Gold Mining on the West Coast

A little-known fact about the West Coast, and Hokitika in particular, is that in 1866 the humble town - whose current population is just shy of 3,000 - boomed at a staggering 25,000-odd. In that moment in history it was the most populated town in New Zealand and its social life was roaring, with the town boasting more than 100 pubs.

The gold rush of the West Coast was in full swing. Two years prior, in 1964, gold had been found near the Taramakau River by Ihaia Tainui and Haimona Taukau, two locals who were prospecting for pounamu at the time. They didn’t realise the value of their find, but another local - Albert Hunt - did, and he made the find public, attempting to claim the glory and the reward for himself. 

Interest soon followed. Gold had already been found in the North Island, and New Zealand’s economy was already showing positive signs in response, so people flocked to the area seeking their own fortune. 

It was infamously tough work though. There were no roads. Miners had to cut their way through dense scrub and bush. It was a long time before well-cleared camps were able to be set up. Those first miners of the region survived on a diet of foraged berries, ferns and kererū - hardly an ideal diet of a hard-working physical labourer.

Aside from the measly diet and harsh conditions, water supply (or lack of) quickly became the main problem that needed solving. A separate workforce of men was formed to build and supply a water race; diverting water from nearby rivers and streams, and fed down the purpose-built system to reach the various mining operations. It was incredibly dangerous work, and men ended up refusing to work at night, fearing that they’d be blind to any potentially fatal rockfall; something that happened regularly without warning.

Despite the fact that the West Coast has always been a place of incredible rainfall, dry spells were common and small scrub fires became a risk, completely decimating parts of a newly constructed water race at one time. But with a bustling population at the time, there were always pairs of hands ready to come and dig in, so to speak.

Although there was a huge amount of teamwork required to work efficiently in the conditions at that time, at the end of the day it was every man for himself, and goldfields in the 1860s were notoriously lawless. Mostly out of drunken behaviour, fights, claim-jumping and even murders happened. 

It was tough and relentless work, but for some lucky finders, it was the beginning of a more prosperous life in a newly-colonised country.

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