Gold mining history makes Wellington city unique
NESTLED within Wellington’s Karori Sanctuary Valley is a treasure relatively unknown to most: gold mines.
In the 1860s Wellington was made unique by having working goldfields within city boundaries around Baker’s Hill, which is now pierced by Karori Tunnel.
However, despite years of attempts, substantial amounts of gold were never found, Philippa Larkindale, a volunteer guide at Zealandia, said.
The Karori gold-rush was certainly nothing compared to the gold rushes before it, on the South Island’s West Coast and Arrowtown, she said.
“Things were looking pretty bad for gold and people were still hopeful.”
An old wives’ tale can perhaps explain why people were so convinced there was gold in the area, but Mrs Larkindale (right) said it was just hearsay.
“The story is that the farmer’s wife, I think it was Mrs Baker, caught a duck in the [Kaiwharawhara] stream, and there was gold in the gizzard when she cooked it, just a few flecks, and that sort of triggered the whole idea there was gold in the hills.”
This part of Wellington’s history is still visible in Karori today, in a street named after the man who discovered gold and a couple of mines still present in the sanctuary valley.
“The man who had the first mine’s name was Reading. I grew up in Reading St in Karori. It’s named after him. He was one of the early settlers,” said Mrs Larkindale.
“There are old Karori names associated with this area.”
Of the two mines at Karori Sanctuary, only one can still be entered.
Railway tracks can still be seen emerging from the dark entrance, where rocks were carried to the stream to be crushed.
“A lot of the remains of those other mines are actually underwater now so you can’t find them, but the two mines that we have left are two of the later ones.
“There is only one you can go into now and that’s the Morning Star,” said Mrs Larkindale.
It was one of six unsuccessful mining attempts in that same area.
The lack of success of the Morning Star mine is apparent by the way the tunnel abruptly ends just a few metres in.
According to James Brodie, who wrote Terawhiti and the Goldfields in 1986, gold in quartz was discovered in the area in 1857 by John Brown Reading.
It has been reported that Mr Reading, from a Birmingham family of jewellers, made the first wedding rings in New Zealand using gold he found in the nearby Makara hills.
Baker’s Hill Mining company was started 12 years later after the discovery of alluvial gold sparked the Karori goldrush.
The Wellington Independent of July 15, 1869, reported that 20 to 30 diggers worked “in earnest” at Mr Baker’s property, with the valley “scattered with the tents and huts of those miners”.
There were a few more attempts that year, one of the last quite suitably named the Try Again mine, but all were unsuccessful and when the Lower Karori Dam was built in 1978, mining in the area was effectively brought to an end.
“No-one got more than a few ounces. Everyone had thought there was gold in the hills because of the rock structure,” said Mrs Larkindale.
The 225-hectare Karori sanctuary valley is now home to hundreds of species of native birds as Jim Lynch, the originator of the sanctuary concept, tries to take the area back to what Wellington would have been like before mankind arrived.
Mrs Larkindale said that the mining was for the most part a failure, but there are reminders of the unique gold rush within Wellington’s city boundaries to this day.
While most of the mine entrances, and the working site now lie beneath the lake, the history lives on through Karori street names and the odd bit of mining equipment still there, she said.
“[There are] bits and pieces of the old equipment around about the sanctuary.
“Wherever they’ve found it, they’ve just left it and put it on display.”