IntroductionPart of Nelligen's colourful history includes the famous gold rush days. There were many workings in the region in the late 1800s and many reminders are still present for your exploration. They are often overgrown by the forest which has reclaimed their secret treasure but you can discover them with the help of the late Dennis Moore, local explorer and tour operator, whose article and photographs below evoke those days of pioneers, fortune seekers and abandoned hopes.
The Forgotten Gold Mines of NelligenIf the old gold workings which surround the NSW South Coast township of Nelligen lack magnitude, the aura of their forest-embraced seclusion is full recompense.
Because there are so many unrecorded diggings hidden among the densely forested gullies, so much evidence of unrewarded toil and forgotten dreams, and so much still to be re-discovered, the region has an appeal which beckons, educates and enchants continually.
Clinging to the side of a hill which dipped steeply to an expanse of water retained by an earth dam, the rough miners' dwellings at the Phoenix claim would have looked picturesque alongside the twists and turns of the access trails cut into the slope. Today, all but one of the stone fireplaces, which still retains its arch and ant bed mortar, have been reduced to heaps of rubble. The dam has long since broken through, and in place of water are the crowns of tree ferns. The old trails and excavated shanty sites support mature trunks of eucalypts.
With beams of early morning sunlight filtering through the leaves and limbs of spotted gums and stringy barks, it is easy to imagine the expectancy as the stamper battery boiler was fired, down beside the dam. When steam was raised, pistons and connecting rods would commence to slide, turning the long, sickle-shaped cams to lift the heavy shafts and dollies of the five head battery. As quartz was fed in, the ear shattering reverberations would echo through the valley of Currowan Creek to the cleared farmlands along the Clyde River.
Hopes would be high for rewarding gleams of gold after powdered quartz had been washed through the sluices, and the lengthy extraction process neared completion.
But in 1895, hope was abandoned in the new lower drive and the battery and steam engine were dismantled to be taken elsewhere. This new drive was cut almost 300 metres through stone, sound and healthy enough that not a single prop was needed to hold the roof. Apart from rubble which has fallen down the air shaft, there is today no sign of collapse or danger. The drive speaks though, of heartbreak and frustration, through the tantalising spider webs of quartz which kept the miners' hammers ringing on the drills.
This front axle of the mobile steam engine, used to pump water for the stamper battery at Shoebridge's mine, has been moved 2km away from the boiler.
No main reef was struck, despite the major outcrop further up the hill, which had been already mined to feed the battery. This earlier working, now mainly fallen in, has large mounds of quartz overburden beside its deepest extremity, and broken sections of reef hang precariously beside gaping collapse holes.
G.R. McIlveen, of the NSW Department of Mineral resources, in his Mine Data Sheets to accompany the Ulladulla 1:250,000 Metallogenic Sheet, states that the mine was worked again between 1912 and 1915. Gold produced was not recorded.
The stable drive on the Phoenix lease is known to local people aware of it as the Black Diamond Mine. An interesting feature is the smooth tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica) growing in the cutting immediately outside the mine mouth. Smooth tree ferns are a major component of elevated rainforest, and the tree fern common on the southern coastal strip and foothills is a rough trunked tree fern (Cyathea australis). The three metre high Black Diamond specimen is a few hundred metres below its altitude range, and no doubt some interesting and never to be related story explains its solitary, though healthy existence.
The adit in the Shoebridge mine.
Where the creek called Currowan meets the navigable waters of the Clyde River, the village of Currowan was laid out. In 1854 it had become established that Nelligen, downstream, would be the thriving terminus at which the new wagon trail from Braidwood and the Monaro Plains was to make connection with the coastal steamships. But the Currowan survived as the landing point for prospectors headed for Nelligen's more northerly goldfields.
NSW Forestry Commission roads today follow the same spurs as the old trail from the Currowan landing, past Currowan mine and the branch to the Phoenix mine. Some hand cut and stoned embankments would date at least to later gold mining years, although the original trail followed the crest of the spur. The trail crosses a leading ridge and a new forest road, before descending towards the Brimberamala River, which is an upstream tributary of the Clyde.
Much of the old trail has been obliterated by recent logging operations and in 1986 the timber getters were right in amongst a set of twelve or so shafts not recorded by McIlveen. The Forestry Commission recognises the significance of historical features, including old mines, but these ones managed to escape their protection. On one occasion, a crawler tractor driver, passing some shaft heads, noted subsidence beneath his machine. How lucky he was that he had collapsed a minor cross drive, and not some 30 metre high stoping.
The trail reaches the major Brimberamala workings, where there are at least one hundred shafts. The Brimberamala reefs were excavated from the surface, and no easily accessible adits are to be found. The area is dangerous, with shaft beside shaft, and recorded depths to 60 metres. Traces remain of the Brimberamala miners' village, but it is barely recognisable, as it has become a centre of recent logging operations. One old fireplace appears to have been rebuilt by modern-day campers, and the Forestry Commission's new Mines Road makes these workings easily accessible.
Now long silent, the steamer battery at Shoebridge's mine lies beneath tree ferns and bracken.
Brimberamala was worked between 1890 and 1915, and the recorded value of gold extracted is $96,304, converted to 1967 values.
To the north of the Brimberamala River the country rises steeply, and access to another set of shafts not noted by McIlveen is only by four wheel-drive fire trail. One stone fireplace remains reasonably intact, and one more collapsed heap of rubble is probably another. There are several smaller shafts, and one which descends 15 metres to quartz. This reef has been excavated downwards a further 12 to 14 metres, and stoped out in both directions along its line.
Because these workings are not included in McIlveen's study, it is a fairly reasonable assumption they were put down before 1890, when more systematic recording was commenced by the Mines Department. One must wonder at the knowledge, skill, experience or intuition of these early miners. Without recourse to modern test drilling, they sank a shaft 15 metres to locate a quartz reef. They excavated the entire reef, so we can accept it was yielding gold in payable quantities.
An old pack trail, painstakingly hand carved from the hillside, leads eastwards from the shafts, roughly parallel to the fire trail of today, which follows the ridge top, and its steeper grades.
North again, and the mine recorded under the name of Shoebridge is safely hidden in a remote gully. The old trail to the mine and village, where it crossed the river, has long since been obliterated by flood waters, so the Shoebridge secret is shared by just a handful of bushmen. Even McIlveen, although he quotes the few recorded details, gives no clue to this mine's location.
There is just one shaft, descending 14 metres through a large reef which has been stoped out in both directions, almost breaking through the surface again in places. An adit leads to daylight through the side of the steep gully, emerging across the creek from the stamper battery. A second reef, intersected by the adit, has been only partially worked, and what remains is of interest to present-day prospectors. Chalky fragments of rusted trolley lines denote the adit's use, and an old hopper bucket lies beneath the shaft, partially buried in rubble. Local stories have it that the shaft was put down a further 30 metres, but timbered over when it filled with water. As that timbering is now buried under 2 metres of rubble, it promises a painful, and probably terminal, surprise to some unsuspecting visitor.
History will never record what quantities of gold were exchanged for cash and the cash then poured down parched throats, when hard toiling miners broke out on a spree. And Shoebridge is a 'show' that reflects far greater yields than suggested by the incomplete records. With its own steam-powered stamper, and a second, twin-cylinder mobile engine pumping water several kilometres from the river, the working was a substantial undertaking.
The main engine has gone from beside the stamper, which remains, overgrown by ferns, where it fell after supporting timbers were burned from beneath. The mobile presents a puzzle in the way in which its major components have become scattered. The front axle, with heavy, steel shod iron wheels is across the river, probably in close proximity to the washed-out crossing. The boiler, with pistons intact, and a connecting rod on the ground nearby, is close to its working location. The crank shaft, and one heavy rear wheel are near the stamper battery.
Nelligen's reef gold deposits are hosted by Ordovician silt stone, metamorphosed by the massive heat of igneous intrusion. The northern extremity of the Moruya Grandiorites, west of Nelligen, includes granite peaks such as Bolero and Currowan, and the immediately peripheral mines include the workings of one William McCarthy.
'Black Flat Billy', as he was known, left his earthly life, solitary as it had been apart from his pigs, dogs and a diamond python, behind him in 1924. He was a bush character among bush characters, and without the ability to read and write was none the less able to leave the district its most notable historic relic. This is a two roomed, dry stone cottage, built according to the traditions of Billy's Irish ancestors. The building's picture book charm blends surprisingly into its dense bush setting. It is three paces from its quarry, four more paces from a tiny but permanent creek, and a moment's stroll from a fertile alluvial flat. Billy's 30 metre deep working is distant by about a seven metre climb.
A recent vehicular access to the cottage has now been blocked by the author, to forestall the activities of vandals, pending developments towards permanent preservation.
It seems that prospectors began making strikes around Nelligen from about 1860, when the Araluen and Braidwood fields were becoming less attractive. But information is based on a few brief references and a lot of conjecture. Even from 1890, there are only occasional references by Mine Inspectors, after making their short visits to the many South Coast workings.
And so the colonies of bats, twittering in their high pitched voices as they cling inverted to the old rock faces, know as much and as little as we, of the men who sweated and toiled their lives away in search of the precious, yellow metal.
Read further interesting historical accounts of our past.
The Dray Trail to Prosperity
The Corn Trail on the Clyde
The Inlet that Eluded Bass