Rocky River Goldfields
The Australian Encyclopedia attributes the find of alluvial gold to W.F. Buchanan and J. Lucas in September 1851. We can say with some certainty that it did occur about this time because on the 7th October 1851 Commissioner Massie reported the discovery of gold at Rocky River. The quantity found is small and would repay no one for working.
Edward Hargraves, who instigated the first gold rush at Summer Hill Creek, near Bathurst in 1851, came to inspect the Rocky River field in 1852. He “reported reasonably, but not enthusiastically on the chances of the district being auriferous.”
In October 1852, the Windeyer Brothers discovered the first payable gold on the field, washing some five ounces of gold in less than a week.
Within days 40 to 50 men were working the area and the first licences to prospect were taken out. Crown Lands Commissioner, Mr Robert G. Massie, reported that he had issued 538 licences up until the end of March, 1853. Panning and cradling were the most common methods of extracting the gold from the wash-dirt.
The Rev. W.B. Clarke, who was a well-recognised geological authority, reported on the goldfields of NSW. His information on the Rocky River fields came from visits he made to the area between December 1852 and May 1853. He described "a large area of auriferous country on the tableland and according to Clarke’s man is sure to make something” and by the end of 1854 there were reported to be some 500 persons on the goldfields.
Commissioner Massie carried out a census between the 3rd and 5th June 1854 and reported that “there were 86 tents on the field and a population of 350, comprising 193 Males, 58 Females and 99 children”. Until 1856 the field at Rocky River was small and of comparatively no importance to the remainder of the country.
It was not until February 1856, when John Jones discovered a few specks of gold lying in the impression made by a cartwheel, that the field acquired greater recognition. Jones’s discovery led to the sinking of deep-lead shafts on what is now called Mount Jones. The new find on Mount Jones attracted a great number of people to the diggings. It was late in 1856 that Rocky River had its greatest population with some 5,000 inhabitants. Armidale’s population at that time numbered about 860.
As with other diggings a large number of Chinese came to the ‘Rocky’. The European miners would often despise the Chinese because of his dedication and ability to extract gold from places the European would discard or overlook. The Armidale Express of 1857 reported that “about sixty Chinese have come up to these diggings from Victoria within the last week, and I hear a hundred more on their way up”. By 1858 there were some 400 Chinese working the Rocky River field, mainly based at Maitland Point. The first joss house – a place of worship, was established near the ‘dodger’ claim in 1856, this was demolished and replaced ten years later, in 1866.
The Chinese also had their own burial ground, which is located along Rifle Range Road.
Rocky River’s decline after its peak in 1856, was not as immediate as the population figures imply. Although only approximately half of the boom year’s population remained in 1857, the goldfield was still a thriving centre.
The Rocky River goldfield became the richest field in NSW, producing over 30,000 ounces of gold in 1863. But a series of wet years from 1863 through to 1865, followed by drought in 1866-67 led to some claims being abandoned, with small groups the most vulnerable.
On 6 September 1876 the Long Tunnel Company commenced work on the ‘most remarkable and expensive’ tunnel to be constructed at Rocky River in an attempt to drain rain water that had accumulated since the wet years of the early 1860s. By November 1878 it had reached 1,013 feet in length when it encountered solid granite, markedly slowing progress, although work continued into the mid 1880s.
Meanwhile the bustle of the diggings and the population declined along with readily accessible gold. 1895 was the year of the last gold strike on the Rocky River field at Sawyers Gully, it lasted only a few months before ‘bottoming out’.
The few buildings that now occupy the site of a once bustling gold-seeking community reflect little of the joy and disappointment that accompanied their predecessors over a century ago. The landscape bears numerous scars to remind us where the 5,000 pioneers toiled in the hope of making their fortunes.
Part of this information is courtesy of Arnold Goode, Historian