At first glance the valley may seem unexceptional but you can marvel at the landscape transformed by the vast scale of mining – the original gully floor was 50 m below today’s level. The miners literally moved mountains.
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.
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 (8 m) 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.