Mining in the Northern Flinders Ranges
After 1856, explorers such as Babbage, Bonney, Eyre, Goyder, Freeling, Tolmer and Stuart, on their way back from trips to the Northern Flinders Ranges, were quickly followed by farmers, graziers, shepherds, prospectors and miners. The first discovery of copper in the Northern Flinders Ranges was made by John Bull, a returned gold miner, along the bank of the Warrioota Creek, near Mount Stuart, while working as a stockman for the Chambers brothers.
John arrived in South Australia on the Canton with his parents and brother in 1838. His father was J.W. Bull, the inventor(?) of the Ridley Stripper. John however, was not at all happy at home, and wished to see the world. One day he had enough of the sedate and uninspiring life of Adelaide, and ran away to Port Adelaide. He did what many boys have dreamt of doing and became a sailor, but only as far as Melbourne. There he left the ship and headed for the goldfields of Castlemaine, where to his astonishment, he ran into his father and brother. All were reconciled and did well on the diggings before returning home again.
Back in Adelaide, John decided to go north with his brother. They found jobs as stockmen at Chambers' Oratunga Station in 1855, and it was then, while doing his rounds, that John found the copper in 1856. Many other discoveries soon followed. Some of the better known amongst them were at Blinman, Daly, Mount McKinlay, Nuccaleena, Mount Samuel, Yudanamutana, Mochatoona, Mount Rose, and Appealina. Already in 1859 this last mentioned mine was referred to as 'the Cornwall of South Australia'.
The Chambers brothers were already familiar with the Northern Flinders Ranges. As early as 1850, James Chambers had the contract for delivering the inland mail, earning himself not only $2,500 per annum, but also the approval of the Postmaster General, John Watts, who said; 'The services of conveying the mails during 1850 has been well and satisfactorily performed by Mr Chambers'. James Chambers, and his brother John, also had extensive pastoral holdings in the Northern Flinders Ranges, including Moolooloo station which was acquired in 1853. Moreover James Chambers and his friend William Finke were the first to work a copper deposit in the Northern Flinders. This was the Oratunga mine, in 1857, on the southern boundary of Moolooloo station.
Three years later, in 1860, Chambers and Finke sold their mine to the newly formed English company, The Great Northern Copper Mining Company of South Australia. The South Australian government even surveyed a township at the mining site in 1863. As the prospects of the mine were not yet proved, the Surveyor-General, G.W. Goyder, did not want too much money, time or effort expended on it. Only one street with six town lots, was surveyed by Arthur B. Cooper, the surveyor, in March 1863.
The six town lots, 168-173 east of North Road, were all bought by John Chambers of Adelaide on 29 July 1863 for $417. Chambers sold them on 4 December 1865 for the same price to Philip Levi. When Goyder signed the plan on 7 April 1863 he added 'The Government retains the right to extend this township at any time and in any direction'. Better to be safe than sorry. However he need not have worried.
Very little came of this town or the mine. Only about 120 tons of ore were obtained from it. Influx of underground water and the severe drought of 1864-67 caused its closure, and in 1869 the Adelaide newspapers advertised the auction of its buildings and machinery, and those of the nearby Nuccaleena mine, which had suffered the same fate. This scenario would be repeated many times in the Northern Flinders Ranges during the next fifty or so years.
Whereas before 1850 the Northern Flinders Ranges had been written off for pastoral or any other kind of development, ten years later many people were praising the area for its mineral content and wealth. Among them was, naturally, John Chambers who was of the opinion that in the Northern Flinders 'there was a great deal of copper about'. John Bentham Neales and Colonel A.H. Freeling were of similar opinion. Captain Prisk went as far as to pronounce it 'the most promising mining country in South Australia that he had seen'.
Captain Tonkin went even further in his praise. He called it, 'one of the greatest mineral countries in the world'. Finally most people were convinced that the ore was, 'not just in spots, but by the acre, not simply boulders, but large masses', and there would be an annual production of 10,000 tons. During May 1860, Captain Matthew Bryant, second captain at the Burra mine, and a party of nine miners were sent to Mount McKinlay by the South Australian Mining Association to test four mineral claims in that area. The miners were paid $3.50 per week plus an allowance for travelling and free cartage of their rations.
After four months and careful examination of these claims, Captain Bryant advised the directors of the Burra mine that they should abandon all but one of them. He also made them aware that several other claims had been applied for in the Northern Flinders Ranges but that their prospects were not very good. This news was not altogether unexpected. Henry Ayers had already made it clear that there were 'no great boils of copper, which you can break away as there were at Burra'.
Nevertheless, several encouraging finds were made in the Northern Flinders Ranges during 1858 and 1859. Some of these prospects looked so promising that they led to the formation of mining companies. Two of the better known companies formed during these years were the Mochatoona Copper Mining Company and the already mentioned Great Northern Copper Mining Company of South Australia. This last one really seemed to have some promising mineral leases. It was so confident of the prospects of its leases that it had a railway surveyed from Port Augusta, the nearest port, to its northern mines, of which the Nuccaleena was its principal property at that time. There was even talk of digging a canal from Port Augusta to Lake Torrens to facilitate transport to that area.
Although most of the numerous applications for mineral claims made in South Australia during the late 1850s were for discoveries in the Northern Flinders Ranges, very few resulted in the opening up of profitable mines. One of the reasons for this could have been that the capital outlay for starting a mine was often prohibitive for the small man, in particular when large developmental work would be needed. To start with, an application for a mineral claim was $10. The cost of having it surveyed could be as high as $100. Before the lease was issued, no more than one ton of ore could be removed from the site. When it was issued, the rent had to be paid in advance. As almost all blocks were of eighty acres this amounted to a further $80 per annum.
No wonder those prospectors were very careful before they committed themselves. It really was only possible for the rich man to be involved in mining. But as Captain Vivian, a well-known mining identity, pointed out, 'men of capital never discover a mine, they lie about the cities, and have a pleasanter way of passing their time than going into the hills and deserts in search of minerals'. One way of overcoming this problem was to work as agents for capitalists.
This is what people like W.S. Whitington, R.A. Fiveash and H.C. Gleeson often did. Hence the reason for leases being issued to people other than those who had applied for the mineral claims in the first place. Delays between the application for a claim and the issue of a lease were often long and costly. During the first half of the 1860s more than 10,000 claims were lodged.
This enormous number of claims would have increased the delay even more as all of them had to be surveyed and accompanied by a locality plan before the application could be proceeded with. No wonder, many of these claims never reached the final stage of a lease. Still there was also an advantage for the prospector. After he had secured the area with the application, he had ample time to test the area before proceeding with the next step. This next step would only be taken if testing had proved to be worthwhile. Unfortunately for the prospectors, and the South Australian economy, most of these claims, and even most of the resulting leases, often proved to be only copper stains, rather than copper deposits. To make matters worse, the majority of the copper deposits were surface deposits only. They often rapidly vanished with depth.
One result of all this activity was that the South Australian government finally started to show more than just a passing interest in the 'mineral kingdom' of the Northern Flinders Ranges. It was not the copper deposits which attracted its attention though. It still had hopes of finding gold in the ranges. During 1864, it invited Edmund Hammond Hargraves, the originator of the 1850s goldrushes in eastern Australia, to come to South Australia and look for gold.
None was found, but he suggested, when shown around the Yudanamutana area by Captain Terrell, that it was quite possible that gold could be found in veins associated with the copper ores at Yudanamutana. As it turned out, Hargraves was once again correct in his prophecy. Gold was found in that area many years later. Regrettably, the value of it was not even sufficient to pay one miner his wages. It would have been far better for everyone concerned, and the South Australian economy in particular, if the Government, instead of wasting its time, effort and money on Hargraves, had used its influence to have a thorough geological survey made of the colony.
As early as 1858 Marshall MacDermott had tried to interest the Government in doing just that. Nothing came of it except a cursory visit made by Alfred Selwyn in 1859. Francis Dutton, who had substantial mining and pastoral interest asked Parliament in May 1860 to appoint a Select Committee 'to consider the best means for effectually encouraging the development of the mineral discoveries in the northern district'. Unfortunately this proposal was rejected because the Commissioner of Crown Lands, John Bagot saw it as an interference with private enterprise.
Almost twenty years after MacDermott's initiative, David Nock tried once more, but his efforts were also in vain. It was not until late 1882, and several articles published in the Adelaide newspapers in support, that Henry Yorke Lyell Brown was appointed to the post of Government Geologist, and a start was made with the Geological Survey. Even so, the early years of the 1860s had proved to be good ones for the Northern Flinders Ranges. Many mines were working and producing copper. Some of the better known among them were the Sir Dominick, Mount Craig, Blinman, Mount Rose, Nuccaleena, Yudanamutana, Mount Samuel, Napoleon, Stanley, Two Brothers, Wirrawilka, Wheal Austin and Welcome Mines.
The Welcome Mine provides us with a good example of a small deposit worked with little capital but very high hopes. The mine was owned by Hampton C. Gleeson and was situated on section 1,512. During 1862 he employed three miners, who had not only raised, dressed and bagged about twenty-three tons of copper ore from the surface outcrop, but also constructed a road through the ranges for nearly one kilometre. Four tons of the mine's copper ore was hauled on two drays to the coast from where it was shipped to Swansea in Wales. It proved to be worthwhile, for it contained nearly forty-one per cent copper, paying $71.60 per ton. Small as it was, it still added to the total value of copper production in South Australia, which in 1862 amounted to just over $1 million.