Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 14, October 1970
By the Late W.A. HANLEN
Over sixty years ago when I was a lad of sixteen I worked on the Thames Goldfield helping to erect a go1d extractor which must have been unique for two reasons. Firstly because it used, as far as I know, a method different from any of the orthodox ways of extracting gold from ore, and secondly because it must have been the biggest "white elephant" on the goldfields.
Officially called the Ferguson Smelting Company, the plant was erected at Waiomu just around the corner from Puru, and on a recent visit I renewed acquaintance with the big cutting in the hill and various slabs of concrete now the only remains, the origins of which were not known by the present inhabitants.
Briefly the idea was to extract the gold by melting the ore, thus freeing the gold, and of course terrific heat was needed to do this. The plant came from the U.S.A., and with it came Jim Myers who supervised the erection of the plant. A big boiler 16 feet long and 4 feet 6 inches in diameter, drove a big engine which in turn drove a fan for the blast furnace, as well as a steam winch for hauling trucks of ore from the beach. Two water pumps with 1½ inch inlet and outlet provided water for the boiler and a third pump of 6 inch diameter sent water up the hill to the reservoir from where it provided cooling for the furnace.
To help create the intense heat needed for the operation, air for the blast furnace went through a series of U shaped cast iron 9 inch pipes, where it was pre heated. The furnace was made of half inch steel sheets, constructed to create an up draught of hot air. Water for the boilers was got from the river. Robert Lowry, Bert Lowry and Harry Goonan dug a tunnel through the hill from the Waiomu River, and the water was thence taken to the boiler house by a wooden flume.
The ore treated came mainly from the Monowai Mine, and arrived in bulk by scow and barges, as did the loads of steel which were used as flux in the operation, and if I remember correctly Harry Kerby was tow master of this fleet. The furnace was fired by tea tree brought to the plant by the "Huia", and carted from the beach by Jack Rucich. Bill Davis had a 12 team bullock waggon he used in his tea tree cutting contract. Harry Ashby, whose son Joe now lives in Waihi, contracted with drays and horses for the carting of metal and shingle for the construction of the smelter and he was assisted by Ned Twoomey.
Living accommodation consisted of four bunk baches for single men and six two roomed shacks near the bridge for married quarters. The single men bached and bought most of their supplies from Fred McMahon's store at Tapu. We cooked on open fires using billies and camp ovens, with tea tree for fuel as it was handy and very plentiful. We ate in our own baches, which were about 12 feet by 10 feet, and the high light of the week was Sunday, when the midday meal was always roast meat and vegetables, followed by a "duff", boiled in half kerosene tins. Many a Sunday we had only the duff, and left the meat and vegetables, and I can still smell the duff as it was unwrapped from the special "duff cloth" we kept for it. Our store diet was supplemented by fish, especially flounder and mussels, which could be collected when the tide was out by the sackful, and with ordinary working boots on. I recall that the mussels were so plentiful that an old character "Cockatoo" Jack Allan, so called because he came from Austra1ia, used to get the Maoris to pick them for 6d. a sack, and he would take them to Rotorua where he would get 30/- a sack for them, returning after each trip with a fresh load of sacks and a keg of beer for his "mussel pickers".
I can recall many of the men who worked on the installation and their names are still familiar on the goldfields, but I apologise for the names I may have misspelt or have forgotten. The carpentering gang had Fred Brown as foreman, Toby Anderson from Tryphena, John Cox, Fred Wind, Bill Ardern, Chris Plummer from Puru, Reg Newby of Tapu, Bell Dufty and Bullan Dufty.
The brickies were Ike Smith of Thames, Tom Heipher, Bill Thompson, Olly Atkinson, and their labourers were Bill Morton, Thames, Andy Whalen, Thames. Blacksmiths were Bob Harrison of the U.S.A., Hugh Fisher, and Ted Brydon was the smithy's striker. Labourers were Ernie Plummer and Chas Plummer of Te Mata, Maunga Clark, Te Aroha, and Jack and Joe Warren of Waiomu. My father "Abe" Hanlen was engaged to put in the machinery and I was his assistant. On looking back I realise that my father employed me not so much for my skill but because he was away from home for long periods, and while I was with him I would cause no worry to my mother in Auckland. I got 20/- a week, and remained at Waiomu for 15 months, during which time I returned to my home town of Auckland only once - and that was to see the Great White Fleet of the U.S.A. that came to Auckland in 1900.
Earlier I mentioned the term "white elephant", and this it certainly was. The plant took 18 months to build and operated for only about 2 months, or possibly less, after its completion. A few years ago I met Mr. Fletcher who was Clerk of Works, and he told me that while the official opening festivities were taking place the directors were having a meeting in the office working out the salvage claims and disposal of gear. I do not know why the smelting plant was not a success - one story has it that the mines would not supply the ore, a second that the whole thing was another mining swizzle but one thing I do know was this, that I spent perhaps the most enjoyable period of my life at a most impressionable age in a place which by today's standards seems a paradise, through the courtesy of the Ferguson Smelting Company.
OUR CONTRIBUTOR: MR. W. HANLEN who died this year, was keenly interested our district. In 1898 he began his school days at Karangahake where his father (Abe) and Uncles (Bill and Fred) were not only valued members of the mining community but also accomplished musicians, both played brass and stringed instruments. Mr. Hanlen was the father of our Waihi President (Mr. Hank Hanlen). His sister Mrs. D. Grubb of Waihi lived only a few weeks after her brother's death.