Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 2, October 1964
By Jack Milroy
The long wait for the official opening of the Ohinemuri Goldfield was tedious and it was inevitable that patience was tried both by dire need and the knowledge that gold had actually been found by daring early prospectors, among them Thorp Brothers, Beeche Brothers, A Mackay, J Corbett, J Smyth, M Coleman, T Arnold and J Verrall. In February 1875 the small settlement of Paeroa, was seething with excitement and within a matter of days a large number of storekeepers and others made their way upstream to a place then known as Kahakaha, a flat topped hill about four miles away and within less than two miles of the precipitous gold bearing hills of Karangahake.
Here they established a canvas settlement which on 20/2/75, was named Mackaytown in honour of the man who had so long striven for the opening of the field. Prospectors continued to flock into this camp, some having travelled by river steamer as far as Paeroa and others having tramped or ridden with their swags, fording streams along the 25 mile track from Thames. The main street was fringed with about 20 stores where grog and groceries were obtainable at famine prices. (It is recorded that very soon nine Publican's Licences were taken out at £20 each).
On the appointed morning, 3/3/75, hundreds of miners were assembled to await the issuing of licences at Mackaytown their applications being received by an army of Clerks at the Warden's Office. A Sergeant of Police and four Constables appeared on the scene, and after an address by Commissioner Mackay, Warden Fraser mounted an improvised platform and declared the field open. Then a gun was fired and the race was on.
In the words of the late John McCombie - "The struggle to obtain the separate bundles of "Rights", followed by the helter skelter down the hill, across the Ohinemuri River and up the opposite bank, can more easily be imagined than described. The goal was the Prospectors Claim at Karangahake and the distance between the two points was about one and a half miles. In a few minutes after the issue of the Rights the rough track was literally lined with a struggling mass of horsemen and footmen. The ground had been surveyed and boundaries defined, but promiscuous pegging led to sharp disputes which would have culminated in a free fight without the presence of a strong force of the armed constabulary".
The whole of the claims marked out on that particular day were located along the foothills of the mountain and here developments very soon proved that the country rock was disturbed to such an extent as to make mining both difficult and hazardous. Nevertheless several gold mining companies were formed, a battery consisting of 16 head of stampers erected and permanent work entered upon with great spirit. This involved an expenditure of many thousands of pounds without any results worth mentioning. For some years there was but little faith in the "golden future", which in time did eventuate.
Meanwhile the tents of Mackaytown had given way to wooden shanties and here and there the married men erected on their Miners right Sections little gable roofed two roomed houses, consisting of a bedroom and a living room with a tin chimney at the end. Actually there was a boom in tin chimneys. A Paeroa paragraph in the Thames newspaper of July 1876 states: "Mr John Phillips, late of Pollen Street, Thames, made the first chimney today which has ever been constructed in this district. He has opened a store in Paeroa and will carry on the business of plumber and tinsmith". The houses were ideally suited to the family men who merely added a lean to at the back as required. Those were the days of large families and small houses. Some still remaining have two successive lean-tos sometimes at different angles.
The single men on the field, either lived in one of the numerous boarding houses, or were independent and built their own shanties. One of the latter bragged that he would build his in a day and sleep in it that night. When finished the bunk space was too short for his six foot, four inch frame, so not to be outdone, he cut a hole in the end of the shanty and nailed a packing case over it on the outside to accommodate his feet.
When the mines did not come up to expectations, men took whatever work came to hand, road making being a constant need. On the outskirts, a few who were more interested in land than in mining, were struggling to break in farms and produce food. Some of the first who took up land for this purpose near Mackaytown were Messrs. Marsh, Turner, Wight, Pennel, McLoughery, Collett and Cornes. Farmers however found it necessary to earn by doing outside work and many took road construction of carting contracts. Pick and shovel men were constantly in demand and so were "stone nappers" who broke the rough metal from the creeks to make it suitable for the roads. (All the great horse-teams that hauled machinery for the Ohinemuri Goldfields toiled through Mackaytown as did the coaches conveying passengers for nearly 30 years till the opening of the railway in 1905.)
It is reported that in 1876 a part-time school under the Education Board was opened at Mackaytown in a building lent by Adam Porter - 25 children being in attendance. The first teacher was Mr John Ritchie, the father and father-in-law of our Mr and Mrs Fred Ritchie, who had opened a private school in Paeroa in 1875. However with the decline in mining results, many people moved away and when it became necessary for Mr Ritchie to give all his attention to Paeroa pupils, Mackaytown, Owharoa, and Waitekauri were linked as part-time schools, Mr Sullivan spending a week at each in turn.
Further prospecting operations had been started in 1882 by Messrs. J Liddell, McWilliams Bros. and John McCombie. These were higher up the mountain than the location of the old workings and within two months the men had succeeded in unearthing the gold and silver bearing reefs then named the "Hauraki Claim", which became part of the famous Woodstock, Talisman and Crown Mines. The result was another gold rush and people began to settle nearer the mines, so when the Mackaytown School was burned down in 1886 the community petitioned for the new school to be built at Karangahake. There was the usual delay and many setbacks due to the fluctuations in mining fortunes. Once again the children were taught at Mackaytown in a borrowed inadequate building, this time by Dr R Hauesler, a very highly qualified geologist who happened to be in the district. (Dr Hauesler's son later became a teacher and now lives in retirement at Ohope Beach, but still wields a clever artistic pen).
In 1888 Mr Ritchie returned to again take charge of both Mackaytown and Owharoa. In 1889 he opened the new Karangahake School part of which still remains in use there. With the advent of more prosperous times the school rapidly became overcrowded and in 1902 it was necessary to open a side school for the younger children of Mackaytown. It occupied a fine central situation with adequate level playing space and an intriguing hill side for the more adventurous.
By the turn of the century Mackaytown had assumed the air of a residential suburb, some fine homes having been built for mining executives. Notable among them was the big square kauri house occupied first by John McCombie and then successively by Messrs. Rich, McCombie, Rickard, and Dutton, managers of the great Talisman Mine. Kitching's large home on the bluff facing the mountain commanded a magnificent view and was noted for its beautiful garden. Opposite the school was Mrs White's hospitable boarding house, and nearby Mrs Meagher and her large family lived in what had been one of the first hotels. Wherever one looked there were grand vistas - - hills and bush, river and gardens, and always the majesty of the golden mountain and the roar of the great batteries whose stampers crushed the quartz as a preliminary to the extraction of the precious metals.
At the foot of the Rahu Road, (no longer the main road to Waihi since the opening of the Gorge in 1900) the old hotel once conducted by Carol Nash to whom we owe the "Poplars", had been replaced by a two-storey one with excellent appointments including bowling greens and tennis courts. Soon a tar-sealed footpath flanked the Rahu road as far as the Cutting which took the place of the long flight of steep steps that had once linked that end of Mackaytown with the new highway. Only a few shops remained, notably Mrs McNamara's which also served as a post office and later Mr Shearer had a general store, while Dr Craig was the first resident doctor
Mackaytown was granted a side station when the railway was opened in 1905. This was reached by crossing the Recreation Ground, (the venue of famous football matches and various other "contests"), then a "very lively" swing bridge across the Ohinemuri river.
The original road through Mackaytown from Paeroa to Waitekauri went through the Rahu Valley and over the saddle north of the White Rocks. But from the main road to did not take the present route, most of which is apparently the original creek bed. The road ran upon the right side, behind where Mrs Morran now lives, and some of the pine trees that lined it still remain there. They were reputedly planted by James Mackay. Further along the formation of the old road is still evident at the top of Fred Dare's section and it appears to have joined the existing "Top" road near Miss Rickman's corner.
On reaching the saddle north of the White Rocks the road continued across Harry William's farm (now a run off) and by-passed Waikino through the hills to the north ultimately reaching the Waitekauri Mines. Later it descended near Owharoa to join the main Paeroa- Waihi Road.
The Thames County had a riding track put over the hills between the Rahu Road and the later Gorge Road. It started near Doherty's Creek - above the present Cutting - and was graded up to pass over the top of the bluff above the School, and down again to where the Rahu Road meets the river beyond the Gorge. It is known as Butler's Track from the name of the contractor "Hugh Butler", who carried out the work. The Thames County were also responsible for a graded track from a ford across the river below Mackaytown to the direction of the mines. The main road beyond Doherty's Creek to Karangahake was not completed till late in the 1880s, and finally the Gorge was opened for traffic late in 1900.
The Ohinemuri River has always been an important feature of Mackaytown life, right from the early pre-bridge days when, as a picturesque stream lined with peach trees planted by the Missionaries, it presented fording hazards to surreptitious prospectors. Subsequently for many years it was destined to carry sludge from the batteries, to become dirty brown in colour and to deposit tons of tailings on its banks in flood times. The tailings consisted of finely ground quartz, like white sand but was never hailed with delight as sea beaches are, because it carried with it a certain amount of cyanide used during the gold extraction process. However although it was lethal to fish, it never proved harmful to the animals that drank it, though sometimes post mortems revealed balls of sand in their stomachs. Actually a considerable amount of gold escaped with the tailings and various plants were later established to recover some of this.
As the river bed became increasingly silted flooding became more disastrous and most old residents will remember some of these exciting times. The road to Paeroa was invariably closed, men could not get to work and what was more exciting still, children could not get to school. Sometimes homes had to be vacated during the night, but the flood victims were assured of warm welcomes by friends on the hills and luckily there were many of these. There was a whirlpool by Doherty's Bridge and adventurous boys (old and young) would be wet through fishing out good timber and other interesting articles washed down from upstream. About a mile downstream (near Marsh's farm, now Morgan's) there was a swamp and lagoons that provided a halting place for treasure trove that had escaped the endeavours of would-be rescuers.
In 1910 there was a very big flood - so big that the river did tremendous damage, not only inundating all the low-lying areas, but even flowing through the railway tunnel. The next "King" flood came in 1931. The road through Irishtown was under water and the main road and lower Rahu were under water but the rain continued and flood kept on rising. It was all round Clarkin's house opposite the Mackaytown Hotel site, but all night it kept rising. It had begun to creep round behind the houses in Irishtown when Bill Deam took his wife and children up the track towards the tunnel to spend the remainder of the stormy night in the wet fern and gorse. He said that about 2 am a torrent was coming through the tunnel. The waters began to subside, after about six inches had covered the floor of the store.
On that occasion a very large kauri head came down the river and crashed into the Irishtown swing bridge, badly damaging it. Careering on down with the rushing waters, it struck the Mackaytown swing bridge on the railway end and there it stuck, while the waters receded. It was jambed securely against the damaged structure.
Five bridges spanned the Ohinemuri river within a distance of two miles. There was a big traffic bridge at Karangahake linking the town with the mines, the double railway and traffic bridge from the tunnel towards the station and Crown Battery, and three swing bridges - one at Irishtown, one in the vicinity of Doherty's Creek, leading to the School of Mines, tennis courts and bowling greens and finally the one to the Mackaytown Station.
ORE DEPOSITS AT MACKAYTOWN
About the turn of the century there was a Volunteer Rifle Brigade and the range was situated at the foot of the hills behind O'Brien's. To the right of this a gully runs up between two ridges and on the right again, Mr Noble put in a tunnel for a fairly long distance. Men worked there for quite a long time with very little result. They were searching for scheelite, or calcium tungstate, one of the minerals that always fluoresces (in this case blue). It looks a good deal like white quartz and is remarkably heavy for a non-metallic mineral. The use of tungsten wire in the common light bulb has long been known and it is also used as a steel alloy because of its resistance to heat.
Further up the Rahu Road there is a deposit of cinnabar, a red mercuric sulphide, which was for a time worked by the late J B Morris who then owned the property.
The news of gold discoveries in the vicinity of Karangahake attracted fortune hunters from all over New Zealand. Two of these from the South Island were Doherty and his mate who lived for some years not far from the creek named for him. They were lured by the fact that the sandy clay ground between the Ohinemuri and the Rahu Streams bore some resemblance to the alluvial soils in the south. They were also influenced by the elevated position of the Rahu Creek which it was rumoured, had once followed the route of the Rahu Road. It was assumed that this creek would provide a fall of water for sluicing.
A preliminary drive was put in from just above the Ohinemuri but was soon abandoned as no values were found. Water from the Rahu, seeping into the drive, eventually broke through and cut a great chasm before the creek joined the Ohinemuri River. Thus we have its last 100 yards known as Doherty's Creek. This torrent created a problem when the road was put through for vehicles had to ford it even in times of flood. However the weary teams were glad to pause and drink there. For many years a wooden footbridge was maintained above the ford, but this too suffered from floods and finally a substantial traffic bridge solved the problem.
The water from the Rahu Creek has been proved one of the best drinking waters in New Zealand and has always been relished by visitors. When Simmonds Pty. restarted the old brewery in Paeroa the district was searched far and wide for the most suitable water and this was found in the Rahu, storage tanks being constructed at the lower end of the road. A tanker truck was used to transport the water to Paeroa and the stout made with it was renowned throughout New Zealand.
With the decline of mining during the First World War, it was imperative that the men should seek work elsewhere and as at Karangahake many houses were left vacant, and became almost worthless because there was no sale for them. Consequently an amazing number of "accidental" fires occurred. "For Sale - For Removal" was a common advertisement, and certainly some houses were moved away - to farms and to beaches and other sites, but a few of the abandoned ones remained sadly empty for years as did the Hotel which was finally moved to its present position at Waikino. After standing empty for some years the Mackaytown School was sold for removal to be used as a house (now Mr Dreadon's) at the foot of Turner's Hill.
By the 1920s the mining settlements were dotted with vacant sections, often surrounded by eleagnus hedges fast running wild, a few fruit trees, some flowering shrubs, a camellia or perhaps a magnolia, with blackberry slowly taking charge. Dominating the scene, like some stark monument to a cause that failed, stood the tall brick chimney surrounded by blackened and rusting roof or even iron bedsteads twisted and gruesome, a truly depressing sight to the wayfarer, but just ideal for the imaginative adventures of the young and a headquarters for gang-warfare.
A few of the bigger houses have remained and some of the cottages - enough to form a nucleus round which to build another Mackaytown, and a new prosperity. There were some wonderful people here in the past and those of us who remember them do so with honour and affection. It is noteworthy that thousands of daffodils commemorate those who planted them on the now vacant sections.
Fred Dare at 84 is now the Rear Guard of the old miners and Mrs May O'Neil is our other oldest resident (though at Karangahake we have Mrs McLeod, Mr and Mrs Jim Brown, Mrs Patton and Mrs Jack Bunting). Mrs Nell Climie (nee Scott) was a foundation pupil at the 1902 Mackaytown School, but the only other immediate descendants of Mackaytown old identities are my sister, Mrs Grace Morran (nee Milroy) and myself. (At Karangahake there are Miss Ivy Greening, Bill Crosbie, Bill Whelan, Jock McLeod and his wife (nee Phyllis Robinson), Mrs Violet Wallace (nee Robinson), Mrs Kathleen McAlpine (nee Kenny), Mrs Jack Rackham (nee Fisher), Miss Dorrie Grant, and John Cotter).
There are now many new inhabitants of varying age groups, and some new houses, including the school teacher's residence, while still another generation of youngsters augers well for the future of Mackaytown.
McCombie Notes from scrapbooks.
Old Timers' Tales, particularly those of my Father, King Meagher, Michael Mc Namara, and the late Jack Bunting.
Karangahake Jubilee Booklet 1959