“On 23 May 1861, in the gully which still bears his name, Read discovered gold, ‘shining like the stars in Orion on a dark frosty night.’ It was this discovery which revealed the potential of gold in Otago, and thereby initiated the series of discoveries and rushes which were to transform the economic, social and political life of the province.”
— T. J. Hearn. ‘Read, Thomas Gabriel’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1r3/read-thomas-gabriel (accessed 18 August 2020)
[I’ve copied this passage to set the scene with regard to the pioneer gold miners in Otago. The gold discovery above was near Lawrence, a town that’s little more than a 1/2 hour drive from where we live in Tapanui.]
Gorge Creek (near Fruitlands)
Click on any photo below to enlarge
Weather in the early 1860s wasn’t kind to gold-fevered miners. I’m sharing a story here about an event on 18 August, 1863. I took these photos on our way back from Fruitlands on Sunday 16 August. Reminder: August is winter in NZ!
There’s a place you can easily pull off the highway, just before Gorge Creek.
As we pulled in I admired the form of the willow tree against the slopes of the Old Man Range. Somewhere up there in 1863, high above the current highway and up the gorge, was a packer’s camp named Chamonix with “about 20 stores, shanties, tents and a blacksmith’s shop”. It was a service village for the miners – they worked further away on the mountain range, at ‘Campbells’ and ‘Potters’. Nothing’s left of Chamonix these days.
I turned away from this scene, walked in the opposite direction, and climbed a small gravel pile to get a view over Gorge Creek. You can see it’s rugged country. Of interest is the little white dot just right-of-centre. We’ll take a closer look at that.
This red cross marks an actual grave, it’s not a general memorial. Some miners had cleared out of the high mountain range in July 1863 when snow had started but many others stayed high – they were afraid their claims would be ‘jumped’. Heavy snow storms began on 11 August and packers couldn’t get supplies through to the miners. Fearing starvation the miners decided to make a break for Chamonix. They got caught in a blizzard, whiteout conditions, and at least 13 died. On 18 August exhausted survivors turned up in Chamonix with news of the disaster.
This gravestone marks the grave of John Stewart. He’d been well known as a ferryman on the Clutha River before he went for gold on the Old Man Range. He was highly regarded in the local community and after the snow thawed, eighteen men climbed the range and carried his body down to Gorge Creek for burial. There are three other unmarked graves known to be here – victims of the same storm.
Three more photos.. first is another overview but zoomed-in more than the last. Then a couple of shots where I’ve zoomed closer to the rock formation.
In this photo, once again you can see the gravestone.
Rock formation photos (x2)
Source: factual information I’ve shared about the Great Snow of 1863, I’ve gleaned from a book I have at home:
Goldfields of Otago: an illustrated history by John Hall-Jones (2005)
There’s a monument for the victims at Gorge Creek rest area (accessed from the inner side of the sharp highway bend). I took photos there on 30 April 2019 but have never shared them before now. The monument was erected in 1929. Here’s my photos.
Here’s an autumn photo I took during the same 2019 visit, same site. I’ve posted a similar shot before. It’s a photo I like a lot. Apart from the highway it’s a very peaceful location. You’ll no doubt recognise these – a poplar tree and rosehips 🙂
Text and photos by Liz; Exploring Colour (2020)