“We've coal, jet black, on yonder hill
Manganese close by the mill
Sulphur near old Egmont's base
Ironsand all over the place,
Nickel too if we are right
Signs of silver rich and bright.
And where's the man who dares to tell
But that a gold mine's there as well.”

Author unknown (1844)         

Gold in Taranaki? It had been found in the Coromandel, and down south - so why couldn't it be found in the shadows of the mountain? This is a story of a search for gold that lasted more than 100 years, and man's ever hopeful dream of striking it rich.

As early as 1852 there had been a cash reward on offer to any person who could find a payable goldfield in the Taranaki. None was ever found - and the outbreak of war in 1860 frightened off any prospectors who still lingered on in hope of striking it rich.

In the gloomy days of the Taranaki Wars aftermath the region was in an economic depression, so in 1865 when the local government raised the reward for finding payable gold to £1000 the region got excited. Eager prospectors scrambled to fossick in every stream bed and river throughout the region. They did find some, the creeks near the mighty White Cliffs along Taranaki's northern coastline yielded a glimpse of gold, but never enough to claim the reward.

A chance encounter

It was three years before any decent amount of gold was found in the region. During an afternoon stroll along Ōākura Beach a man named Wilson couldn't believe his luck when he came across a piece of quartz lying on the black sand. When it was tested the stone revealed 13 specks of gold.

Word soon got around and the lure of the yellow metal brought young men in droves to the lush bush covered Kaitake Range towering above the beach. Harris Ford is said to have been the first man to begin prospecting on the range in September 1868. He was joined soon after by Robert Hughes. They both worked in the Boars Head Gully testing seams of quartz. 

More miss than hit

In November the two men pooled their resources and formed the Perseverance Prospecting Company - it was to prove a prophetic name. By the end of the year their tunnel - aptly named the ‘Hit or Miss Mine’ - was around 25 metres into the hard rock. But they had yet to strike it rich, all they had come across was plenty of sulphur that stank and played havoc with their eyes. The work was slow and laborious, every piece of the hard rock had to be blasted out before being broken up with pick and shovel and hauled out of the horizontal shaft.

The lure of gold

By this time they weren't alone - up to 50 men were scrabbling around in the creek and its tributaries, scrambling up rocky outcrops and fossicking in the bush. A mining camp was set up along the creek and more men poured in as word of the gold spread around the district. But in February 1869 everyone fled. The massacre of Reverend Whiteley and his family at Pukearuhe in north Taranaki raised fears that another war may be imminent. However the lure of gold was too much and within a few weeks everyone was back at work.

Later that year the Taranaki Herald described the scene: "Entry is along the Weld Road, thence to Hatter's Creek. The first spot seen is the Lucky Hit drive, forty feet long. Then up the creek a chain or so to where a short distance above the Perseverance Coy had the day before commenced a drive into the Boars Head Reef. This mass of quartz faces the creek. About a chain farther down the creek is a waterfall of some twenty-five feet height. Below this fall, the Perseverance Coy have commenced a drive in order to reach the reef at a lower level, which will avoid pumping. Four or five companies have been formed and some seventy chains have been pegged off. A meeting has been arranged to consider purchasing a stamper battery." 

A fruitless search?

How much gold were they finding? Harris had taken quartz to Thames to be tested at two mining companies. Both agreed there was gold - one suggesting up to two and a half ounces (75 grams) per ton of quartz, the other "equal to one ounce eleven pennyweights per ton." It wasn't a lot - but enough to keep interest alive.

But was it really gold from the Hit and Miss Mine? How much of the precious metal was from the Kaitake quartz and how much was left over already on the stamper plates from other tests? Years later experts suggested it was more likely the latter than the former.

The flame of hope had been kindled in the hearts of prospectors back at Boars Head Creek despite the fact that nobody had found a nugget, no one had found a seam or even a speck of gold glinting from a pan swilled through the icy waters of the creek.

A fair trail

The Taranaki Provincial Council Government was supportive. Finding a goldfield in Taranaki would have attracted investment and brought new blood into the province. They negotiated with local Māori for the rights to prospect on the range, a road was built allowing stores to be carted within a kilometre of the workings and the council paid for a man to work a quartz crushing machine that the companies had bought.

The miners needed this encouragement. The Perseverance Company were living up to their name. Despite digging 20 metres into a new claim at Boars Head they had found nothing. By March 1870 the specimen crusher was biting its way through a ton of stone from the Boars Head mine. The results dashed everyone's hopes. C. Rennell, supervisor of the crusher said "It was a fair trial and the true explanation of not getting gold out of the stone is a very simple one - there was no gold in it."

The Perseverance Company had little to show for years of work - Harris had his share of gold made into a small ring. Prospectors drifted away, the mines closed and the Boars Head Gully returned once again to a peaceful bush setting.

Better luck next time?

But gold always draws people back. Within seven years another attempt was made to find gold in the Kaitake Range. In 1877 a cash reward was again offered for a discovery. Despite the past disappointments and the increasing rumour that there was in fact no gold on the ranges, men once again flocked to the little creek in the bush high above the shores of Ōākura. Who knows? This time someone might strike it lucky!

Once again the sound of hopeful voices and the clink of tools echoed around the Boars Head Gully. Many of the old workings had fallen in so a new drive was started - reaching 10 metres into the rock face by Christmas 1877. But it wasn't to be a happy New Year for the handful of miners still drawn by the lure of gold. The workings were soon abandoned and the last large-scale prospecting for gold in Taranaki came to an end.

Not everyone gave up - two amateurs - F. Holdsworth and Reginald Bayley devoted their annual holidays to the task, finding traces of gold, silver and copper in 1888. On the strength of their findings the Government sent geologist Alexander McKay out to do a survey. He found copper and minute traces of silver - but no gold.

Ten years later Captain Capel put in a drive near Konini Creek, a branch of the Ahu Ahu Creek north of the Boars Head workings. He found silver and traces of gold - but the small returns didn't justify the labour involved in extracting it and soon he too had abandoned the search, leaving empty handed.

Other prospectors have come and gone - some with more determination than others. During the 20th Century R.W Davies was the only really serious prospector. He knew the Kaitake Range well and cut tracks through the bush which opened up the ranges to the public. Over 50 years he sent samples of quartz off to be tested - each revealed minute amounts of gold - but never enough.

Prospectors still visited the mines - each hoping they would be the ones to trip over a nugget, or by chance happen upon a payable seam of gold. Various reports have confirmed that traces of gold occur in the quartz of the Kaitake Range - but nothing to get excited about. The old mine shafts are still there, now home to cave wētā and ferns. It is a pleasant stroll up to the mines from the end of Weld Road. But potential prospectors shouldn't take a pick and shovel - it's now illegal to fossick for gold in the Egmont National Park that embraces the Kaitake Range. Whether there really is a payable goldfield in the ranges may now never be known.


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