Copper was first discovered at Miners Head in 1841. The following year New Zealand’s first mining operation – the Great Barrier Mining Company – was established, and work began on New Zealand's first copper mine.
There were several mines, with some having workings that extended up to 55 to 60 metres above sea level. These early operations were simple – ore was extracted by hammering and sometimes blasting. By October 1843 up to 200 tonnes of ore was being shipped to Australia and England, and the mine was employing up to 40 people.
A village was established at the head of Miners Bay to accommodate the miners and their families. There were stores on site and provisions available from Ngati Wai iwi residing at Katherine Bay. The remains of the track between the village site and the mining complex can still be seen today.
In 1845 mining ceased. Hostilities in the far North triggered by the cutting down of the flagpole at Russell in January 1845 led to the possibility of war escalating further south. It was considered a very real threat and the mine (along with other settlements on Great Barrier) was evacuated.
Mining resumed in 1851. From this time until the last mine in the complex closed in 1867, four different companies ran copper mining ventures at Miners Head with various levels of success. One of the companies installed a steam engine, a crusher, and workshops, and this equipment was added to and updated over time. It is estimated that over 2000 tonnes of copper ore in total was extracted from the mine over this period until the copper simply ran out.
No commercial mining has taken place since 1867, although there were two further attempts in 1888 and 1895. The possibility of finding copper at Miners Head continues to capture the imagination. As recently as 1973, drilling sites were set up for copper prospecting but insufficient copper was found to warrant further exploration.
Today, the old mining tunnels are still clearly visible in the Miners Head area, as well as the remains of the engine house wharf. Miners Head is a popular dive spot and the wreck of the SS Wairarapa is located on the east side of the head.
Miners Head is on the north-west coast of Great Barrier Island. There is no foot access to Miners Bay or the coppermine, although both are accessible by boat.
Sewell, B. (1999) The history and archaeology of the coppermine at Miners Head, Great Barrier Island (Department of Conservation)
Armitage, D. (2001) Great Barrier Island (Canterbury University Press)