'
Mining did continue into the 1930s. Sydney Charles Fache, employing ten men, ran the Nevis Crossing Dredge up until his death around 1939. In addition the Depression facilitated a revival of mining through subsidised schemes, and other groups joined the established miners, working over earlier tailings. The McLean brothers worked the former hotel site in Lower Nevis Township hydraulic elevating with 250 feet (76m) of head. Johnson and Williams sluiced with two nozzles. The Nevis Sluicing Claims Ltd, with J.W. Johnston managing the claim, employed six men, working on the high left terrace on Schoolhouse Creek.
The Unemployment Board set up a camp in the Nevis for unemployed men, and parties continued to work the Nevis throughout the 1930s. The scheme was established in 1932 by the Department of Labour, and small parties of prospectors worked in many parts of the southern gold mining district. Six or eight camps for men were set up in Otago, one of these being the Lower Nevis. No great discoveries were made by the subsidised mining in the Vincent County scheme, but many areas were prospected and tested. Hamel considers that these twentieth century sites have ‘considerable historic value', showing the ‘continuity of tradition of mining life.'
Gavine McLean, a school teacher at Nevis School in the 1920s, writes of the lives of miners. Their homes were ‘small and quite well-built with four rooms, no bathroom, an outside toilet and often additional bedrooms with inferior studs and finish, being added as the family grew in number.' She considered that most Nevis houses had been erected ‘towards the end of the nineteenth century.' Laundry was done outside in an outdoor copper. Furniture was simple and heating was provided by an old stove which stood in an alcove. ‘Cow chips' supplemented the coal as fuel, and miners working on peat bogs dried peat and used that for fuel.
Small scale mining continued into the 1950s close to Nevis township: F. McLean, for example was still running the elevator near Cline's cottage at the close of the 1940s and another McLean family member was sluicing in the ‘badlands' area into the mid 1950s. Hamel writes that there is ‘a strong continuity of workings at the township for sixty years from 1891 to the 1950s.
As the population declined throughout the mid twentieth century, so did the services in the valley. When the hotel lost its license in the early 1950s the town ‘died completely.' The only remaining inhabitants were those who lived on the two sheep stations.
In the 1950s there was still hope that the Nevis might once again have a golden future, when the prospects of the shale oil industry focused on the lignite deposits in the valley. Samples of the oil bearing shale were sent to the United States by the Otago Development Council. Issues of isolation and the hazards of traversing ‘the highest road in New Zealand' were seen as potential barriers to the exploitation of the shale oil. The Otago Development Council hoped that with open-cast mining the shale might be mined economically and provide the nucleus for ‘an indigenous oil industry.' These hopes have not been fulfilled.
In the later years of the twentieth century there has been low key mining in the Lower Nevis Valley.
In the 1990s Pioneer Generation Ltd, a company owned by Central Lakes Trust began an investigation into the feasibility of a hydro scheme on the Nevis River, which would flood a large portion of the river flats in the Lower Nevis Valley.
In June 2008 the Minister for the Environment received an application to amend the Water Conservation (Kawarau) Order 1997, in respect of the Nevis River. The applicant, the New Zealand and Otago Fish & Game Councils, sought to impose a prohibition on damming the river, along with conditions on minimum flows. The application was publicly notified in September 2008, with 248 submissions received, the majority supporting Fish and Game's application. NZHPT submitted in support of the application and appeared at the Special Tribunal Hearing for the Kawarau Water Conservation Order on 3 June 2009.
The continuity in the use of the Lower Nevis continues into the twenty first century. Families with links back to the miners of the 1860s continue to visit the valley, staying in miner's cottages, bringing with them visitors who get to experience the isolation and history of the area.
The Lower Nevis Valley is located 32 kilometres from the Central Otago town of Cromwell. It sits between the Hector Mountains and the Remarkable Range on the west, the Carrick Range on the east, and the Nevis Gorge on the south. Its confined nature, rugged natural beauty, harsh climate and isolation give the Lower Nevis a special aesthetic quality.
The slopes of the Hector Mountains are marked by a number of streams which cut into the mountainside. These include Nevis Burn, Schoolhouse Creek and Commissioners Creek. The Hector Mountains themselves provide a dramatic visual backdrop.
The valley floor is marked by old river terraces and fans. The Lower Nevis has 'distinctive cultural character' which reflects its 'rich cultural history.' The Department of Conservation's Conservation Resources Report describes the cultural landscape on the valley floor created by ‘extensive early gold and coal mining activity.' Workings include tailings, sluicing faces, dredge ponds, races and the like which show the various mining technologies used in the valley. The extensive mine workings in this isolated area give a sense of ‘both remoteness and stepping back in time.' The standing structures, as well as the remnants of buildings at the settlements at Lower Nevis Township and Nevis Crossing, as well as those associated with the pastoral runs (the Ben Nevis and Craigroy farmsteads) provide an insight into the type of settlement in the Lower Nevis Valley and its interrelationship with the activities that took place there.
The Lower Nevis goldfield is a mosaic of all types of workings of all the major periods of historic gold working in Otago from 1863 to the 1930s. Though many of the early workings in the river bed were destroyed by later dredging, the ground sluicings along the edges of the higher terraces of both the Nevis River (Craigroy side and Schoolhouse Flat), along the banks of Schoolhouse Creek and probably those in Scotchman's Creek very likely belong to the 1860 -1880s period. The Otago Goldfields Park website records that ‘[b]ecause of the remoteness of this goldfield, these workings have been left largely untouched, and now provide the best representation of any of the original goldfields in Otago or Southland.' The Nevis Valley mining system is unique in Otago, and Otago's goldfields in their landscape and scale are not represented elsewhere in New Zealand.
There are two isolated occupation sites near the mouth of Schoolhouse Creek - the stone foundations of the first school set halfway between the two townships, and the foundations of a hamlet of earth huts which could have been the dredgemen's quarters. The latter lie in the vicinity of the moa hunter site, just below the road bridge over Schoolhouse Creek. The moa hunting sites have not been relocated and gold mining is likely to have destroyed any physical remains of iwi trails in the Nevis Valley.
A major group of sluice faces lie behind and south of the Lower Nevis Township. The most southern group of faces, worked by Robertson, dates from at least 1891, using the lowest races from Commissioners Creek and one of the great high races of Otago, an 11 kilometre race (built 1893) from the head of Coal Creek on the Garvies Range along the 1400 metre contour. Robertson dropped the water down a gully to carry out hydraulic sluicing on his claim west of the Nevis township. Masters' sluicings were fed by the middle two races from Commissioners Creek. Adies' sluicings were worked by the highest race from Commissioners Creek and smaller races brought in from the north from Schoolhouse Creek. Adies' high race was built about 1891, and they and M McLean continued working behind the township up to the 1950s.
Workings in the Nevis basin run not only up the river but along a fault line at the foot of the western hill slopes. Starting from workings behind the township described above, in the 1930s the Adie family worked some sluice faces where the big races run south out of Schoolhouse Creek. More 1930s workings extend north from the creek and include Johnston's, Sutherland's, and the Unemployed Men's pits, fed by races from both Schoolhouse Creek and Scotchman's Creek. The race complex from Scotchman's Creek had head races from creeks further north including the Nevis Burn.
On the same fault line as the gold workings, there are three or four coal pits in the Nevis Burn and near the Crossing, which supplied coal for household fuel for the miners from the winter of 1863 onwards and were intensively worked at the turn of the century to supply the dredges and other stationery engines.
In the lowest river bed flats, different mining techniques succeeded one another, with dredging predominating at the turn of the century. The ponds and large heaps of tailings left by hydraulic elevating and dredging stretch along the whole of the river flats from The Crossing to the Nevis township, some of the ponds being neatly rectangular. The remains of what was probably the Nevis Crossing dredge lie south of the Schoolhouse Creek confluence.
The boundary includes features which relate to the Maori, pastoral and gold mining remains from all periods of mining. Though dredging destroyed many of the early workings on the valley floor, ground sluicing remains are likely to date from the 1860s-1880s period.
Relationship between Historic Places
The relationship between the historic places within the historic area can be expressed in a number of themes. These themes represent the main types of activity with took place in the Lower Nevis and the surround hills. The themes are: Maori occupation; pastoralism; Mining remains (relating to ground sluicing, hydraulic sluicing and hydraulic elevating, and dredging); settlement (at Nevis Crossing, Lower Nevis Township and at Schoolhouse Creek); and infrastructure (survey, routes and communications). These are described in a general sense below.
All the places included in the Lower Nevis Historic Area are interrelated through their exploitation of resources in the Nevis. For Maori the valley was a source of food, with the moa hunting and settlement sites showing the importance of the resource in the area. For pastoralists the valley was part of the extensive grazing runs typical of Central Otago in the mid nineteenth century. For the miners, resident in the valley from the early 1860s to the 1940s, gold shaped all, with the geological formations and gold deposits shaping the way the Nevis was mined, leaving a unique pattern of settlement, mining remains and races. The isolation of this valley makes these contained systems interrelated, with pastoralists providing supplies for miners, with coal mines producing fuel for homes and dredges, and with the gold returns sustaining all activity.
The Lower Nevis was on a Maori route from Southland through to the inland lakes. This familiarity into the middle of the nineteenth century was made clear to the early Europeans who accompanied their Maori guides through the region, and through the maps of the inland river systems produced by people like Reko. The area was also resource rich, reflected in the significant moa hunting era site located in the vicinity of Schoolhouse Creek.
Pastoralism, with its wide open grazing country, marked by farmsteads, outbuildings, fences and remote huts, left its particular pattern on the landscape. The positioning of the buildings themselves had to, as Hamel puts it, ‘strike a balance between the need for shelter, the working of large flocks of sheep to and from the best grazing on the run, and the connection by road to the nearest town and port.' In addition the relationship of the farmstead, dray tracks form the ‘major archaeological expression of farm settlement in Central Otago in the 1850s and 1860s and belong to a landscape and society wholly different from the present pattern.' In the Lower Nevis this early period of pastoral development is represented by the Ben Nevis Farmstead, relating to the period prior to the break up of large pastoral runs. The Ben Nevis Farmstead is comprised of a homestead, men's quarters, woolshed and other ancillary buildings.
In the 1880s and 1890s Sir John McKenzie's policies facilitated the break up of the large Central Otago runs. After the break up of the runs a new pattern of use and occupation emerged based on the new boundaries. ‘Break up' homesteads were constructed. In the Lower Nevis this period is represented by the Craigroy Farmstead, with its homestead, woolshed and other buildings and structures, at the foot of the Nevis Road close to Nevis Crossing.
The Ben Nevis Conservation Resources Report describes the Lower Nevis goldfield as a ‘mosaic of all types of workings of all the major periods of historic gold working in Otago from 1863 to the 1930s. Though dredging destroyed some of the remains of the early workings around the river bed, on higher ground there are still workings surviving from the 1860s to 1880s period. These mining remains are complex. Archaeologist Jill Hamel, for example, describes the workings in and around Lower Nevis Township as a ‘tangle of races, sluice pits, shafts and tailings. Hillside workings merge with those on flats where early ground sluicings have been buried beneath gravels from later dredging and hydraulic elevating.' She identifies the lower Nevis as one of the ‘great alluvial fields' of Otago associated with hydraulic elevating and dredging. These workings are complex systems rather than discrete places, with elements of those systems used at different periods and developed over time. Claims overlay each other on the land and over time, making identification and chronology a difficult (if not impossible) process.
The approach taken in this report has been to list a claim as a specific historic place where there are surveys which provide a specific claim, person and place where stories about that place can be told. These claims should be considered as representative of the large story represented in the landscape. The remains are far more extensive than can be described in the registration report, and the archaeological record of them is incomplete. The registration report recognises the interrelated nature of these mining systems.
Discussion of the mining remains is divided chronologically: ground sluicing, hydraulic elevating and dredging. This section provides a general description of the kind of remains associated with particular types of mining, with specific stories provided with the historic places included in the area.
Workings which are likely to date from the 1860s-1880s period are located along the edges of the higher terraces of the Nevis River (at the Craigroy side, and at Schoolhouse Flat), on the banks of Schoolhouse Creek and probably those on Scotchman's Creek. Ground sluicing (where small head races were constructed to pick up water from streams and direct it by a canvas hose at river terraces) remains typically are made up of a mining system which shows dams or reservoirs, head races, low sluice faces, tailings and tail races.
Hydraulic Elevating and Hydraulic Sluicing
The mining remains associated with hydraulic sluicing and hydraulic elevating (the key component of which was a vertical pipe with a U-bend at the bottom lying in a pool of water and gold bearing gravel, washed to it along the floor of a sluice pit by a system of pipes; water and gravel was delivered out the top of the pipe into sorting trays where the gold was caught and the gravel washed into a creek or tail race) tend to be more dramatic. The paraphernalia of pipes, nozzles and other items, steep high sluicing faces, high reservoirs, the sluicing pits and the great ‘high races' built to bring in water to provide enough head to support elevation, are typical remains. One such race is Robertson's eleven kilometre long High Race from Coal Creek (dating from 1893), and the races on Commissioners Creek and the Nevis Burn. There are also associated dams and reservoirs. Sluice faces, like those behind the Nevis township are also representative of the kind of workings associated with hydraulic elevating, and these Hamel identifies as a ‘notable site' where ‘hydraulic sluicing was used to good effect.
Workings at Scotchman's Creek show sluicing remains lying below the level of two big races coming out of the Nevis Burn. Workings run almost continuously around this part of the valley to Schoolhouse Creek. There is also an associated pack track which is probably linked to Mailbox Creek workings in south.
Workings at Mailbox Creek are made up of a complex of workings associated with a number of claims of a number of periods: Johnston's, Sutherland/ Murrell's, and the workings associated with the ‘unemployed' from the 1930s. At least two large races run south out of the Nevis Burn for about six kilometres to the workings at head of Mailbox Creek. These are joined by a third race before they reach the workings. The lower race runs into a large reservoir. Three major sets of sluice faces are spread on the hillside for about 1500m. These sluice faces are likely to have been formed in the 1930s. A northern square sluice pit with tidy tailings was probably working by the unemployed in the 1930s. The subsidised miners occupied at least three separate small huts marked by an oak tree and willows. The sluice faces are worked into a steep hillside, with associated tail races, and a group of house sites associated with the sluicings are marked by trees. The unemployed are marked by three small foundations set in a line. Sutherland's workings consists of three reasonably definable houses and complexes with signs of other huts or outbuildings marked by stone piles.
Dredges operated on the valley floor running the whole length of the river bed. Dredges working on rivers left T-shaped moorings in gravel banks, changes in river bed sediment, and sometimes side channels. Parts of the dredges themselves also remain, including buckets and tumblers. Paddock dredges left tailings and ponds. Hamel considers that dredge ponds and associated tailings beside many Otago rivers ‘have been poorly described or are unknown.' She considers that archaeologically, ‘dredging is the most poorly represented of all the major gold mining technologies in Otago.' This huge industry is represented by only a few remains.
In the Lower Nevis dredge tailings run the whole length of the river bed and associated dredge ponds dot the river flat. There are remnants of the dredges themselves at a number of points on the valley floor and collections of artefacts, such as dredge buckets, are found at various locations. One of the more significant is the timbers of the Nevis Crossing dredge that was run by the Lower Nevis Dredge Company from 1906 until 1940, which had the longest working life in Otago and Southland and probably New Zealand.
The remains of coal pits are also evident. There were coal pits at the north end of Ben Nevis Station, and three coal pits in the Nevis Burn and Bob Creek.
Places Associated with Nevis Crossing
The settlement at Nevis Crossing was located on both banks of the Nevis River. The stone remains of the Nevis Crossing Hotel are on the west bank of the River. The ruins of Robert Ritchie's homestead are on the east of the Nevis River, and as well as the house, include outbuildings and associated plantings.
Places Associated with Nevis Township
Nevis Township was spread over a two kilometre stretch of the Nevis Road. Relatively few intact buildings remain. The most prominent are Masters' Homestead (c. 1870, still standing), two still occupied houses (Cline and Adie family cottages). The foundations and buildings of around a dozen structures are visible. These include the stone ruins of the Nevis Hotel and Jimmy Stewart's house, and the cobble and stone wall foundations of some seven other structures. There are two modern cribs.
The sites of occupation are marked by foundations and plantings (willows, rowans, poplar and ash), though some have been destroyed by regular ploughing, and dredging did destroy some town sites, such as that of another hotel.
Places Associated with Upper Schoolhouse Creek
Aside from the ground sluicing and hydraulic sluicing remains at Schoolhouse Creek there are other remains associated with settlement. There is a pack track and the remains of an early school building.
At the mouth of Schoolhouse Creek and south there are sod hut remains, and house sites on Schoolhouse Flat. Schoolhouse Flat was the site of the ‘grandstand' (marked on the 1881 survey) which was the site of race meetings and social events
Transport and Communications
- Nevis Road
- Cromwell Bannockburn Telephone Line Remnants
Key Elements of the Historic Area
The key elements of the Lower Nevis Historic Area comes from the interrelationship of the activities that took place there and their associated remains in the landscape, the isolation which gives the Lower Nevis its particular character, and the lack of subsequent development.
Archaeological record shows occupation of Lower Nevis Valley as moa butchery site in this period.
1859 - 1860
First pastoral runs taken up
Gold first discovered in the Lower Nevis
Hydraulic elevating introduced.
First gold dredge operates on the Nevis River.
Last dredge working the Lower Nevis Valley stops operations.
Public NZAA Number
26th April 2010
Report Written By
Archives New Zealand (Dun)
Archives New Zealand (Dunedin)
CAYN Acc467/17d/P241 Pt1 Ben Nevis Company 1954-1978
DADO/Acc D128/1a/Nevis Letterbook and plaint book 1864-1866
DADO/D128/1a Warden's Office / Resident Magistrate's Court, Nevis - Letterbook [includes letters of Mining Registrar, Clerk of the Court, Officer-in-Charge, Etc. 1864 - 1866] / Resident Magistrate's Court, Nevis - Plaint Book , Archives New Zealand, Dunedin Regional Office
DAIV 20248/Acc D531 37 Cromwell Mining Register Vol.2 1887-1908.
DAIV/20248/Acc D531/3 E Cromwell Mining Privileges Rent Nos. 1764-5271;
DAIV 20248 D531/6 H Cromwell Register of Mining Privileges Rent Nos. 4539-5271.
TJ Hearn and R.P. Hargreaves, 'The Speculators' Dream: Gold Dredging in Southern New Zealand', Allied Press, Dunedin, 1985
Ng, James, Windows on a Chinese Past, Volume 1, Otago Heritage Books, Dunedin, 1993
J H M Salmon, J.H.M. 'A History of Goldmining in New Zealand', Wellington, 1963
Jane Thomson, (ed)., Southern People: A Dictionary of Otago Southland Biography, Dunedin: Longacre Press/Dunedin City Council, 1998.
R McIntyre, Historic heritage of high-country pastoralism: South Island up to 1948, Department of Conservation, Wellington, 2007
John Hall-Jones, Goldfields of Otago: an illustrated history, Craig Printing, Invercargill, 2005
Jill Hamel, 'The cold sequestered Nevis.' Report to the Department of Conservation as part of a series on historical values of pastoral leases in the Central Otago high country. September 1994
Jill Hamel, The Archaeology of Otago, Department of Conservation, Wellington, 2001
A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Otago/Southland Area Office.
The Lower Nevis Valley is located between the Remarkable and Hector Mountains on the west, and the Carrick Range and Old Woman Range on the east. To the south is the Upper Nevis Valley.
There are reserves within this historic area: Cemetery Reserve, NZG 1899, p.1311; Bridge Reserve NZG 1881, p.672.
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.
Historic Area Place Name
Bannockburn-Nevis Telephone Line Remnants
Ben Nevis Station Farmstead
Buildings and Sites Associated with Nevis Township
Chinese Mining Claims at Lower Nevis
Chinese settlements at Commissioners Flat
Chinese Workings at Nevis Crossing
Ken Adie's Cottage
Long Chong's Special Alluvial Claim
Nevis Crossing Dredge
Nevis Crossing Hotel Remains
Nevis Dredging Company Claim
Nevis Hotel Complex Remains
Nevis Township Workings
Ngapara Dredging Company Claims
Places associated with Schoolhouse Flat
Robert Ritchie's Homestead (Former) and Workings
Schoolhouse Creek Maori Settlement Sites
Schoolhouse Creek Sites and Workings
Schoolhouse Site (Former)
Scotchman's and Mailbox Creek Workings