Sliding Rock copper mine in the Flinders Ranges

Sliding Rock,
to mine or not to mine.

The discovery in 1869 of this copper deposit initially created a much bigger impact on the Flinders Ranges than any of the other mines, except maybe the Blinman mine. The Sliding Rock mine gave rise to the establishment of a proper town, with all facilities normally associated with inland settlements. Sliding Rock provided job opportunities which were badly needed for the northern residents and also for the miners at Blinman, who were struggling at that time to keep their own mine open. During its heyday, and even in decline, Sliding Rock was a boost for the newly established town of Beltana, providing it with additional business and later population.


Sliding Rock 1872.

Sliding Rock was wholly financed with South Australian capital, providing investment opportunities for local residents, particularly those from Blinman. Last but not least Sliding Rock would provide another example of fortunes won and lost by investors or prospectors on the frontiers of settlement.

The copper deposit was discovered in December 1869 and work was started immediately. Within a short time the miners had exposed copper of high content, creating ‘great sensation by its quantity and quality’. Soon the lease holders realised that it was impossible to finance the mine by themselves and decided to form a company and issue six hundred shares of $10 each. To make sure that they kept control of the mine the five promoters took up sixty shares each.

The promoters were Edward Thompson Braddock, storekeeper and postmaster of Blinman, George Cox, ex-publican of the North Star Hotel Blinman, Samuel and John Holden, both Blinman teamsters and Charles Henry Gray, a small landowner previously from Melrose but lately brewer at Blinman. When the Company was formed, it appointed Captain William Tonkin as on site manager. Under Captain Tonkin rapid progress was made in all aspects of the mine's development. Enough copper was raised to convince him that it would be cheaper to smelt the ore on site, rather than transporting it by bullock, or camel team to Port Augusta.

The foundation stone for the smelters was laid on 11 July 1870. As early as the middle of 1870 people were convinced that the mine would be a permanent one, and provide secure and long-term employment for many people. Some of the earliest settlers around the mine were miners, woodcutters, teamsters, and before long a blacksmith. They in turn were followed by a shopkeeper - or two - and eventually a government official. One of these early settlers was Richard Ellery, who had arrived, with his parents from Cornwall, in South Australia in 1849.

Next came the woodcarters, shoemakers and tradesmen. Many of these men brought their wives and children and before long a small community had developed around the mine, though some preferred to live in, or along the creek, with its sliding rocks. Life was extremely hard for them, the nearest facilities of any kind being about sixty kilometres away at Blinman. Housing consisted often of a canvas or calico shelter, native pine or bark hut, or a dug-out in the Sliding Rock Creek.

Supplies of food, particularly fresh meat, had to come from Beltana station, where the manager sold live sheep to neighbouring workers, collected their mail or held it for them. Mail in 1870 was just as important, if not more so, then today. It was the only form of communication, as no radio or telephone, television, video or film existed then. The northern most newspaper printed in 1870 was the Northern Argus from Clare. The Port Augusta Dispatch did not see the streets until 1877. Therefore Adelaide newspapers were most commonly read. Although news was old by time it arrived at Sliding Rock, it still would be read as eagerly as if it had come hot off the press.

Living conditions at the Rock were very primitive at first. Several people who lived in the dugouts along the creek, were subjected to occasional flash floods. Others, who lived on higher ground and had constructed buildings of some sort, had to put up with extreme temperatures. Floors in these buildings were often of dried mud, smoothed out, or made of slate collected in the neighbourhood. Evidence of these floors can still be seen today. It was not until well after the Sliding Rock Company was formed, that some basic requirements became available.

On 1 September 1870, Thomas Jones opened his 'Ready Penny Store' and soon became one of the most respected and well-liked gentlemen in the settlement. He went out of his way to provide additional services (free of charge) for his customers. Nothing was too much for him. Many a time he picked up goods for them at Blinman, while collecting his own stores, which had arrived by mail-coach from Burra, Clare or Adelaide. Time and room permitting he would also collect the mail from the Blinman Post Office. Until the establishment of the town of Beltana, Blinman remained the service centre for Sliding Rock.

As business was very slow at Blinman in 1870, shopkeepers were only too pleased to supply all the Rock's needs. At the same time they hoped that the mine would be a success, as their own was not doing very well. One gentleman in particular, hoped for the success of the Sliding Rock mine, for more reasons than one. He was Charles Faulkner, shareholder and director of the Company, but also builder and publican of the North Blinman Hotel. This enterprising gentleman had previously built and run 'The Bushman Inn' Hotel at Nuccaleena, and was very keen to supply the people at Sliding Rock with their liquid refreshments in his own hotel at Sliding Rock. And they were grateful for it too.

Although the mine was only employing about fifty men, the town was gradually growing. By June nearly two hundred people lived at the Rock. Jones' Ready Penny Store, now also had the agency for the Observer, Register and Evening Journal. Braddock had recently started another store, and William Carruthers had set himself up as a carpenter. Others with faith in the mine were Peter Doig, August Helling, who had started his butcher shop and eating house, F.B. Andrews had opened a general store and George Cox a contracting business. All of them believed in the ultimate success of the mine and the town.


Sliding Rock Hotel with a view of the mine.
Photograph courtesy Phil Gribble, a possible descendant of Captain Gribble of the Mount Rose Mine.

During September 1870 the directors decided that additional capital was needed to develop the mine. A great deal of money had already been used for the sinking and timbering of shafts and drives. Underground stoping, and work on the smelters had also been very costly. To offset these extra expenses $2 per share was called up to be paid before 20 October. As a result of all this activity, enough interest was shown by the people of Adelaide to warrant a reporter for the Observer visiting Sliding Rock.

He reported that at the mine, ‘The smelting furnace is fast approaching completion... the building has the appearance of being well finished. The draught is conveyed by a fifty metre culvert, up an incline and terminates in a stack of thirteen metres high, substantially built of stone, and the intention is to connect other stacks with the same flue... Firewood is in abundance close at hand, the first contract for 1,000 tons having been taken at forty cents per ton, less than half the price paid at the Blinman mine. Water is also easily obtainable... The furnace and stack are being built at a cost of about $1,600

The real sign of progress and success came in early December when teamsters lined up at the mine with their bullocks for the loading of the first twelve tons of copper to be transported to Port Augusta. It certainly had been a good year for the mine. However from a look at the shareholders' list of January 1871, it can be seen that not everyone was encouraged to the same extent. Four of the five promoters had sold at least a major part of their original parcel of sixty shares. The only one who had not sold, but in fact bought more shares, was Braddock. He now owned more than a hundred shares.

There had also been a geographic dispersal of shareholders. Whereas before almost all had been Blinman residents, now, after six months of buying and selling, owners lived as far away as Adelaide, Angepena, Blanchewater, Nuccaleena, Clare, Stirling North, Saltia, Moolooloo, Balhannah, Gawler, Mount Freeling, Sliding Rock and Port Augusta. Three years later, the mine was almost wholly owned by Adelaide residents.

During the first half of 1871 much bigger machinery was installed, including a puddling machine and a horsewhim. Everyone was convinced that this was going to be ‘a good and payable mine’. On 20 July 1871 Captain Joseph Vivian arrived at Sliding Rock, relieving H.S. Hemmings of the job of acting captain, which he had performed to everyone's satisfaction. One of the first changes introduced by Vivian was to put some of the underground miners on tribute. He also continued the work started by Hemmings after he had taken over from Captain Tonkin.

Captain Vivian continued deepening Faulkner's shaft and the work started in Gray's stope. Work was soon hampered by an inflow of large volumes of underground water in several shafts, keeping the whims occupied day and night. What was needed now, according to Vivian, was an engine to replace the whims. To do this however, meant that again more capital needed to be raised. Charles Gray, the mine's secretary, called a special general meeting for this purpose on Friday 27 October 1871 at Blinman. At this meeting it was decided to issue additional shares to the value of $12,000.

After this was accomplished mining went ahead in earnest, and all four shafts were deepened. Stoping and timbering was speeded up and large amounts of ore were raised for the smelters which were continuously producing good quantities of copper. Contracts were let for making bricks, burning lime and additional miners employed. On 15 August 1872, twenty bullocks pulled up with the new boiler which had been ordered from Victoria previously. With underground water retarding mining severely in the lower parts, work for the boiler's installation was started immediately.

Some weeks later, two important visitors called at Sliding Rock. They were Thomas Reynolds, Commissioner of Crown Lands, and George Woodroffe Goyder, Surveyor-General, who were on an inspection tour of the North. After their inspection of the mine and town, Goyder promised that a township would be surveyed without delay. Early in November a Government surveyor, McKay, arrived at Sliding Rock with all his notebooks, instructions and survey equipment. He set to work immediately and thoroughly, looking for the best possible sites, as close to the mine as possible.

When the township was on the map in December 1872, all streets had been named. As at Nuccaleena, they were named after people who had done so much to get the mine and town going. Hence we find names like Holding Terrace, Braddock Street, and Gray Street. For good measure Mine Street, Main Road and North Terrace were also added, and last but not least McKay Street. When officially proclaimed, the town did not receive the name of Sliding Rock as everyone had expected, but Cadnia, which was an Aboriginal name for rock.

The Cadnia area was apparently an important site in the sacred Wiljara myth, associated with Aboriginal adult male initiation rites. If this was known to McKay, it was certainly a nice gesture by him towards the Aborigines. On the other hand, it was perhaps, in the Flinders Ranges, the first case of European mineral exploration and mining on an Aboriginal sacred site.

Meanwhile the value of the company's shares had increased, possibly reflecting its success and future profitability. This led to many people making mineral applications for sections of land around Sliding Rock during September 1872. With work at the Sliding Rock mine progressing and large amounts of copper being sold, some hopeful gentlemen were convinced that the lode, which seemed big and rich, would extend beyond the boundary of the company's lease, and formed the Great Extended Sliding Rock Mining Company with the Hon. W. Morgan as Chairman.

At Sliding Rock both the mine and town were getting ready for a day of festivities. Wednesday 9 October 1872 was the day marked for starting the engine, which together with the engineshaft and building, had cost $2,500. The honour of starting it was awarded to Mrs A. Braddock, watched by some two hundred people. Within only a few hours all the shafts had been dewatered and mining at the lower levels could continue, providing work for additional men. During January 1873 more than seventy men were employed at the mine.

With the help of the new engine, and the flow of water it provided, it was now possible to have four puddling machines in operation, all worked by horse power. With all the machinery and the smelters working, the mine produced about three tons of pig-copper weekly. Sixty-eight tons of copper produced during November and December were delivered at Port Augusta and loaded on the steamer Lubra for Port Adelaide early in the new year. Early in June the mine suffered a minor setback when one of the driving wheels of the engine broke. Fortunately enough ore had been stockpiled to keep the smelters going for some time. When the repairs were completed Captain Jane was replaced by Captain Thomas Matthews, the sixth captain in just over two years.

To get as many teamsters as possible, and as quickly as possible, Captain Matthews offered a bonus of $1 to teamsters who would work during the wool season until the start of the new year. He wanted to get as much copper as possible to reach Adelaide before the summer heat made it virtually impossible to do so. Early 1874 brought the long awaited sales of the townblocks in Cadina when more than eighty percent of the blocks were sold. At the auction some prices were pushed up to astronomical heights. A good example was the case of Forester Benjamin Andrews, who paid $325 for a site. This kind of money amounted to more than one year's wages. As Andrews already had a store on this block, valued at more than $250 in 1872, it almost looks as if the highly inflated price was the result of some unfair bidding amongst the prospective buyers.

During 1874 there were several stores at Sliding Rock. At one stage A.D. Tassie and Co. from Port Augusta was sending as much as twelve tons of stores to Sliding Rock each day. Among their customers were Andrews, Helling and Faulkner. In later years they also supplied A. Wyly and Co. and W.P. Logan. Among some of the other buyers at the Sliding Rock land sales were people from as far away as Blinman, Hookina, Bolla Bollana, Port Augusta and Adelaide.

At the beginning of 1874 Sliding Rock resembled a beehive with all this activity. Everyone was full of confidence. Nearly two hundred tons of copper had already been sent to Port Augusta that year and there was more to come, if only teamsters could be obtained. With production increasing all the time, it was decided to build a second furnace, which Captain Thomas Matthews was pushing with vigour to complete as soon as possible. The best news from Sliding Rock during 1874 was the fact that the directors were finally able to declare a dividend. Each shareholder was to receive twenty-five cents per share. A second dividend was declared during September 1874.

During 1874 the town's people had formed an action group and successfully lobbied the Government for a school. The only thing needed now was someone to teach the children. The school committee started to advertise immediately, promising a daily attendance of thirty children during the day and as many again at night. The newly appointed teacher was John Forsyth who held classes during 1874 for sixty-two days. Enrolment figures for that year were forty boys and twenty girls. The average attendance of the students that year was forty-two days. While waiting for the new school, it was decided that classes would be held in the Chapel.

New Year's Day 1875 saw an achievement of a different kind celebrated. On that day the first anniversary of the Wesleyan Sunday School was held. It turned out to be an excellent day for the organisers and the fifty children who were on the roll. Many other people attended the tea meeting at which several people spoke. Among those who praised the good work done were the Rev. W.T. Carter and Forsyth. The children sang several songs under the leadership of Mrs Holmes. Captain Matthews who presided over the festivities acknowledged the efficient services of Mrs Doig in conducting the school and of Mrs Holmes in teaching singing. It was a most enjoyable day for all who attended.

After the erection of the new machinery at the Sliding Rock Mine it was felt that a new impetus had been given to the workings. Quality and quantity of copper were increasing all the time. Large piles of ore and copper were accumulating on the mine's floor, as again by October teams had become scarce. Once more the old enemy of scarcity of transport was being felt, pushing up the price of cartage and retarding work at the mine. Many horses were still used at the Rock, and teamsters had to be assured that feed for their animals would be available at the mine. Mr Fullarton advertised in the Observer for tenders to supply the mine with twenty tons of chaff.

Great was the satisfaction at Sliding Rock when in July one of the smelters, which had been out of order for some time was restarted. The second smelter was not started until October. If teamsters were able to keep up the wood supply, then both furnaces would have enough ore to keep going for at least six months. Sadly though, the mine somehow did not return to its former glory. The drive to succeed seemed to have been lost. It had experienced so much trouble, that it seemed impossible to beat the odds. Problems had included broken machinery, costly and lengthy repairs, hot and dry summers without sufficient transport, which if obtainable at all was at ruinous prices, lack of a railway, isolation, distance, and the continuous fall in the price of copper. Last but not least there was the unrelenting water problem underground, the one enemy which they had still not been able to defeat completely.

The directors were well aware of it too. On 8 January 1877, they met in White's Rooms in Adelaide to assess the whole situation. The outcome of this meeting struck people at Sliding Rock like a thunderbolt. The Board's findings were that, the present state of the mine was so bad that they deemed it advisable to call a meeting and ascertain the feeling of the shareholders. The men's wages were in arrears and as a result they only worked in a half-hearted way. This caused progress to be retarded considerably. The expenses were very great and returns had been insufficient to meet the outlay. The men were leaving, and there seemed no other way but to wind up the Company.

When the news reached the Rock and the residents had overcome their initial shock they speedily called a Public meeting. This meeting was presided over by T.J.C. Hantke,J.P., and more than seventy men were in attendance. They strongly believed ‘that the mine never had sufficient capital to carry out mining in a proper way. In fact it had been subjected to a kind of scratching'. It was also stated that 'a large amount of money was spent on machinery and plant, but that the real working, prospecting and developing had never had a fair trial’. Furthermore they felt that more money should have been allocated for prospecting.

As the machinery and plant, plus the men, were all in good trim, they were convinced that no other obstacles, like those of the past would occur again. They did admit that adverse seasons had wasted much of the capital by the high price of cartage, but the prospect of a railway was now almost a certainty. Still it was hoped, that as the major part of the capital expenditure was a thing of the past, the future success would not be hampered by a repetition of such expenditure. In fact, they believed that as the mine had everything it could possibly need - except capital - the necessary money should now be made available.

Members of the proposed committee, duly elected, were Hantke, Braddock, John Woodforde and Forsyth. Hantke was elected Chairman and Forsyth secretary. At the end of the meeting more than two thousand shares were signed for in the room. They were certainly serious in their attempt to keep the mine going and save the jobs of the miners and possibly the existence of the town.

During 1878 only two shops and the hotel remained open, although the hotel changed hands many times. During 1877 and 1878 Hantke was the publican. The year 1879 saw still more departures from the Rock. In January Thomas Pearce finally closed his shop and moved to Beltana where he set himself up as Bootmaker, Jeweller, Tobacconist and also Poundkeeper. During April Conway's Northern Mail coaches ceased to call at the Rock and the remaining people also had to travel to Beltana to pick up their mail or catch the coach to Port Augusta. With the increase in mining in the Flinders Ranges in 1888, the Sliding Rock mine was bought by Captain Piper and partners with the idea of opening it once more.

It was at this very time that disaster struck again, for the third time. There seemed to be no such thing as third time lucky for the Sliding Rock mine. In 1877 something had gone wrong, in 1888 something else, and now again in 1901, just when everything was going so well. While the old workings were being repaired for the re-opening, an even larger body of water was struck. Still the directors were not going to give up without a good fight. They invited Captain Hancock of the Moonta mines to have a look at their problems. He arrived on 12 April and with the directors spent a considerable time in and on the mine. Unfortunately no account of their inspection and opinion has been found, but work did keep going at least for a little while at the mine.

Then without so much as a warning, 4 June 1901 became Black Tuesday for the residents of Sliding Rock. At an extraordinary general meeting of the company at Brookman's Building in Adelaide, two special resolutions were carried. The first was that the company be wound up voluntarily and the second that Frederick Charles Howard be its liquidator. It must have been a terrible blow for the people at the Rock.

Sliding Rock, To mine or not to mine, is indisputably a book about people, the many and varied characters who played a role in or around the Sliding Rock venture. Drawing on material from the newspapers of that time, it traces the optimism and despair and the plain unadulterated hardship encountered by those who sought to launch and sustain a mining venture, and town, in this remote and hostile environment. After more than a hundred years, and many attempts to bring up the copper and keep down the water, it looks like the sliding rocks can finally return to their age-old silence, only to be occasionally disturbed by a lonely visitor.

The houses and mine buildings have long since disappeared, leaving very little to show for the hard work and determination of men and women who bravely fought the isolation and loneliness, lack of transport, freh food and steady work, and - lost! When everyone had given up hope and left, the Sliding Rock mine became another of the 25,000 mines which have been started and abandoned in South Australia since 1838.

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