THE GHOSTS OF POTTERS
Old Man Range, Otago
by Kae Lewis
GOLDMINING IN OTAGO IN 1862
The first miners to stake a claim at Gabriel’s Gully arrived in August 1861, just at the end of winter. During the next months, the miners spread out over the hills, to places like Munro’s Gully, Waitahuna and Weatherstons. Some found fabulous riches in gold, some merely eked out a living, with a great scarcity of stores and supplies while others, after many months of hard digging and frustration, eventually had to admit that they had a duffer.
During 1862, prospectors and other hopeful but desperate miners began to move northwards towards the Dunstan goldfield, passing such places as Mt Benger (near present day Dumbarton) and the Molyneux (Clutha) River as far north as present day Alexandra, Clyde and Cromwell. The Mining Regulations allowed the miners to register their claims back at Tuapeka as ‘protected’ while they scattered themselves over the country in search of fresh pastures. Some of them left a partner on the Tuapeka claim while they prospected northwards, expecting to be back within the month in many cases.
They had to carry their shovel, pan and enough food supplies to last them until they got back. A thin blanket at night was all there was to ward off the bitter alpine winds. And make no mistake, the country was rugged. As the snows melted, the rivers were running high, and crossing them was dangerous in the extreme.
The Molyneux (Clutha) River forms the spine of the Otago Goldfields, with the Tuapeka in the south, further north the Nokomai goldfield west of the river, Mt Benger on the right bank, and Dunstan Goldfield in the north. Old Man Range was on the west bank, in the Nokomai Gold Field.
THE MOLYNEUX FORCES THE MINERS UPWARDS.
Vincent Pyke visited Otago in 1862 and later that year was appointed as the Government Commissioner of the Goldfields. He wrote eloquently about the Molyneux in his book ‘Wild Bill Enderby’:
'For there is a river there – a treacherous, snake-like river; which, by some strange witchery, both attracts and repels the gazer, much as the serpent is said to affect the victim bird. Deep down in the centre of the Gorge, it pursues its tortuous course, between banks sometimes high above its waters, sometimes almost level with its surface. Occasionally it glides smoothly along with an easy, graceful, undulating motion, murmuring musically the while, as it ripples on the shingle-strewn beaches, or laps against the projecting crags, which its soft touches have long since despoiled of their pristine angularities. At such times and places the waters of the Molyneux are pleasant to the eye; and their softened cadences – rising and falling with the breeze – are melodious to the ear. But the observant eye may mark that even in these placid reaches, the surface of the river is curiously agitated by circling vortices, which draw in and swallow any floating substances which chance to come anear. Whirlpools these, telling of cruel crags and sunken rocks, concealed by the smooth, false waters – whirlpools wherein the stoutest swimmer might not venture, and hope to tell the story of their mysterious recesses. But where the opposing reefs resist the mighty current, the Molyneux rears its savage crest, and roaring, foaming, hissing in their wrath, it dashes fiercely by the rigged obstacles to its progress. Fed by three extensive lakes – the exhaustless reservoirs of vast alpine ranges – what force can stay or turn aside the Molyneux in its progress to the ocean?
Each spring, the snows further up in the surrounding mountains melted and caused the Molyneux to burst its banks. The floods washed over the beaches where the miners were panning the sands for gold. With the raging waters endangering their lives, the Old Man Range became a favourite summer prospecting ground for all the miners.
In about November 1862 three prospectors, Potter, Kennedy and Roberts reached an area just north of present-day Roxburgh and, leaving the banks of the ‘serpent’ Molyneux, struck off westwards towards the Old Man Range. They climbed up the steep rocks and crags where immediately westward from present day Shingle Creek, the Range rises 1000 meters to a height of 1575 meters above sea level and towers over the surrounding hills and the Molyneux far below.
At the summit, (on the modern-day border between Otago and Southland Provinces) they could see the white tents of the miners still trying their luck panning in the treacherous waters. There are no trees to be seen, horizon to horizon and the snow-covered slopes of The Remarkables shimmer far in the distance. Once the heavy blanket of snow has melted, the smoothed slopes of the Range are covered in a coarse yellow tussock grass and scattered with huge boulder formations.
Vincent Pike must have climbed up here and described the scene:
'Huge, unshapely masses of rock – weather-beaten, geological veterans – blackened and seamed and scarred by I know not how many centuries of conflict with the elements; some prostrate, some erect, others inclining earthwards; some fantastically grouped, others isolated and solitary – all scattered at irregular intervals amidst immense tussocks of snow-grass, like relics of a vast Druidical temple.'
Once the three Prospectors had reached the summit, they prospected their way down the other side. In front of them was a broad, flat, windswept plateau deeply cut by small streams and riverlets that rush to empty into the Waikaia River below. In summer, it becomes a ‘dismal swamp’, with soft spongy soils covered in yellow mosses and lichen where even the tussock grass cannot survive.
They were about half way down the steep slope towards the river valley of the Waikaia River on the other side when they found what they were looking for. Using a shovel and a tin dish, they collected two ounces of rough gold in shallow holes they had dug in the hard ground. Later they reported their finds to the Gold Warden and took out claims in the area. Thus it was that this rich goldfield on the far side of the old Man Range became known as Potters in honour of one of the discoverers.
Potters is always called the ‘far side’ of the Old Man Range, which confirms that the route taken as the miners moved northwards from the Tuapeka goldfield to Dunstan was along the Molyneux River.
John Lishman Potter was born in 1834 in Sunderland, County Durham, England, the son of Matthew Potter a brewer and his wife Catherine. At first he was apprenticed to a stonemason but in 1854, at the age of 20 he went to Victoria, Australia. He was working on several goldfields there, including Ballarat, and on 22nd April 1858, he married Elizabeth Driver, the daughter of Robert and Elizabeth Driver. Robert Driver was a Saddler, originally from Dublin, Ireland.
It is not known whether John Potter was ever a miner in Victoria but in 1861, he and Elizabeth joined the rush to Gabriel’s Gully. He did not in fact find a fortune either there or on the top of the Old Man Range. By 1864, he had reverted to his trade as a stonemason in Christchurch, working on the construction of the Anglican Cathedral. Then in about 1871, he moved to Timaru where he worked as a master builder. He also had a lifelong interest in the early labour unions and the New Zealand Labour party. John Potter died in Timaru, aged 97 on 24 October 1931. John Lishman Potter was born in 1834 in Sunderland, County Durham, England, the son of Matthew Potter a brewer and his wife Catherine. At first he was apprenticed to a stonemason but in 1854, at the age of 20 he went to Victoria, Australia. He was working on several goldfields there, including Ballarat, and on 22nd April 1858, he married Elizabeth Driver, the daughter of Robert and Elizabeth Driver. Robert Driver was a Saddler, originally from Dublin, Ireland.
It is not known whether John Potter was ever a miner in Victoria but in 1861, he and Elizabeth joined the rush to Gabriel’s Gully. He did not in fact find a fortune either there or on the top of the Old Man Range. By 1864, he had reverted to his trade as a stonemason in Christchurch, working on the construction of the Anglican Cathedral. Then in about 1871, he moved to Timaru where he worked as a master builder. He also had a lifelong interest in the early labour unions and the New Zealand Labour party. John Potter died in Timaru, aged 97 on 24 October 1931.
GOLDRUSH AT POTTERS
Potters Gully was the highest and most remote of all the New Zealand Goldfields. After John Potter and the others reported their finds, the news spread fast. Within a very short space of time, there was a rush, and soon four hundred hopeful miners were scattered all over the area.
Before they could begin mining however, the would-be miners faced the long trek back to the Dunstan Wardens office at Hartley township, (called Clyde today) to register their claim and obtain a Miner’s Right, if they had not already done so. Although this field was in the Nokomai district, Dustan was closer. The miners were not restricted to going to any particular Warden’s Office, leading to a confusion of records for many different districts in each record book and making it impossible for any one Warden to know who was in his district. Some mining records for Potters have been found amongst the Dunstan Warden's Court records and appear on the Goldminer's Database.
This first location on the Range was named Potters #1, to distinguish it from Potters #2 and #3 which were found later. Potter’s Gully was considered a rich field and many successful claims were staked out. In 1862, throughout the entire two mile length of Potters Gully, each miner averaged half an ounce of gold each at any one time. Some individual miners struck very rich returns indeed, especially in the blind gullies. Record-keeping was poor, and much of the gold found at Potter’s, though not all, was taken to the Dunstan Treasury. At the end of 1862, one third of the gold deposited there was said to come from Potters. There was one parcel of 100 oz, and another of 27 ozs deposited by Potter’s miners. Unlike the gold dust collected in the river gravels lower down, the gold at Potters was coarse, heavy and water-worn. The ground at Potters was said to be patchy, with just as many men not making enough to cover their ‘tucker’.
Early in 1863, it is said that ‘Little Johnny’ Campbell and John Potter discovered that there was gold in Campbell’s Basin, slightly north of Potter’s #1, across several small gorges. It is a deep-sided sunken basin with a swampy bottom near the headwaters of the Waikaia River but still at the top of the Old Man Range. Campbell’s Basin actually intercepted the gully known as Potters #2. By August 1863, there were between 200 and 500 men mining there, with one miner finding 60 ounces of gold in two days.A wooden tombstone at Potters inscribed: ‘William Pitt, died 20 June 1864’ was recorded by Reverend Alexander Don when he visited in 1892. Today this grave marker has been removed to a museum and replaced by a quartz marker.
About one mile from Campbells was Adelaide Gully where about 30 miners worked. The actual location of Potters #3 has been lost in the mists of time, but may have been Adelaide Gully. There was also Conroy’s Gully, about two miles from Potters, where about 150 miners were working at the end of 1862. Gold was found here in good quantity, lying in nuggets on top of the rocks. The gold broker at this time was Mr Welsh who reported 600 oz nuggets from a party of four men, and 400 oz from another group. It took the miners about four months to find this much gold. For every miner reporting finds like this, there were many more who laboured in vain and, thoroughly discouraged and broke, moved on. It needed a lot of money and rich finds to stay up at Potters for long because supplies were so expensive.
THE MINERS OF POTTERS
Miners were a fickle lot and many left when they heard about gold being found elsewhere, even when it meant leaving a good claim. Miners from Potters swarmed off to Cardrona, a long way north across countless ranges and river valleys, only to find that it was not as good as Potter’s in the opinion of some. Just as many hopeful miners rushed to Potters from other areas, some stayed, some heard rumours and rushed on, while the population on The Old Man Range remained much the same throughout 1862, at about 200-300 miners.
A report later in 1863 gives the numbers at Potters and the surroundings at 900 – 1000, others say 500 – 1000. In truth, no-one seems to know who was up there or how many, at any one time, least of all the Gold Warden back in his tent office working under impossible conditions back at the headquarters of the Goldfield. One of the problems was that miners preferred to work ‘on the quiet’ so as not to attract a rush to their claim. So they continually evaded the Warden who was trying to locate and register their claims and collect the license fee which the miner did not always wish to pay if he could avoid it. And then the Warden’s records did not survive the years in any case.
At Potters and Campbells goldfields, they sank shallow mines, only about two or three feet deep to find the gold. Timber was available but meant a long trek down to Waikaia Bush. Once they had timber, the miners could build water races and sluices to increase the yields from their claims.
LIVING AT POTTERS
The weather at Potters was extreme and very changeable. In the winter, they worked in four feet of snow. When night fell, the miners piled on their fur or sheepskin coats, took out their pipes and tried to sleep in the bitter cold. There were no nearby trees for firewood but they were able to collect and dry peat in the summer to burn during bad weather… if they took enough time off from mining to cut it, and if they stayed long enough to need it.
In summer, the rays of the sun concentrate in the gullies and the heat was oppressive. At any moment, fog can race up and blot out the landscape so that the miners would have difficulty seeing from one claim to another across the hillsides. Snow can fall at any time of the year. Chilling southerly winds can whip up without warning, bringing with it dark ominous snow-filled clouds that swirl up and over the summit. The miners called it ‘The Battlefield of the Clouds' as cloud banks frequently ascend from each side of The Old Man Range and meet in the middle at Potters. Notice there is a cloud bank descending to Potters in the above photo.
GETTING SUPPLIES UP TO POTTERS
There were at least four stores at Potters, including a butchers and an bakers shop where everything was very expensive. The miners with ready cash or gold could buy flour, bread, tea and sugar. Even freshly slaughtered sheep and cattle were packed up on a regular basis. The stores were supplied from a packer’s camp at a place called Chamonix, near present day Gorge Creek on the Molyneux. As Potters and Campbells grew, so did Chamonix. It soon became a thriving settlement with one steep narrow street of stores, huts, crude hotels and boarding houses, and even a blacksmith to shoe the pack-horses at a cost of 35 shillings each. There is no sign of the camp at Chamonix today as it died when the gold ran out at Potters.
A description of the trip of a packer with his horses up the range to Campbells Creek survives. Starting at sunrise, they started to climb, and after about three miles, came to a store and several huts called ‘The Springs’. After that the going was much steeper and very rough. Five miles up from The Springs, they began to followed the track marked with snow poles by the Government in 1863. The poles were 15 feet high, painted dark red and each one had a board pointing in the direction of the trail to Potters. The first one said 'Snow Poles, 200 yards apart.' The summit of the Range is covered in deep glacial snow for five months of the year and during a storm it is easy to loose the trail. It is said that the notice-board also bore the inscription 'J & E Martell’s Cognac' although there was none to be had in this wild and lonely spot. Six miles up and one mile from the summit, the snow was often soft and deep, and the going slow and tiring. They reached the Old Man rock by mid morning and the trail leveled out. Then the poles ended, not at a place of safety as they should have but in the midst of a vast flat field of swamp, tussock grass or, even in summer, snow and ice. If they could find it, they then followed a track and reached Potters by about noon. It is not surprising that flour packed up to Potters cost £120 a ton.
TRAGEDY AT POTTERS
In July and August 1863, there were huge floods, followed by heavy snows throughout the Dunstan. People were drown when the Molyneux burst its banks and people became worried for the safety of the men up at Potter’s. The miners came staggering down off the Old Man Range in small groups, saying they had been forced to retreat in the teeth of a gale. The ground had become so hard, they could no longer work their claims in any case. As the snow piled deep and their provisions ran out, they could either go westward down the Waikaia to Switzers, or they could go up over the crest of the range and down to the relative safety of the mining camps of Chamonix.
Many miners still decided to dig-in and stay up top, fearing their claim would be jumped if they left. Claim jumping was a continual problem throughout the remote and poorly-policed goldfields of Dunstan, Mt Benger and Nokomai. But once the snows began, the packers could no longer get in with supplies, and the men began to starve. Some were subsisting on ‘wild Irishman’ which was their name for the roots of the spear grass. Others sought shelter in the forest below, on the track to Waikaia. Eventually all the miners realized they would have to retreat but tragically, many had left it too late.
It was during this desperate retreat, culminating on 11 August 1863, that many men lost their way in the blinding snow and died miserably of hunger and frostbite, far from shelter. On the summit, with white-out conditions they could not find the snow poles, many of which were totally buried in snow. The biting wind and blinding snow were more than a human could withstand.
According to a report in the Otago Witness, a Magisterial enquiry into the death of Nicholas Henry Cordts, otherwise know as ‘Nicholas The Russian’ was held in November 1863. He was found dead on the Old Man Range, at the head of Potter’s Gully #2, Campbell’s Diggings. There were two witnesses at the enquiry, Nicholas Henry Syme Jenkinson and George Scandreth who were both residents of Potter’s Gully. Cordts perished in the blizzard and was buried at Potter’s. John Stewart, the ferryman on the Molyneux was also at Potter’s and died in the Great Snow of 1863.The Southland Times of 6 November 1863 describes the chaos of the time:
‘From the Dunstan News of 28th Oct (1863) we take the following: Found dead, near Campbell’s Creek, on the 5th September last, a man named Joseph Thompson, who was lost in a snowstorm while traveling from Potters No 2 Gully. The poor fellow must have lost his way in the drift, and wandered about until exhausted. He was well respected by all who knew him for his correct and manly behaviour. The account has only just reached us, and we were somewhat surprised to hear that no inquest was ever held on the body when found as described. This must be a token of some neglect, but we cannot safely tax any one with the fault…’
Mr H. W. Robinson was the Gold Warden for Potters and lived at Naseby, many miles away. He estimated that as many as 30 had perished at Potters, although the true number will probably never be known and may have been as few as 12.
A report in the Otago Witness of 6 Feb 1864 shows just how haphazard the count of the decease had been the previous year:
'A skeleton was found on Thursday last near the track leading from Timber Gully to the Teviot. It is supposed to be that of some unfortunate who perished about the time of the great storm.'
There is a memorial at Gorge Creek to the men who lost their lives in the 1863 blizzard, testament to the dangers of remaining on the Old Man Range in the winter.
In 1864, The Dunstan News (Otago Witness) criticized the use of the wooden poles to mark the track. Cold and starving people would burn them or use them for tent poles, while the blizzards and gales of Old Man Range would knock them down. The fogs and whiteouts made them hard to find. The Government then installed 300 new poles and a wire all the way to Campbell’s. Early in June that year, a severe snowstorm buried the new poles and broke the wire in many places and buried it in others. Subsequently these were replaced with stone cairns, some of which can still be seen today.
The tragedy of 1863 deterred many from staying up on the Range during the perilous days of winter. Soon the population at Potters had dwindled to 50 or so.
SOME MINING RECORDS FROM POTTERS
Undaunted, the miners returned to Potters. The Otago Witness reported on the Dunstan news of 29 January 1864:
'A first rate rush has taken place at Campbell’s Gully near the Junction of Potter’s No 2. At this point the gully is very wide, the sinking is about 25 feet in depth with very little water. As much as 125 ounces of gold was taken off the bottom of the paddock last week, also, two others obtained nearly the same amounts, besides a large number getting payable gold.
On 8th Jan 1866, Robert McCormick, William Jackson, Augustus Brown and Aaron Bell applied to the Warden of the Dunstan Field at Alexandra:
'We hereby give Notice that we intend to construct a Head Water Race for Mining purposes, commencing at a point near the Gorge below Adelaide Point Campbells Gully and terminating about 50 yards further down the creek.'(Archives NZ document ABBO Acc D98 7001 Dunstan, Alexander).
On the 14th of February 1866, two men, James Smith and James B. Williams applied to the Warden of the Dunstan Field at Alexandra:
'We hereby give Notice that we intend to construct a Head Water Race for Mining purposes, commencing at a point at Dead Man Gully and terminating at a point on the South Side of Potters Gully No 2, near Campbells. Said Race has been partly constructed and abandoned. The length of such Race is one mile or thereabouts and its intended course is North & South.'(Archives NZ document ABBO D98 7001 Dunstan, Alexandra).
And as winter starts to set in, on 21st May 1866, a large party of men, including David McLaughlin, Felix Ferndandez Patrick Burnett, Thomas Hayland, Michael Kielin, James Nash, William Ryan, William Jackson and others applied to the Warden at Alexandra:
'We hereby give Notice that we intend to construct a Head Water Race for Mining purposes, commencing at a point above Adelaide Point in Campbells Gully and terminating at the claim half a mile below.'(Archives NZ document ABBO D98 7001 Dunstan, Alexandra).
The Otago Witness reports on 13 September 1867:
'An eighth share in the Hit or Miss Co’s claim at Potters was sold a short time since, at £200. This claim can only be worked about 7 months in each year.'
ANDREW REE, THE LAST MINER AT POTTERS
Every goldfield has its diehards who stay on long after the rush has ended. The last man to leave Potter’s was Andrew Ree who had built a sound stone cottage and peat shed, the remains of which can still be seen today. He always spent the winter down off the Old Man Range and went down for the last time in 1924. He died in Timaru in 1926, aged 84. (John Potter too died in Timaru in 1931).
Today, there are still many remains from the 1862/1863 mining activities: mainly stone dams and the tracings of water races, small piles of tailings and even a lonely grave.
Special thanks to Les Fox who supplied the family details for John Lishman Potter, his great great grandfather, and to Bert Kemp who went to Potters and took the photos.
The article first appeared in 'Pick and Shovel, Cradle and Pan: 150 Years of Gold Discovery in Otago, Southland and on the West Coast.' Dunedin Family History Group, 2011.