The idea and planning of the Apoinga smelters were first started in 1847 when the Burra mine was being opened up. They were built about a day's travel along the track to and from the Burra mine which would later become the village of Apoinga. The men responsible, and owners, of the risky enterprise were James Parker Penny, Charles Mounsey Penny and William Owen. By the middle of 1848 most of the materials needed had been brought up from Adelaide and a start was made with the actual buildings on Section 1594 in Tothill’s Scrub, which was not registered until January 1849.
When completed it had four furnaces, which were connected to a 12 metre chimney. On 6 January 1849 the fires were lit and soon after the first three bars of copper brought to Adelaide where they were exhibited at the Exchange building.
Two months later a dray load of 304 copper ingots, weighing nearly three tons, was paraded through Hindley and other Adelaide streets with a flag proudly proclaiming ‘Swansea Monopoly Defeated in South Australia’. By April 1849 the Apoinga Smelting Works, managed in 1849 by John Rowe, produced a ton of copper a day by a process adopted under the patent of the owners, which made it possible to smelt and refine the ore in one operation.
This phenomenal technique made it possible for the works to dispatch no less than 900 ingots to Adelaide by the end of April. This was reported in most major colonial newspapers including those at Hobart and Launceston. However by the end of May, supplies of ore from Burra and other mines were insufficient to keep the smelting at Apoinga and Yalata going and both smelters had to suspend their operations for a short time.
It was not only the ore that was slow in coming. Many complaints were also made by the people of the young settlement about the poor delivery of the mail. To make matters worse, by the end of the year rumblings started to surface on the Indian Copper market about the poor quality of copper from South Australia which resulted in a drop from £93 per ton in July to £75 in January 1850. However, a little later advice was received from Calcutta that ‘the copper from Apoinga was most satisfactorily’.
Slowly but surely some improvements were made in the village. In March 1850 George Miller Galley applied for a storekeeper’s licence and even though he was recommended by CM Penny, W Elder and George Morphett, his application was unsuccessful. The town was also without a hotel and alcoholic drinks were supplied by hawkers. There had been an improvement in mail deliveries though. Mail was now delivered three times a week, Tuesdays, Thursdays and on Saturdays. Charles Mounsey Penny was appointed first Postmaster.
In June 1850 George Miller Galley was granted a publican’s licence for the newly built Apoinga Hotel, situated next to the Smelting Works. On 14 June Charles Mounsey Penny was appointed Justice of the Peace. A much needed police station was established on 22 September as ‘the country around having long been in a very lawless state’. Penny supplied the temporary accommodation for Corporal Battams and his two constables.
On 21 November 1850 the wife of George Miller Galley gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Sadly the boy was still-born. David Dillon, who lived at the bottom of Penny’s section, was granted a slaughter licence on 12 December. And last but not least, the Smelting Works advertised for tenders for the supply of 500 to 1000 loads of firewood and 5000 and 10.000 tons of charcoal to be delivered at the smelters.
A traveller visiting the area in the early part of 1851 reported; We set out for a walk of four miles to see the Apoinga Smelting Works, as well as to get expected letters. The road to this place runs between the Black Springs Range and the Mount Horrocks Range. The rise is slight from what below in the winter would be an extensive swamp, though now dry.
The general appearance of the country for much of the distance is as desolate as the rest, or perhaps more so, approaching the 'miserably dreary.' A few stunted Shea-oaks were on the ranges, and the grass was coarse, sour-looking, and wiry. The Mount Horrocks Range was singularly jagged in outline as seen from here, cutting the sky with its abrupt ridge.
Apoinga is a village in a dense forest of peppermint-gum (Eucalyptus piperita) and scrub, like an American clearing in its general effect. The spot is also called Tothill's Gap; more properly and better known as Tothill's Scrub.
The Smelting Works are the property of Messrs. Owen and Penny. There are three smelting furnaces, and one refining furnace for smelting and refining the copper ores from the Burra; the copper is tapped every eight hours; three loads of wood are consumed by each furnace in 24 hours, and the Works seem surrounded by wood enough to supply fuel for an age.
The smelting furnaces were under a shingle roof that for refining was contained in a building of fine freestone. The chimney was upon the long-draft principle. A Post-office is close by, and the village already contains about 30 houses, and a population of more than 100 persons, all, we suppose, dependant on the Works.
There is one public-house (a stone building, but unfinished), a shoemaker, a blacksmith, and a good store. We noticed a section of land fenced in with post and rail, but uncultivated indeed, nothing approaching cultivation was to be seen, and was not expected; but numbers of goats and pigs were running at large in the village, being kept about the houses; and there was a sheep station about a mile off; a quarry of good building stone was at hand.
A tribe, frequenting this place, calls itself the Apoinga tribe, and holds itself distinct from the others. One of those individuals accosted us at the entrance of the village with much native politeness, and pulled off his straw hat:—' Good morning, Sirs,' said he, are you going to see Apoinga Smelting Works? 'Yes,' replied we. 'Then, suppose’ said he, 'you give me sixpence.'
By the middle of 1851 the quality of copper produced at Apoinga was still very high and compared with the Russian copper which was quoted at £88 to £90 a ton whereas the best of English copper could only command £83. As many as 50 tons of copper were produced each week but there were problems appearing on the horizon. Thousands of tons of wood were needed but not readily available. Supply had to come from long distances thereby increasing costs. In November 1851 William Shepperbottom was charged by Crown Land Ranger John Coles, and fined £5, for cutting wood without a licence on Crown Land near the smelters.
In June 1851 management of the Apoinga smelters were told that when the current contract for smelting ores from Burra was completed no more would be available as the Burra owners had decided to have their ores smelted by the Patent Copper Company. Apoinga would have to rely now on ores from northern mines.
A far bigger problem was the fact that almost all men had deserted the Apoinga smelters for the Victorian goldfields. Their departure had not been on the most amicable terms either. In revenge for being refused permission to leave before completing their contract they resorted to ‘dragging out ore and slag together, involving the owners in terrible losses’.
It was later said that hundreds of tons of slag at Apoinga would pay for resmelting. An immense mass of copper was also discovered at the bottom of one of the furnaces which took 14 bullocks to draw it out.
All these problems resulted in the closure of the smelters and although some production was recorded as late as 1857 Apoinga never returned to its former glory. During the second half of 1854 most of South Australian and other Colonial newspapers advertised the auction, on 20 September, of the Apoinga Smelting Works by Samson Wicksteed & Co.
It consisted of 163 acres of freehold land, 30 of which were enclosed with a post and rail fence, upon which were the Apoinga Hotel, a substantial eight roomed, stone building with stables, a six roomed stone manager’s cottage and stone assay and other offices. There were also a number of stone, brick and slab workmen cottages.
Additionally there were three smelting furnaces with main stack and one refining furnace with stack complete. One new stack completed for two furnaces one of which was nearly finished with castings for both complete. Outside there were tanks, dams and wells, a blacksmith’s forge with an 10 cwt anvil, new bellows, sledges and vices.
To show that it was really a going concern the listing went on with ladles, wheelbarrows, weighing machines and weights, a large number of ore bags, two crucibles, as well as 3000 bushels of charcoal and 600 tons of fire wood. The bottoms of the furnaces still contained a large quantity of copper.
In May 1856 it was reported that the new owners were doing some little work as could be seen from the fact that between 100 and 150 loads of wood a week were being used. During October some seven tons of copper were produced and delivered at the Burra. In March 1857 some 250 tons of ore were delivered at the smelters and 56 tons of copper produced for Burra.
At the village itself life went on as usual for the remaining inhabitants. In March 1855 William Serpell Phillips took over the Apoinga Hotel, which had now eight rooms, a stable and stockyards and an abundant supply of fresh water. On 12 May 1856 Mrs A. Thomas had a daughter and a year later her husband was appointed agent for the registration of births and deaths. He was replaced in November by Robert Parr of Netherby.