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When most of us think of how gold was mined ‘in the olden days’, we think of a solitary miner washing dirt in his gold pan by the side of a creek. After that, the confusion and mythology sets in. In order to help simplify matters, this week’s post presents a list of mining methods and equipment NOT used during the Spring Creek and Reid’s Creek (Beechworth) gold rushes.

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12 Head Stamp Battery at the Wallaby Mine (Image: Heritage Victoria)

Yes, I’m a grumpy historian. I get really annoyed when people ‘conflate’ (combine) different historical periods into one. The Victorian gold rushes are often conflated with later periods of gold mining, but the reality is that the major gold rushes of the era (which took place in Ballarat, Bendigo and Beechworth districts) belonged to a short period of time (1851-53), in which people used particular equipment and had a particular mind-set.

One of the most exciting and attractive things about the gold rushes of the 1850s was that anyone with a small amount of capital and a few friends or acquaintances, could stake a claim and mine gold using basic equipment. Contrary to popular belief at the time, gold wasn’t easily-won (it involved hard labour), but the great virtue of the gold rushes was that anyone with a reasonably strong physical constitution could become a ‘gold seeker’. At the height of the Spring Creek and Reid’s Creek gold rushes, which took place over a few months in the late Spring and Summer of 1852-53, no large scale mining equipment was used.

So here are some mining techniques and equipment that had nothing to do with the gold rushes:

Hard Rock Mining / Stamp Batteries — Hard rock mining did not begin in the Beechworth/Yackandandah area until all the (comparatively) easily-won alluvial gold was exhausted. The gold bearing quartz was crushed using stamp batteries. There’s a massive stamp battery at the Wallaby Mine, restored after the 2003 bushfires by Parks Victoria. There are other stamp batteries to be seen at Myrtleford and Bright. (Picture above.)

Gold Dredging — Gold dredges were used to dredge gold-bearing sands from creek and river beds, and process them. There’s a spectacular ‘bucket’ dredge at Eldorado. If you haven’t done so already, I suggest you go see it; and remember, this machine began operating in 1936, long after the gold rush had finished.

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Cock’s Pioneer Dredge at Eldorado, commenced 1936 (Image: Peterdownunder)

Open-cut sluicing — Some large open-cut mines existed in the Beechworth and Eldorado areas, in which gold bearing soils were broken down for processing, using high-powered hoses. The ‘clay banks’ on the side of Lake Sambell in Beechworth are the visible remains of one such open-cut mine, run by the Rocky Mountain Gold Sluicing Co, which formed in 1867. The pit which became Lake Sambell was the result of large-scale company mining, which started (in this case) 15 years after the gold rush.

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Pine trees growing on the exposed ‘clay banks’ left by gold sluicing operations, on the side of Lake Sambell, Beechworth (Image: Jacqui Durrant)

Other forms of mining and gold processing that came much later than the initial gold rushes include Deep Lead Mining (which happened at Chiltern, and at Rutherglen where there was no hard rock mining, but mining of alluvial material found deep underground), and gold processing using cyanide (which happened at Chiltern).

In the next post, I will return to the 1850s and talk about how gold was mined during in the gold rushes, considering the different conditions on the Spring Creek and Reid’s Creek diggings. And I will be less grumpy.

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