Criffel Station’s Rich Otago Gold Mining History… But How Rich?
Criffel Station’s high country has been home to more than sheep and deer. Remnants of a little-known piece of Otago gold mining history are visible on Criffel Tours and 4WD Adventures. Men became rich up there. But they had to defy the location to get rich and just how rich is a bit of a mystery.
The story of the Criffel Range gold diggings is less well known than that of nearby Cardrona or Arrowtown, over the Crown Range. But it could be that it trumps better known Otago gold mining history for endeavour and intrigue.
Named after Criffel, a small Scottish town near the home of surveyor James McKerrow, the Criffel Range was farmed under crown licenses from the 1860s. Musterers employed by early pastoralists enjoyed the stunning views in relative solitude while other parts of Otago where teeming with people in search of their fortune.
Among those fortune seekers was John Halliday. He turned to mustering and farming in the Cardrona Valley in the 1870s when his prospecting efforts failed. Halliday hadn’t given up the hunt for gold though. He continued to prospect, searching the hills for the quartz that heralded gold’s presence.
In 1883 he and two friends found what they had been looking for since arriving in New Zealand from Scotland 15 years earlier. Gold!
Not officially notified until 1885, the Criffel Diggings produced thousands of ounces of gold, but not without a significant feat of engineering and more than a little intrigue.
The Challenge of Mining the Criffel Range
Miners in Otago needed water. This water simulated the effect of rain that had washed the gold out of the schist rock and down into the valleys off Otago. The water was used to “wash” the gold out of the “pay dirt” they dug out of the rocky ground.
Water is easy to find in a valley. It’s hard to come by on top of a high dry Otago mountain range though. Then there’s another problem. Everything is frozen up there for up to six months.
Sure the winter’s snow provides some water. Indeed, the snowmelt was damned in the spring and used as a source of water to wash out the gold, in the early years of the diggings.
It wasn’t enough to last the mining season though. So miners stockpiled “pay dirt” for the following season.
Mastering the Challenge – A Feat of Engineering
Halliday, not short of energy and determination, set about solving this problem.
He and his friends worked for two years building a water race to bring water from the Luggate creek to the diggings.
With water such a valuable commodity, Halliday refused a fellow miner called Craig’s request to purchase some water from the race. Craig must have been equally determined because, rebuffed, he began to build another race beside Halliday’s.
By 1887 two water races — one 24km long, the other 16 — carried water across the hills of the Criffel Range to the highest gold diggings in Otago.
A Bit of a Gold Mining Mystery
Halliday’s race cost as much 1500 pounds to build. This was a lot for a musterer/prospector struggling to access his gold in 1887. And, according to historian Andy Brock, a lot when Halliday and 60 other miners only officially produced 1200 ounces of gold in 1888 when the races were working.
Was much of the gold found on the Criffel range sold through a black market? A black market that might have financed the amazing water races, perhaps?
Official history may record a fraction of the true value of gold found on the Criffel range.
The Criffel Diggings Today
The Criffel diggings were back in the hands of the odd musterer and his dog team by the turn of the twentieth century.
Today a visit to the diggings reveals holes in dry earth, piles of stones, remnants of hand dug water races and what Andy Brock describes as, “the ghostly remains of a small town of men living on the whisky and smoke”.