Gabriel Read’s discovery of gold in an Otago valley in 1861 changed the course of New Zealand history. Gabriels Gully was the site of the first major gold find in Otago which led to the gold rushes of the early 1860s which transformed the province, making it the wealthiest in New Zealand.
It triggered the country’s first major gold rush with a wave of prospectors descending on the gold fields. The population of Dunedin rocketed and Otago was transformed into the wealthiest province of New Zealand. The economic spin-off from gold mining was a massive boost to the young New Zealand economy.
Read's gold discovery was just the tip of a vast gold deposit. There was so much gold and it ran so deep that it took 70 years and a succession of more elaborate technologies to get to the bottom of the deposit. The revolutionary Californian technique of hydraulic elevating was pioneered here in 1879. Elevators working like giant vacuum cleaners sucked up the gold-bearing gravel from underground forcing it up under high water pressure.
Gabriel Read's gold find 1861
Prospector Gabriel Read (1825-1894) found gold in the gully on 25 May 1861. Read was equipped with a 'tin dish, a butcher's knife and a spade' digging in the creek bed. After working through a metre of gravel Read reached soft slate, and in his well known words 'saw the gold shining like the stars in Orion on a dark frosty night.' This discovery changed the future of Otago.
Early gold mining 1861-1862
Hundreds of people left their jobs and flocked to the gold field; 256 ships arrived at Port Chalmers in 1861 carrying hopeful prospectors. There was a 100 km walk between Dunedin and the Tuapeka gold fields in often harsh conditions carrying supplies.
Early photographs of Gabriel's Gully show a scattering of tents on the valley floor and the lower slopes of the surrounding hills, with piles of stones from the individual workings like mole hills across the valley floor. The first claims were 24 ft (8m) square, worked with a cradle or pan to separate the gold from the wash dirt. The life of the alluvial gold miner is the stuff of national imagination: their distinctive lifestyle based around chasing the illusive ore, working hard, playing equally hard, with a sense of adventure, shaped the identity of Central Otago.
Gold returns from Lawrence (and this is not just the Gabriel's Gully field) were 171,038 ounces in 1861 and 199,547 ounces in 1862, thereafter dropping away. As a consequence Otago became the wealthiest and most populated province in the country.
Developing the gold mine
By 1863 this was no longer a field for individual miners as more elaborate technology was required to extract the gold. Companies were formed and sluicing and later, blasting, became the dominant method of mining. By 1865 there were 542 miles of water races at the Tuapeka goldfields.
Mining using hydraulic elevating began at Gabriel's Gully in the 1880s enabling old tailings to be reworked with a small labour force. Seven major companies were involved in the 1880s. These ventures were combined into the Blue Spur and Gabriel's Gully Consolidated Company in 1888. This company operated until 1912 when it was finally wound up having won 51,500 oz gold.
In 1911 the jubilee of Gabriel Read's discovery was celebrated with processions and a reunion of the 280 surviving miners from 1861. Over 2500 people attended the festivities.
There was some mining during the Depression years of the 1930s when individual miners returned to the 1860s technology, mining with pick, shovel, pan and cradle. Mining finally ended in that decade, making Gabriel's Gully and the associated Blue Spur the longest operative goldfield in Otago.
DOC manages Gabriel’s Gully in partnership with the community of Lawrence. There is a viewing platform overlooking the gully, 14 information panels and benches around the 3 km gravel walking track.
Otago Dam Track begins at Grays Dam but is closed as the historic dam has storm damage.
Dogs are permitted in the historic reserve on a lead, however they need a permit for the two conservation areas, Munro’s Gully Track and Otago Dam Track.