The Port Augusta Smelters.
Most mines wanted their own smelters, but few were able to afford them. The only centrally located smelters which did process copper ore from local mines were located at Bolla Bollana on the north-eastern side of the Northern Flinders Ranges. Some individual mines, especially the larger ones, did have their own smelters but had to pay dearly for their services. To reduce their costs and increase efficiency they were often forced to smelt ores from smaller neighbouring mines.
Right from the start of mining in the Flinders Ranges, ore had been transported by bullock teams to Port Augusta. From there it went by ship to Port Adelaide where it either went to England or was smelted at the English and Australian Copper Company at Port Adelaide which had completed its smelters by 1861. In its first year of operation it had produced 759 tons of copper. It could afford to import the coal from Newcastle. In the Flinders this would have been impossible as the expense of bullock transport was prohibitive.
An additional problem was that most smelters needed different kinds of ore to be used as a flux. For instance the flux material for the Sliding Rock smelters had to be carted in from the Two Brothers Mine. Fuel for the smelters in the Flinders Ranges was also a problem. Often it had to be carted in from as far as fifty kilometres. As early as 1876 it was stated that "The only chance of any of these mines becoming productive would be a supply of coal, for smelting purposes, at a reasonable rate. I really don't believe that in three or four years time there will be timber for the engines".
Twelve years later the topic was still hotly debated as each town wanted its own smelters for they could all see some advantages, even if the only advantage was that another town would not have them. During March 1888 both the Quorn and Port Augusta people had formed committees to look into and secure the building of smelters in their town. The Quorn committee in particular considered that they had an "abundance of wood and water" to make their town "the most suitable site in the North for smelting".
Not to be outdone by the Quorn effort, the Port Augusta Dispatch made a rather long but solid case for the siting of smelters in Port Augusta by arguing that 'The Blinman ore is now coming down to Port Augusta; and in the wool season it can be readily sent away cheaply as ballast but what is wanted is a permanent and uniform means of disposing of ore as it arrives and smelting works offer that means. It would not pay any one mining company to establish smelting works on its own property, nearly so well as for all the companies to get their work done at one such establishment; and any Company that took the initiative and thus secured the smelting work of the rest at the seaboard would probably profit considerably thereby'.
'An intermediate place would be absurd for smelting purposes, as it would, even if otherwise suitable, entail double handling of the ore and metal. Port Augusta is, however, preeminently adapted for such an undertaking. It has the greatest depth of water and the best shipping facilities of any port in South Australia; it has railway communication with all the mining fields except the North-West; it is centrally situated with regard to all, has a practically unlimited water supply... and moreover it is especially well situated for the importation of good smelting fuel'.
'A considerable trade is done with Queensland and New South Wales in grain and flour, but the ships which come here for it, have to come in ballast for lack of cargo, or take coals for the charterers for the mere cost of discharging. This had been done several times of late, because except for Government purposes, there has been no demand for coal in the North; but when coal or coke is required for smelting, it will pay vessels in the intercolonial trade better to come here so laden, instead of in ballast, and thus the grain and flour trade would also be assisted'.
'Vessels which come here from Melbourne for wheat have to bring sand ballast at present; and it is obvious that both the import and export trade of the Port would be greatly benefited by the establishment of smelting works here, which would enable vessels to bring cargo, as well as take it; while by the same means the interests of the mining districts would be served. Some two months ago the project was mooted and discussed at a private meeting of leading residents; a committee was appointed to take the necessary steps to bring the project to a head; but beyond communicating recently with Mr Masey, with regard to the Blinman and Wirrealpa ores, we are not aware that anything has been done - secrecy having been, we think mistakenly, decided upon, for fear that if the proposal were made public Port Augusta might be forestalled'.
'However, Quorn has, in spite of this secrecy, forestalled Port Augusta so far as taking the preliminary steps for the formation of a smelting company; but we do not imagine that Port Augusta has much to fear from the competition of an inland town, which complains bitterly of the insufficiency of its water supply, and which relies upon its timber for smelting fuel. The movement, however, shows that the time is certainly ripe for action, and it is to be hoped that something definite will result from Mr Masey's approaching visit to Port Augusta and conference with its Smelting Works Committee'.
Both committees failed in their efforts and the issue was laid to rest for some years. When however the Department of Mines was established in 1894, Northern mine owners and residents looked more and more to the government for the provision of smelters. The government though was not so easily convinced that it should enter in competition with private enterprise. Finally in early 1900 the government relented and promised to build smelting works at Port Augusta. It even advertised for a manager to supervise and run the works after they had been completed.
Unfortunately the project did not materialize for some time. Finally on 27 September 1901, four years after the bill had been introduced, the smelters were officially opened by L. O'Loughlin, Commissioner of Crown Lands and Minister of Mines. Applications for the position of manager were received from far and wide, including Kadina, Wallaroo and Wirrabara. The smelters, started in October, processed ore from Silverton and Broken Hill in New South Wales, from South Australian mines such as Beltana, Pekina, Farina, Waukaringa, Oodlawirra, Kooringa, Mount Fitton and Eurelia.
Charges for smelting were 27 shillings per ton which meant that some people had to PAY the smelters, because the cost was higher than the total value of copper delivered. J.W. Rollens from Farina had to pay $12 without receiving any copper in return.