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Thankfully, the massive investments made by the impetuous investors has left a fascinating legacy in the valley. The track network follows the line of the old Piako County Tramway, with many splinter and loop tracks exploring other interesting features. Department of Conservation have expended considerable efforts in restoring the infrastructure and provided interpretation panels to enliven the historical exhibits.
The Wairongomai Valley is signposted along Wairongomai Road, 4km south of Te Aroha along Te Aroha Gordon Road. There is a parking bay, from where the tracks to the valley begin.
Follow the High Level Pack Track for 15 minutes to the intersection where the Low Level Loop Track leads to the Low Level Drive. The Piako County Tramway is on the right.
The lower section of the Piako County Tramway, from the junction of the Low Level Loop Track and Low Level Drive to the bottom of the Butler Incline, forms part of the Low Level Loop Track.
The track is wide and follows the old route of the Piako County Tramway. In many places the restored rails and sleepers are evident.
The track follows a gentle gradient for 45 minutes, reaching the bottom of the Butler Incline and a 2-minute link track on the right with the Low Level Loop Track.
Butler Incline is very steep (25 degree slope), 400-metres-long and takes approximately 25 minutes to climb. At the top on the left is the junction with the Buck Rock Track.
Butler Incline is prone to erosion and has been back-breakingly restored by DoC staff. It is better for your bones and the incline to walk up, rather than down it. Please return by either the Buck Rock Track or High Level Pack Track.
The tramway continues on a gentle gradient, passing the intersection with the High Level Pack Track, and after 20 minutes passes the New Era Branch on the right by the compressor. It then crosses Diamond Creek and climbs the very steep May Queen Incline.
The track ends after a further 20 minutes at Premier Creek, having passed the junction with the High Level Pack Track.
The final 10 minutes involves a stream crossing and a short dark tunnel.
After initial assaying, the encouraging estimates of payable gold in the Wairongomai goldfield persuaded the Piako County Council to help build a tramway to connect the many disparate claims to the Firth and Clarke Battery.
In 1882, after three months of surveying and planning of specifications, construction commenced and a year later the tramway opened. It cost £18,000, of which the Government contributed £9,000 and the use of 156 tons of iron rails.
The three level sections were linked by three self-acting inclines. Full carts of ore dragged empty carts up the inclines through the double drum winding gear at the top. At the middle of each incline, the three rails split into four, allowing the trucks to pass. On the level sections, trucks of ore were pulled by horses, and later, a steam locomotive.
The remains of winding gear are still evident at the top of the Butler Incline. Many rails have been removed, restored and replaced. Berdans, truck wheels and cuttings still facilitate the easy casting back of the imagination.
The Rand Drill Company compressor was used to pump air and water uphill to the mines. It was salvaged form the stream bed in the 1990s to aid its preservation.
One Long Chapter of Disaster
In 1935, Mines Inspector J.F. Downey wrote “the history of mining on the [Waiorongomai] field can scarcely be described as other than one long chapter of diaster.” The lure of riches played tricks with the minds of wealthy investors, who hoped to tap into Buck Reef and extract the winnings. The attitude was one of greed, untempered by realistic ascertaining of gold values before committing to development of infrastructure. Had these men not been so misguided, there would not be some of the most spectacular remains of goldmining ventures visible on the Coromandel Peninsula today.
Hone Werahiko prospected the area in 1880 but the first rush fell immediately flat after it was discovered the gold flakes were only ‘floaters’, unsubstantiated by the presence of a gold bearing reef. The following year his ‘New Find’ proved more hopeful, as the exposure of Buck Reef, a 60-metre high outcrop, alluded to a main reef that could be traced nearly five km up the valley. Initial assays offered double the threshold value for interest to be sparked and the glint of gold persuaded investors to commit to expenditure.
Josiah Clifton Firth was one of the richest men in the country at that time and entered into partnership with James McCosh Clarke, a wealthy Auckland merchant. Together they formed the Te Aroha Battery Company. In 1882, they purchased the Piako Battery at Thames and transported it to Waiorongomai. The 40 head of stamps were automated with self-feeders connected to a 500-ton capacity ore hopper and 32 berdans. A&G Price built a three turbine water wheel powered by two water race’s nearly four km long. The Inspecting Engineer of 1883 described the £20,000 installation as “…one of the largest and most complete crushing plants in the country.”
Initial crushings in 1882 from the Waitoki, Premier, New Find, Colonist and Werahiko Claims returned payable quantities of gold and optimism soared. The big businessmen succeeded in persuading the Piako County Council to release capital for a tramway to connect the many small claims up the valley with the battery on the flats. The total fall of 427 metres was to use three bridges and two tunnels. Splinter claims away from the main track were to be connected with ore chutes or aerial tramways. One year later and £19,000 later the Piako County Tramway opened.
Waiorongomai developed apace with nearby Te Aroha and a settlement comprising 12 shops, including a butcher, grocer, bakery, agricultural implement maker and ironmonger, blossomed. The largest of three hotels, the Waiorongomai Hotel, sported 20 bedrooms, four siting rooms and a dining room that seated 100.
Jocularity was obviously a part of mining life. One morning a miner’s wife woke to find an inscribed egg under one of her hens. The egg read:
“Haste, haste to the Gordon
And make no delay,
For in a short time
Your fortune is made.”
Such bizarre happenings obviously became the talk of the town, but gossip aside, the family decided to follow the advice of the egg and moved to Gordon, where they prospered as settlers. One feels the neighbour, who had his eyes on their Waiorongomai property, had the last laugh.
The post office at Quartzville, four miles up the valley, earned a reputation for being the loneliest in New Zealand. One day in 1884, following a Parliamentary attack by Mr W.F. Buckland, MP for Franklin North, a ‘mass meeting of miners’ burned an effigy nearby and passed the following sentence:
“Prisoner at the bar, you have been found guilty by a jury of your countrymen of a slanderous attack on the gold-miners of the province of Auckland. You have not only ignored their singularly temperate and abstemious habits, but have stated before Parliament, that they waste their substance on riotous living. In this bearing false witness against your neighbours, you have outraged both the commandments and law. The sentence of the court is that you be taken to a place of execution and then when half-dead you shall be blown up with dynamite and your remains, if any, shall be burnt!”
Meanwhile, the neighbouring town of Te Aroha, which was fast rising to prominence among the well-heeled for its therapeutic mineral spas, conveyed visitors to Waiorongomai to view the battery mines and tramway. Goldmining became a tourist attraction.
By 1884 the first problems were encountered on the goldfield. Extraction of the hard rock pushed up the labour costs and the cost of crushing the ore rose with commensurate regularity. The gold was also complexed with base metal sulphides and iron and manganese oxides. Occurring in the form of electrum and intimately mixed with the sulphides, less than half of the gold was actually extracted with the means at the disposal of Firth and Clarke’s Battery.
To remedy the voluminous waste of gold accumulating in the tailings, a consortium of investors thought the construction of a new battery and reduction works two km up valley from the township would prove profitable. The New Era Battery was carried piece by piece up the valley on packhorses and constructed on the side of the Waiorongomai Creek. A 400-metre long branch line connected it to the main tramway and cost £1,500. Soon after the construction had been completed the claims were abandoned.
Moreover, the initial test carried out by Fraser and Sons of Auckland, formulating new methods of processing the refractory ore prevalent at Waiorongomai, proved inadequate. Despite dry-crushing, roasting in a reverberatory furnace and adding salts to change the chemical nature of the ore, the traditional methods of pan-amalgamation, leaching and chlorination could not extract the gold. By 1892 the plant had been sold and removed.
Back at the base of the valley, the Firth and Clarke Battery was experiencing further difficulties and the dry summers meant there was insufficient head of water to power the plant. In desperation Firth and his manger H.H. Adams, decided to pay a visit to California, Nevada and other western states, in the hope of accumulating knowledge to increase the efficiency of their processing methods. Their panacea of roasting the ore after crushing proved too little and another dry summer suspended operations.
A fellow passenger on their return trip was W.R. Wilson, a proprietor of mines in Broken Hill, New South Wales. They exchanged ideas over a tipple and a few cigars, and after a visit to the area in March 1888, Wilson decided to buy Firth and Clarke’s interests. After an initial outlay of £49,000, he budgeted a further £20,000 to extend the water races and install a new smelting furnace.
He employed John Howell, an American mining expert, who spent over £20,000 refurbishing the battery, only to find the later crushings were of a lower grade than was expected from the lode. A reduction in the output ensued, but was too little too late and the majority of the plant was sold to former manager H.H. Adams for £3,000.
Unable to believe his good fortune, Adams formed the Te Aroha Syndicate Company with Mr Wicks, downscaled the operation and employed a fraction of the men. They exploited old claims and used in-place infrastructure. Surprisingly, they almost returned a profit. Adams sold out in 1895 for a modest profit to Middleton and Fleming, who formed the New Zealand Exploration Company.
Ignoring of the woes of previous investors and their inexpedient spending, The New Zealand Exploration Company embarked on an ambitious project to excavate a low level tunnel at the bottom of the valley. They concluded that intersecting the reef at the base of the valley and driving up through it would obviate the need for double handling of ore and the costly transportation down the tramway. A more substantial core of the reef could also be exploited.
With a frivolous attitude to the cheque book, they started tunnelling an 11 foot by eight foot adit, large enough to take a locomotive and wagon. They splurged on constructing a high level water race, using 1300 feet of 14 inch steel pipe to power a compressed air rock drill. The idea was to tunnel four km into the reef, but after downsizing the dimensions to eight feet by eight feet, the enthusiasm and money petered out. By late 1897 the so-called Low Level Drive was 370 metres long and had cost around £5,000. It was then abandoned.
Despite the later technological advances of Rev Joseph Campbell’s thermo-hyperphoric process for treating refractory ores, little profit was returned from the Waiorongomai field. Edwin Henry Hardy took over the claims in 1898 and formed the Te Aroha Gold Mining Company. He was able to use the extensive existing infrastructure and employed a more modest expectations of possible winnings. He kept the battery small, but complete, with only 10 head of stamps and exploited the most promising claims. Hardy actually made profit until 1904, when he cleverly sold out to his own company.
In 1907 Thomas Gavin, who had previously been employed with the Aroha Goldmines Company on the Waiorongomai filed, formed the Bendigo Company and made a claim on the Silver King Reef. By 1910 a small crushing plant had been completed nearby, but only became connected to the tramway via an aerial ropeway the following year. The usual story ensued and further crushings were of lower grade than initial tests. The company ceased operations in 1912. The Mines report of 1922 stated “results [from the Bendigo lode] did not come up to anticipation, and work has been temporarily suspended”.
The plant and claims at Waiorongomai changed hands many other times, but fortunes were never made. Hopeful prospectors continued to explore the area until 1945, when they finally saw sense. Unsurprisingly, no-one struck it lucky.
In 1890, C.W. Richmond wrote a poem “Lament to Waiorongomai”, which admirably sums up the valley’s history.
“O wrong are you, o wrong am I
O wrong all of us
We are all sold. There is no Gold
The claim’s not worth a cuss.
We came O why? T’s all my eye
So sing O wai – o – rong – o – mai
Here comes the bloomin bus
Let’s all get in, it is a sin
The claim’s not worth a cuss
Sing O wai – o – rong – o – mai
O wrong are all of us.”
North Island ▷ Waikato ▷ Te Aroha
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