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Gold Tailings in New Zealand

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Here in New Zealand over the last 20 years archaeologists have extensively studied tailing piles while recording historic gold mining sites. And in the province of Otago in the South Island, there were over 500 mining sites, with tailing's, recorded in the upper reaches of a single river (Clutha river). In one report archaeologists stated that "... neatly stacked tailing's are commonly assumed to be the work of Chinese miners. This is an unreasonable assumption; many mining sites which have been worked only by European miners are equally tidy. Conversely, the tailing's in some sites known to have been worked by Chinese miners are not neatly stacked".


My take on the issue referred to in the above statement by archaeologists is that both European and Chinese miners hand stacked rocks ... which they had to do out of necessity! But, there was often some difference, and more often than not the Chinese miners stacked the rocks much more neatly and precisely than the European miners. One reason for this was the fact that the Chinese tended to work cooperatively in large groups and would always work systematical. Also, the Chinese were more likely to be reworking previously worked ground than to be working virgin ground. The European miners were usually the first on the scene of a new gold discovery and in their rush to get the very best of the gold, they only did what work they had to do to get the best and would soon move on to the next rush. The Chinese would often come onto a goldfield a little while after the first rush had concluded, and after most of the Europeans had moved on to the next rush. Then, because the excitement of the initial rush had faded, they could work in a less hectic atmosphere. Chinese miners were thorougher by nature, and also ‘had’ to be thorougher to get whatever gold the European miners missed. And in a less hectic post-rush atmosphere, the Chinese had the time and inclination to precisely hand stack rocks in walls. Although it can never be ruled out that there may be some unworked highly auriferous virgin ground under tailing's, its highly unlikely ... especially where the Chinese had worked. Any gold found these days under tailing's is likely to be gold missed by the earlier miners who might have mistakenly thrown a nugget or two aside, such as when forking in a tail-race.


Here in New Zealand there are an impressive number of old sluicing mines with stacked stones, that remain intact. Nevertheless, there have been many destroyed by gravel removal, land development, dam construction, modern mining, and in recent years by the bulldozing flat of tailing's to plant vines for wine. What has saved most of the remaining mine sites is their remoteness, and those that remain are mostly in an excellent state of preservation. 


New Zealand archaeologists have classified tailing's into the following categories, parallel tailing's, curved tailing's, box tailing's, fan tailing's, blow down tailing's, amorphous tailing's, pot-hole tailing's and herringbone tailing's. Herringbone tailing's are the most interesting and are characterised by a herringbone pattern with the stones stacked in parallel lines at angles to a central tail-race with the working face encroaching from the lower end of the claim. These tailing's are easily the most visually interesting of all tailing styles because of their symmetry. And the best example of herringbone tailing's in New Zealand, and most likely anywhere in the world, can be found at Quartz Reef Point in Central Otago. These tailing's have survived untouched and in a pristine condition since the very last miner abandoned the diggings. And the survival of these particular tailing's, even though they are within fives minutes walk of a main road, has been because they were on privately owned farmland where the landowner had always strictly restricted access. Until recently the only people the landowner would allow to visit the tailing's were organised groups, such as the local historical society, who would be allowed in about once a year while under supervision. Some years ago the landowner gifted the land to the Dept of Conservation (DoC) who now manage the ground encompassing the tailing's as one of New Zealand’s most important historic reserves. About four or five years ago there was a track constructed so visitors could easily walk in from a car park, and at the tailing's there is a viewing platform that overlooks the entire tailing's. They are now one of the premier tourist attractions of Central Otago with a great number of people visiting each day for what is a unique experience not to be found anywhere else.




Herringbone tailing's Quartz Reef Point




Tail race









Herringbone tailing's Quartz Reef Point



Rob (RKC)

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Thanks Rob; In this country there is very often gold under stacked rocks and tails...but the chinese were very good most of time...as you say they usually got the worked or lesser ground. Prejudice was alive and well on Americas gold fields...



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G'day Fred,

While I admire the systematic and diligent way the Chinese cooperatively worked for alluvial gold in the late 1800s in New Zealand, I can just as equally understand that the European miners would often want to move on to the next, new, and quiet possibly richer, gold discovery. I believe the difference in attitudes to mining between the two races can be understood by looking at the motivation of each. The European miners were in a country they regarded as their own and were here for the rest of their lives, and all understood they were colonising a country their decedents would grow up in. The only country any of the Chinese felt any allegiance to was China, and their only rational was to make enough to get back to China where they could live out their remaining days in comfort. Therefore the difference in motivation had to be the main influence on how they worked. Also, many Chinese would leave New Zealand even when they were on good gold after getting what they had predetermined was enough gold to set themselves up for the rest of their lives in China. Even if they died when in New Zealand their country men would do their uppermost to have their body shipped back to China.

One of the most interesting historical accounts of Chinese miners succeeding on ground abandoned by European miners occurred on New Zealands Waikaia river in the 1880s and 1890s. The following is from historical accounts ..."Down in the valley below Potters in a gorge of the Waikaia river was the Canton Claim. Like the town of Canton at Round Hill the claim was worked originally by a party of Europeans who after getting little from it sold out to the Chinese. Sited at the bottom of the gorge it was a difficult claim to work. But the Chinese determined to put in a mine right beneath the river. Shoring up the roof with cut logs as they moved ahead they worked under appalling conditions of water seeping through from the river above. Nevertheless in their dogged, diligent way they soon made the mine pay and a number of Chinese were able to purchase their fares home -- the ultimate aim of most Chinese miners in New Zealand. Later they put in a system of wing-dams to divert the river from one side to the other and so work the bed on the surface. Although the Canton Claim was to prove one of the richest mines in the Waikaia Valley it was unfortunately destroyed in the big flood of 1878. The remains of the wing dam and the Chinese huts can now be seen below the present Canton bridge."


Remaining Wing Dam walls below the Canton Claim.

Also, from another historical account ... "The most famous claim and certainly the most valuable for several Chinese parties was the 'Canton', commemorated today in the name of a road and a bridge. European miners had not been successful there, it was difficult to work as a result of floods and drainage, and in 1883 it was sold to a Chinese party. By 1892 successive parties had worked the river-bed and the terraces. Those who made their fortune returned to China. Several claimed that their countrymen had secured 75 lbs (900 ozs) weight of gold. Sam McAuley recalled in old age that the Chinese showed him their underground workings, the river above, and logs from the bush to support the overburden. Some Chinese believed there was 900 ozs of gold in that paddock, a warden hazarded a guess at 600 ozs. Dr Ng records that Peter Chandler disbelieved the claim of under river workings as such would have required powerful pumps. A third party was working there in 1882 and they may well have been the tunnellers. There were other Chinese claims nearby and in 1876 it was reported that one of these was the first to secure success in that area by using waterwheel and pump instead of a tail-race to drain the site. Here and elsewhere much of the Chinese success was due to strong leadership, clan loyalty and systematic hard work."

"For a light in the tunnels the Chinese always used candles. These were fitted to a piece of wire shaped for that purpose, and with a spike at one end that could be stuck into the ground wherever convenient. It could be shifted in a moment to any part of the tunnel, be it walls or floor."

"The conditions of work in these tunnels were definitely most unpleasant and the majority of the Chinese ended up with rather humped backs because of the continual stooping underground."


Present day Waikaia River at the Canton Claim.


Present day Waikaia River at the Canton Claim.


Rob (RKC)

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Yes, there were cultural differences too.

I have always wanted to visit NZ. During my three trips to Australia I made friends with Ken D, an artist in NZ Jade and couple of guys that ran a museum...all wonderful friendly people!



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G'day Fred,


You will have to add a visit to NZ to your bucket list. We get quite a few Americans and Europeans (plus a few Australians) who visit to fossick for gold every summer. 



Goldfields accommodation. 



Goldfield hut



Gold fossickers in a New Zealand West Coast auriferous river.



Visiting Australians fossicking for gold in a NZ high country stream.



Kiwi hobby fossicker



Australian prospector in the NZ high country detecting in the rain. He was using a Minelab VLF detector and got a small piece of gold in less than an hour of detecting in old gold tailings. The other visitor from Australia and myself who were both using PI detectors got no gold at all from this area. 



Kiwi fossicker taking a break from digging.



Rob (RKC)

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