There’s Gold in Them There Hills!

Today on the blog the lure of gold is taking us over the Southern Alps to the wild West Coast. Anyone who is a fan of The Luminaires is aware of the thrill, drama, and hardship that was a day in the life of the West Coast gold fields. The boom in industry saw hundreds of prospectors try their luck at making their fortunes, and populous settlements soon followed with thousands of people flooding into the region during the 1860s. But it wasn’t long before the rush began to decline, claims went dry, and the booms went bust.

What is now left behind is an archaeological landscape of industry. Ghost towns, sluice faces, water races, along with hut sites, shafts, tailings, and more that mark the once bustling countryside. Many of these features have been left for the native bush to slowly reclaim, but we know it’s all there – just ask a local. But despite this loud and rusty landscape being an archaeologist’s paradise (or at least mine) much of the remnants of the West Coast gold fields have not been archaeologically investigated.

A recent survey near Nelson Creek for a new gold claim in an area previously mined (around 150 years ago) found several archaeological gold mining features. These humble and hidden remains provide a glimpse into the lives of those hardy gold miners and highlight the types of mining features hidden deep within the West Coast bush.

The West Coast Gold Rushes

Firstly, a bit of background. By 1860 the West Coast was still very much considered an inhospitable wasteland, known for its dangerous beaches, swollen rivers, impenetrable forests, miserable weather, and sandflies the size of small dogs. Even early explorer Thomas Brunner (the discoverer of West Coast coal) once described the place as a dismal wilderness. Nonetheless the discovery of gold in Otago (Gabriels Gully – 1861) and the following gold rushes caused mounting pressure for the Canterbury province to find its own goldfield. The pressure was so great that from 1861 a reward from the Provincial Government was offered to any man who discovered gold within Canterbury (Figure 1). This included the West Coast, which was part of the Canterbury Province until 1868.

Figure 1. Advertisement for the Discovery of Gold (Lyttelton Times, 4 September 1861: 7)

Prospecting attempts quickly began on the eastern side of the divide, but soon proved futile and instead some prospectors dared to venture to the West Coast. Gold was quick to show in the pan and several discoveries were made over the following three years. In mid-1864 gold was discovered at Greenstone Creek, a tributary of the Taramakau River, by local Māori Ihaia Tainui and Haimona Taukau. The gold of Greenstone Creek proved to be of commercial quantity and with that the West Coast gold rush kicked off!

After the discovery of gold at Greenstone Creek the frenzied rushes of 1864-1867 ensued. The initial rush centred on the mining of the easily collected alluvial gold that lay in the riverbeds and on the black sand beaches. Settlements and claims soon sprung up along the many West Coast Rivers and alluvial gold towns appeared everywhere from as far north as Charleston, to the remote south at Bruce Bay. During this period the population of the West Coast exploded from less than 500 people to over 30,000 in the space of only a few years. Very quickly the quiet bush was cleared and replaced with extensive water races, fluming, sluicing, and tent towns that soon became the new scenery of the riverine valleys (Figure 2). Gold workings were left, right and centre, and during the initial gold rush period, a whopping 1.3 million ounces of gold was recovered (Smith 2001: 81). That’s over 2.3 billion dollars worth of gold based on today’s gold prices – getting gold fever yet?

Figure 2. Example of fluming at Dillmanstown (West Coast Recollect).

By 1866-1867 things were starting to slow down with much of the easy gold having been fast collected. Many of the settlements that rapidly emerged from within the bush quickly disappeared again once the gold began to run out. Despite the end of the rushes and all that initial excitement, alluvial gold mining continued (and still does – looking at you, Ross). Additionally, attention was turned to hard rock mining as the discovery of gold bearing quartz in 1870 in Reefton (aka Quartzopolis) sparked a new round of gold fever. However, this industrial landscape was far different from its alluvial counterpart as hard rock gold was more difficult to procure. That’s not to say it was not worthwhile though as Reefton, was so profitable and successful that in 1888 it became the first place in New Zealand AND the southern hemisphere to have a public supply of electricity – with miners being among the first to use it! (Just a humble brag there).

Gold mining continued through well into the mid-20th century, with large settlements like Waiuta powering through until the 1950s. Even today goldminers still operate around the traps and certainly to great success. But the extensive, intrusive, and loud industry that once occupied so much of the coast is now silent, moss covered, and waiting to be found.

Nelson Creek

Nelson Creek is located roughly 30km north of Greymouth, up the Grey Valley. Locally the settlement is well known for its famous swimming hole, campground, and friendly wee pub. While you’ll miss it if you blink, Nelson Creek was once a bustling mining township, originally known as Hatters Terrace (Figure 3). It, along with everywhere west of the Southern Alps and south of the Grey/Māwheranui River, was officially declared as a goldfield in 1865, and by 1866 the Nelson Creek rush was in full swing. Kilometres of claims were made along the creek and its tributaries, and at its height over 1000 men lived and worked in the area – hard to imagine now though!

Figure 3. Nelson Creek ca. 1880 (West Coast Recollect).

Like most places initial workings were shallow and saw gold recovered by pan, cradle, or sluice box. But workings soon intensified and the need for water became paramount. This led to the Government funded Nelson Creek Water Race – a first for the region. Advertisements for 200 “Good Pick and Shovel Men” for the construction of the race went out in 1874 and work soon commenced (West Coast Times, 1 October 1874: Page 3; Figure 4). By January 1878 the race was open. Stretching from Lake Hochstetter to Dry Gully the race spanned “18 miles in length, comprising nine miles and a half of open cutting, seven miles of tunneling, and one and a half miles of bridging” (West Coast Times, 26 January 1878: 2; Figure 5).

Figure 4: Advertisement for workers for the Nelson Creek Water Race, 1874 (West Coast Times, 1 October 1874: Page 3).

Figure 5. Map of the Nelson Creek Gold fields, showing the water race in blue and survey area in red (Sketch Plan of the Grey District and Surrounding Country., n.d.).

The completion of the water race was somewhat of an engineering marvel, especially when considering the terrain. Some of the bridge arches spanned 150 feet, with one in particular rising 180 feet in height (Figure 6). The race, and the various offshoots, serviced many claims within the valley and supported mining activity through most of the late nineteenth century. By the turn of the 20th century works were winding down, but the move to dredging saw a brief revival to mining in the area. Gold mining continued sporadically through the 20th century and continues today.

Figure 6. Photograph, circa 1880, showing part of the Nelson Creek Water Race (Perkins, n.d.).

The Survey

Earlier this month I ventured to Nelson Creek with bug spray in my pocket, swanndri on my back, and my faithful ranging pole – that also functions as a great walking stick. I was met by a professional gold miner (10/10 guy – even brought me a packed lunch) and we made our way through the regenerative forest, mostly uphill, in search of mining features (Figure 7). The dense bush, leaf litter, and fern cover made it a little difficult to navigate and fully inspect the area, but it wasn’t long before we found a hut site.

Figure 7. Typical scenery in the West Coast bush. Image: A. Kelly.

The first hut site we found was easily spotted as the base of the fireplace was still in pretty good condition (Figure 8). The square edges of the hearth were well defined, and I imagine many good meals were made on that fire. The second hut site was not in as good condition, with the hearth reduced to a pile of stones overtaken with intrusive ferns (Figure 9). It did however have several ring seal bottles that had been moved to on top of the hearth. So at least the fellows who lived here had access to a tipple or two at the end of a hard day’s work. The last hut site we encountered had been clearly cut into the natural hillslope (Figure 10). It also had a small stone oven constructed in the back wall, pretty state of the art if you ask me!

Figure 8. Hut site with fire place. Image: A. Kelly.

Figure 9. Hut site with a few ring seal bottles. Image: A. Kelly.

A hut site with a small oven feature. Image: A. Kelly.

Historic photographs from the time show us what these sites would have originally looked like (Figure 11). As the huts were made of canvas and wood it is often only the hearths that survive, along with some scattered artefacts.

Figure 11. Some good-looking miners hanging out at their huts, Nelson Creek, ca. 1870 (West Coast Recollect).

In addition to hut sites, we encountered adits – horizontal drive tunnels used to find paydirt (Figure 12). While it is tempting, you can’t always guarantee they are safe to enter, so we typically view them from the portal only. But with the handy help of a torch, we could see that some were deep, and others were only a few metres in length. The short ones suggest that the person prospecting was not hitting any good pay dirt so quickly moved on (Figure 13).

Figure 12. A mining adit. Image: A. Kelly.

Figure 13. Short prospecting adit. Image: A. Kelly.

Finally, we also encountered the remains of Cole’s Water Race, one of the many other water races built in the area. I am not sure who Cole was, but his water race is still looking pretty sharp today. Along the length of the race were small stone stacked sections indicating former side channels (Figure 15). These offshoots would have serviced the downhill claims and they provide one small example of the interconnected and widescale schemes that facilitated mining in the area.

Figure 14. Cole’s Water Race. Image: A. Kelly.

Figure 15. Blocked side channel in Cole’s Race. Image: A. Kelly.

Keen on Adventure?

For those keen on adventure there are plenty of walking tracks and mining relics publicly accessible at Nelson Creek. Nelson Creek also has areas for recreational gold fossicking, or you could head south to Goldsborough and try your hand at gold panning there too.

If you fancy visiting a Ghost town, check out Waiuta, home to New Zealand’s third largest gold mine, or maybe stop in at Ross. DOC also have a range of walking tracks throughout the region, like Woods Creek Track, where there are mining tunnels are safe to enter.

So don’t be afraid to explore, just make sure you stick to the tracks!

Figure 16. An archaeologist in their natural habitat. Disclaimer: this was on a public track. DO NOT enter any unmarked tunnels!

Check out the links below:

Alana Kelly



Lyttelton Times. 1851-1920. [online]. Available at:

Perkins, W. H. (n.d.). Nelson Creek water race, Westland [photograph]. Alexander Turnball Library.

Sketch Plan of the Grey District and Surrounding Country. (n.d.). Archives New Zealand.

Smith, N. 2001. Heritage of Industry: Discovering New Zealand’s Industrial History. New Zealand: Reed.

West Coast Recollect. [online]. Available at:

West Coast Times. 1865-1916 [online]. Available at: