The rush that never ended

The Eastern Goldfields was born out of man’s penchant for gold. However, the dark knight Nickel has since stepped out of the shadows and shown its true worth. Jessica Darnbrough writes for Australian Mining.

The Eastern Goldfields is an historic area in West­ern Australia that is made up of several gold mining towns.

In its hey-day Kalgoorlie was filled with cowboys, gambling and brothels.

Today, tourists can be taken on a tour of the brothels.

Langtrees 181 is a renovated bordello where each room has a different theme depicting the lives of the women who once worked there.

While the gold-rush of the mid 19th Century was predom­inately in Victoria, Western Aus­tralia joined the mix.

By the turn of the Century, Australia had become the world’s largest producer of gold, half of which came from Western Aus­tralia.

Gold was produced at the Kimberly for a short time in 1885, and then at Southern Cross in 1888 and Coolgardie in 1892, but it was three Irishmen who triggered the rush in Western Australia in June 1893.

Patrick Hannan, Tom Flana­gan and Daniel Shea were camp­ing at Mt Charlotte and by chance discovered some 100 ounces of gold in alluvial nuggets.

After a few days they reported the find to the mining warden in Coolgardie.

Hundreds of diggers were soon pegging out new claims around Kalgoorlie, then else­where in the region.

The early pickings were rich, but the circumstances were dif­ferent from those in New South Wales and Victoria. This was desert and water was scarce.

It was enormously expensive to obtain supplies of food and equipment in such a remote part of the continent. Eventually a reservoir was built in Kalgoorlie, by which time the surface gold was work­ing itself out and highly capi­talised companies financed by British investors were mining gold leads deep underground.

Hundreds of companies were floated and the population of Western Australia swelled with people streaming in from Vic­toria and New South Wales.

As the prosperity of the region improved, large public works programs were undertaken.

A harbour was built at Free­mantle and a railway network linked the dozens of newly estab­lished gold towns, though many townships died when the seams were exhausted.

Numerous small underground mines opened up at the height of the rush.

The mines stretched for some 5 km and were commonly referred to as the ‘Golden Mile.’

The early methods of extrac­tion were primitive at best.

The very earliest gold extrac­tion techniques used by diggers was cradle and gold.

As diggers began to settle more permanently on the gold­fields they began mining in new ways that required additional land and a systematic and sci­entific approach to the extrac­tion of the ore.

Puddling through

When shallow alluvial ground was deemed ‘worked-out’, min­ing legislation permitted larger claims to be taken up for puddl­ing purposes.

The process involved the removal and processing of all the dirt, usually down to bedrock, stripping both gullies and hill­sides (a practice known as sur­facing). Puddling machines powered by horses could treat several tons of earth a day.

The machines comprised of a circular wood-lined trough with a wooden pivot on the cen­tral mound.

A long, horizontal wooden pole was attached to the post by an iron pin and a horse was har­nessed to the other end. Iron rakes hung from the pole and were dragged around the trench to break up the clay and free the gold. The water necessary for this process was obtained from a dam (the right to construct one came with a puddling lease) or from a water race.

Puddling operations led to considerable changes in the gold­field’s landscape.

Sludge, the residue of pud­dled washdirt, choked water­courses and covered auriferous ground and roads.

In some places special meas­ures, such as the construction of sludge channels and the employ­ment of workers to clear the watercourses, the cost borne by the proprietors of the puddling machines, were introduced to keep the channels running free.

Quartz reef mining proved to be the most widely practised extraction method used in the region and it even continues to be successfully employed to the present day.

Quartz reefs were the primary source of gold in most goldfields. They generally dipped steeply and were mined in sections leav­ing large slots in the ground where the reef had been.

The reefs were first quarried or open-cut to reap the benefit of their rich surface exposures then, shafts were sunk, or tun­nels were driven into the sides of the hills, to trace the gold con­cealed at greater depths.

Once extracted, the quartz had to be crushed to a fine sand to remove the gold.

To accomplish this more effi­ciently than by just using ham­mers, machines such as crush­ing mills and stamping batteries, powered by hand, horse and eventually steam, were installed at the mining sites.

Race riots

By the end of World War II, how­ever, the once prosperous Kal­goorlie had fallen into steady decline due to increasing pro­duction costs in the mining indus­try and the static gold prices.

Miners became unhappy with the decreasing workload and believed that returned service­men and Australian citizens should be given preference over foreign workers.

In response, race riots erupted as disgruntled Australians set fire to foreign owned businesses.

The riots began after an ine­briated British Miner, Edward Jordan, was allegedly killed by an Italian. British miners were resolved to the fact that they would not work until unnaturalised min­ers were ejected from their jobs. The Australian Workers Union (AWU) proceeded to call a meet­ing in an attempt to end the strike.

After several days of meet­ings and negotiations the Cham­ber of Mines agreed to follow a policy of British preference, but would not consider removing southern Europeans from their jobs as this would create an un­tenable labour shortage.

Despite this, by the end of the week, the miners had agreed to return to work on the AWU officials’ assurances that an Eng­lish language test would be more carefully administered to migrant workers. More strikes occurred the following year when the Cham­ber of Mines and the AWU entered into a protracted dispute.

During 1934, the AWU min­ing division had served a log of claims on the Chamber of Mines.

The new award gave some pay increases but allowed for no reductions in hours and sug­gested that the 88 hour fortnight could be worked using alter­nating 40 and 48 hour weeks.

The AWU agreed to accept the new award but warned the Chamber of Mines that any attempt to implement the hours clause would be regarded as ‘hos­tile action.’

The Chamber of Mines pro­ceeded to immediately imple­ment the new hours, locking out miners who attempted to work under the old arrangements.

The AWU leadership called for strike action.

After six weeks, a return to work was accepted under the proviso that a ballot would be held to ascertain which work­ing hours arrangement was pre­ferred.

The ballot was for union members only and both sides agreed to abide by the outcome of the voting.

On 30 March 1935, the members voted overwhelmingly to reject the imposition of a 48 hour work week.

Mining much more

During the great depression the price of gold started to fall dra­matically as the region’s easy pickings dried up. By the 1960s a lot of mines were forced into decommission as gold prices continued to fall and production costs continued to surge.

The Sons of Gwalia gold­mine had been in operation since August 1896, and even lived through a fire (which surpris­ingly only burnt the non-prof­itable parts of the mine) before it was finally shut down some 67 years later in December 1963.

At that stage, the mine had reached a depth of 1600 m or 32 levels.

However, when gold made a resurgence in 1980 so too did the gold mine.

By 1980, gold had been floated on the world market and the price of gold had gone from around $18 per ounce to some $800 per ounce, virtually over­night.

When the sons of Gwalia mine closed, the cut-off or eco­nomic grade was 5 grams of gold per tonne of ore milled, by 1982, with a high gold price and the carbon in pulp method of pro­cessing, the waste of the 1960s was suddenly quite valuable.

The high gold prices of the 1980s proved to be a booming time for the Goldfields-Esper­ance region as the Fimiston Open Pit, commonly referred to as the Super Pit, went into production.

Western Australia business man Alan Bond was the brains behind the operation.

Bond attempted to buy up all the indi­vidual leases that had originally formed the golden mile in an attempt to consolidate the small underground mines into a sin­gle open pit mine.

For the first time, all leases and infrastructure of the Golden Mile, Mt Charlotte (and Mt Percy to the north) had been brought together. Today, Kalgoorlie Consoli­dated Gold Mines (KCGM) man­ages the operation for Newmont Australia and Barrick Gold of Australia.

Most of the gold mined at the Super Pit occurs within ore loads formed by ancient shears in a rock unit called the Golden Mile Dolerite.

There are over 800 ore loads that occur within the Golden Mile Dolerite which is found in an area over 5 km in strike and 2 km in width and occurs to a depth of over 1 km.

In extracting the resource, old workings are first marked out and then mining engineers plant the blast shots from the information given to them by the geologists.

Blasting occurs, on average, three to four times a week pro­viding hundreds of thousands of tonnes of rock to move.

Each blast is given a 12 hour settling period to allow any old workings to open up.

Face shovels load 225 tonne mining trucks for the trip to the waste rock dump site, or con­versely, the ore crusher. Beyond Gold Contrary to its namesake, the East­ern Goldfields mines a lot more than gold. Nickel, copper and zinc are all mined throughout the area.

In fact, the region contains one of the greatest resources of nickel in Australia.

In 2007 the estimated value of minerals and petroleum pro­duction in the Goldfields-Esper­ance region was $9.3 billion (17% of the WA total — second behind Pilbara region) of which $6.3 billion was from nickel and gold was $2.6 billion. In fact, the last few years has seen the value of nickel surge.

In 2004/05, nickel produc­tion was valued at $2.3 billion in com­parison to today’s $6.3 billion. What was originally a gold town, the mining cities that make up the Goldfields Esperance region are now more associated with nickel since the commence­ment of mining in the mid-1960s.

At last count, Western Aus­tralia accounted for all of Aus­tralia’s Nickel production, 66% of which came from the Gold­fields-Esperance region.

A significant project in recent years has been BHP Billiton’s Ravensthorpe nickel laterite mine and hydrometallurgical facility.

The project, which was offi­cially opened in May 2008, will employ 650 workers in the south-east of the State and produce up to 50,000 tonnes of nickel and 1,400 tonnes of cobalt per annum over its 25-year lifespan.

Western Australia Premier Alan Carpenter said the project was the culmination of eight years of work by BHP Billiton and three tiers of Australian gov­ernment.

“An historic 2004 agreement saw the State Government con­tribute $18 million, the Federal Government $9.8 million and BHP Billiton $9.5 million to the development of multi-user infra­structure in the Shire of Ravens­thorpe,” Carpenter said.

“State Government funding was contingent on a regional workforce rather than a fly-in, fly-out operation being employed.”

The Ravensthorpe Nickel pro­ject is the biggest investment in BHP Billiton’s history, includ­ing the associated upgrade of the Yabulu refinery in Queensland. With the addition of Raven­sthorpe ,the gold rush of the early 1900s seems to have been replaced by a nickel rush.

Whatever the case, the Eastern golfields rep­resents the rush that never ended.

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