The Project Gutenberg eBook of Australia—Fortune land

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Title: Australia—Fortune land

Author: Roderick O'Hargan

Release date: January 15, 2023 [eBook #69803]

Language: English

Original publication: United States: Doubleday, Page & Co, 1926

Credits: Roger Frank and Sue Clark



Australia—Fortune Land
By Roderick O’Hargan
Author of “The Forty-Niners,” “The Comstock Lode,” etc.

Though the Government officials hushed up the discovery, fearing that it might lead to an “utter disorganization of society,” gold will out—and when it came out Australia experienced a stampede of the wildest sort, with nuggets of wondrous size and fortunes picked up over night.

There was a celebration at the Stag’s Head saloon, Downieville, Sierra County, California. A dozen or more gold-seekers from the nearby bars on the Yuba River were on hand to say good-by to “Sailor” Hargraves. The great California gold rush of 1849 was approaching its crest. “The City,” as San Francisco was known throughout the diggings, was overflowing with wealth. Crowds of red-shirted miners from the creeks, anxious to exchange their dust for something—anything—anything that caught their eye—met and mingled with the vast horde of adventurers drawn from all parts of the world. From the over-taxed saloons came the droning cry, “Money on the bar,” indicating a lucky man inviting the world to celebrate with him.

Even Downieville, born only a few months before, was bubbling with excitement. The guest of the evening, Edward Hargraves, was returning to Australia with the avowed intention of discovering a goldfield even greater than that of California. Like many others, he had come hotfoot to the California diggings one year before. He had not been successful as a miner, this soldier, sailor and bushman. Perhaps he was more of a talker than a worker. He certainly had a flair for the theatrical and was given to boasting of Australia.

Half a century before this little farewell celebration took place, England’s political heads were puzzling over what to do with a huge island in the Southern Seas. A penal colony! Good idea! So for fifty years she had dumped her convicts there—some cut-throats of the lowest type, others misguided idealists who had queer political views. As a result about one-half of the population of Australia were either convicts or “emancipists”—the latter, convicts who had served their terms but were not permitted to return to the motherland.

“Even if you did discover a goldfield in Australia, Hargraves, that old queen of yours wouldn’t let you have the gold,” an emancipist from Australia sneered, while Hargraves boasted.

“Queen Victoria, God bless her, will be informed that I have discovered a great goldfield and will make me one of her Gold Commissioners and perhaps afterward a peer of the realm,” Hargraves replied, striking an attitude.

Curiously enough a large part of this childish boast was destined to come true!

Arrived in Sydney, New South Wales, Hargraves tried to induce old friends and acquaintances to put up funds for him to make an expedition into the “back-blocks” to discover a goldfield. He pointed out that he had just come from California and was an expert at both discovering and washing gold. His friends refused to put their money into such a wild speculation. Nothing daunted, he invested the few dollars that represented all his capital in a saddle horse. He then rode across the Blue Mountains, through Bathurst, to Guyong, where he picked up a native guide and plunged into the wilderness.

About fifteen miles from the settlement, at a point on Lewis Pond’s Creek, a tributary of the McQuarie River, the two men prepared their first meal. Having eaten, Hargraves, probably regretting that he had no larger audience, informed the native of the object of their expedition. The eyes of the “blackfellow” bulged with excitement. This slight encouragement was sufficient to cause Hargraves to get to his feet. “Right where we are now resting is a goldfield,” he announced. “It is all about us. I will prove it to you.”

He took a dishpan and washed a pan of dirt. It showed a few grains of gold! In all he washed five pans in rapid succession and four of them showed colors. Later he admitted that his talk had been bluff; he had only hoped that gold was there!

A few weeks later, Hargraves walked into the office of the Honorable Deas-Thompson, Colonial Secretary, at Sydney, and opened a mysterious paper package. The official was in a cheerful frame of mind. He listened to his visitor with patience and good humor.

“By Jove, my man, it is gold!” he finally exclaimed, adjusting his eyeglasses. “I believe your story. I will have it investigated.”

Hargraves’ dramatic discovery was not the first time gold had been talked of in Australia. Nearly thirty years before, one of the convicts at Botany Bay showed a specimen of gold-splashed quartz he claimed he had found. When asked to show the place of discovery, he was unable to find it again and was awarded one hundred and fifty lashes for his “deception.” A few years later a gang of convicts building a road through the Blue Mountains found a number of gold specimens, but the news was promptly suppressed because it was feared that the convicts would get out of hand.

In 1841, ten years before Hargraves returned from California, a bushman named Adam Forres found a good size nugget and showed it to W. B. Clarke, a geologist. Clarke took it to Governor Gipps, who dismissed the matter by saying, “Put it away, Mr. Clarke, put it away, or we shall all have our throats cut.” Clarke thereupon advised his friends, who were excited about the find, that he would not make it public as he feared it might lead to the “utter disorganization of society.”

The investigation of Hargraves’ discovery promised by Secretary Deas-Thompson took place. Again the official mind was stubborn!

“I can see no evidence whatever of the precious metal in the district indicated,” Mr. Stutchburg, the Government geologist, reported.

But Hargraves was so earnest and so insistent that the geologist made a second visit and watched Hargraves wash out a dozen pans of dirt, several of which showed a string of colors. Moreover, half a dozen men who had caught the trick from “the forty-niner” were panning on the creek and showing colors in pan after pan. The geologist was forced to admit the gold was there. The news was reported in the press. The stampede was on! What a Government geologist said or thought did not matter now; he was brushed aside like a chip in the wind. Within a few days four hundred amateur miners were milling around the spot where Hargraves had washed his historic pan of dirt.

Before Hargraves’ find was fully accepted, two new fields were discovered, one on the Turon River and another on the Abercrombie, and these were followed almost immediately by the “Kerr strike.” At a little sheep station on the banks of the Merro River, a “blackboy” horsebreaker, idly chipping at a quartz boulder, struck harder than he had intended and split the rock, revealing to his astonished gaze a core of solid gold bigger than his fist. Two other similar boulders were promptly broken up, bringing to light even larger chunks of solid gold. One of these, had it remained unbroken, probably would have been the biggest sample of native gold in the world.

The news ran through Australia like wildfire. Within a few weeks from almost every point of the compass reports of new discoveries were coming in, one on the heels of the other. There were:

Cluneson July 8th
Buninyongon August 8th
Anderson’s Creekon August 11th
Ballaraton September 8th
Mount Alexanderon September 10th
Broken Riveron September 29th

Four of these discoveries became great producers. Mount Alexander, for instance, produced more than ten thousand ounces of gold in the first fifteen days of existence. Any man with a spade and tin dish could be a successful miner. Indeed, few knew anything of mining, shown by the fact that many claims were abandoned and re-abandoned only to yield fortunes to second and third comers. One such abandoned claim, the “Poor Boy” at Eureka, yielded a nugget of pure gold weighing over six hundred ounces. In another instance, a pillar of earth, left as a support in a deserted claim at Bendigo, calved a nugget weighing more than five hundred ounces.

The effect of these discoveries was two-fold; to the officials, it was a calamity; to the masses, it was a windfall. The officials saw in it only a possible uprising of the convicts and demoralization of the laboring classes. The Commissioner of Lands at Bathurst, hearing of Hargraves’ activities, sent a special message to the governor advising “that steps be taken to prevent the working classes from deserting their regular employment for the goldfields.” Gold, to the masses, spelled quick fortunes and trade revival.

Australia had been passing through a period of great commercial depression. People were drifting away, especially to California. The gold strike was a lifesaver. First timidly, then boldly, committees of wealthy citizens offered cash rewards for gold discoveries. Men, women and children gave part or all of their time to the search, often looking in the most unlikely places, yet sometimes not without results. A stagecoach driver in his spare time found the Ding-Dong deposits and realized a fortune.

It was as if some electric shock ran through every town, village and house in Australia. Almost the entire male population poured along the roads that led to the goldfields. Men forsook their ordinary vocations. The shearer left the sheep station; the driver his team; lawyers and even judges forsook their courts; the merchant his counting-house, and the clerks their desks. Geelong, Melbourne and Sydney became almost empty towns. In Hobson’s Bay on January 6th, 1852, there lay forty-seven merchant ships abandoned by their crews, who had set out for the goldfields to wash a fortune out of a tin dish. The police resigned in scores; even warders in lunatic asylums left their patients. Business reached a standstill. Schools were closed. In some places not a man was left.

At Melbourne, out of forty-four constables, only two remained on duty. The governor issued a circular to department heads in Sydney, asking how they were affected by the gold “disturbance.” The police chief reported, “Although a great increase of pay has been offered, fifty of my fifty-five constables have gone to the goldfields.” The postmaster, “An entire disruption has taken place in this department and immediate measures must be taken.” The harbor master reported, “I have only one man left.”

Society was cast into the melting pot; all disappeared over the rim of the horizon in a breathless race to where they had been told gold nuggets were being dug up like potatoes. Thus had the whisper of gold risen to a shout of gold, and it ran round the world and turned the stems of ships on every sea toward Australia. It was the day of the clipper ships of New England, and their skippers went after this new trade with Yankee keenness.

During this time passenger traffic between Australia and San Francisco was greater than it has ever been since—Australians stampeding to California and Californians rushing to Australia. In five months eleven thousand immigrants passed through the principal Australian ports. In the next four years over four hundred thousand immigrants arrived, almost all drawn there by the lure of gold.

After the first rush to the diggings had subsided the cities began to fill up again. Supplies for the new mining camps became a commercial factor, and this, together with the handling of the horde of overseas stampeders, caused a big expansion in business. Then when the miners began to take their vacations from the diggings, these Australian cities, formerly quiet sheep towns, experienced their first period of rushing business and wild extravagance.

The lucky diggers became the outstanding figures of local society. Their wagerings at the race track or gaming table put former plungers into the shade. They imported the world’s best race-horses, the world’s largest diamonds, and built fine homes. Until that time the wealthy in Australia were almost exclusively the “official” class, aristocrats from England, but with the coming of gold men rose from poverty to wealth almost overnight and the old social lines were thrust aside. The forceful and hard-fisted bosses of the mining camps became the leaders and dominators of commerce, finance and society.

As in American get-rich-quick communities, a plague of human parasites began to infest these easy-money centers. Bands of bushrangers sprang into existence and preyed upon the traffic between the goldfields and the cities, but the authorities, if slow, were sure. They stamped out crime with a deadly thoroughness that cowed the rough element. Hold-up—“robbery under arms” it was called—was a crime punishable by death. Australia’s period of lawlessness, in many ways romantic and interesting, was of short duration. The citizens formed no Vigilance Committees. Putting down crime was left to the Mounted Police, and they made a good job of it.

The returns in the first few months after gold was discovered made a dazzling record. The first dolly set rocking at Golden Point yielded four and one-half pounds of gold in two hours. At Canadian Valley, in the same district, the wash and rubble yielded an average of about thirty-five pounds weight of gold per claim. At Blacksmith’s Hole, on the Canadian River, one party of mates in one day obtained over fifteen hundred dollars per man, the average of the claim being one ounce of gold to every bucket of earth. This claim was worked twice after being abandoned and in all yielded more than one ton in weight of the precious metal.

From one fraction, only twelve feet by twelve feet, at Gravel Bend, one hundred and twenty-five pounds weight of gold was taken out in less than thirty days. Another syndicate of eight men, working nearby, pocketed one hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars. The Prince claim was leased for one week and yielded about eighty thousand dollars; then, for a two-week period, yielding forty-five thousand dollars. Before the end of the year 1851 over thirty thousand miners were working in the Victoria goldfields. In the following year this province alone yielded gold to the value of forty-eight million dollars, and in the succeeding year one hundred and five million dollars, and this golden flood spelled prosperity to the whole of Australia.

Australia too, startled the imagination of the world by the large size of the chunks of gold occasionally found. For several years the industry of mining was mostly a matter of luck. It was a tenderfoot’s paradise. Barbers had equal chance with geologists, and jockeys with experienced miners. There is no other example in the history of mining such a succession of great nuggets. One expert has made a calculation of the world’s famous nuggets, one hundred and fifty in number. Of these one hundred and nineteen were found in Australia, the United States trailing along a poor second with only nine.

The “Welcome Stranger” nugget, found at Dunolly, only a few inches below the surface, was a block of gold twenty-four inches long and ten inches thick and yielded two thousand, two hundred and forty-eight ounces of pure gold, valued at just under forty-nine thousand dollars. The “Welcome” nugget, found at Ballarat, weighed two thousand, two hundred and seventeen ounces and was sold for forty-six thousand dollars. The “Blanche Barkly,” picked up at Kingower, at a depth of only fifteen feet, yielded seventeen hundred and forty-three ounces and was worth thirty-four thousand dollars. Another, weighing sixteen hundred and nineteen ounces, was part of a small rock slide that rolled into Canadian Gully.

This nugget was picked up by a widow just out from England and forthwith sold for twenty-six thousand dollars. This fortunate woman was of the stuff that make real pioneers. She had a family to support and, hearing of the Australian goldfields, she stowed her family aboard a sailing ship and came—and in the fifties a voyage more than half way around the world was no picnic. It could be said of her in truth, “She came; she saw; she conquered”—for the finding of this nugget was only the beginning.

“What any man can do, I can do,” she said, and she did, both in Australia and in England, where, for thirty years after, she was a power in financial and social circles.

And what of the original stampeders? Few of the world’s adventurers have been more suitably rewarded than was Edward Hammond Hargraves, officially recognized as the discoverer of gold in Australia. He gained wealth, a good position and a title, wore showy uniforms and became a public functionary, surrounded by an army of satellites. He received the appointment of Commissioner of Crown Lands. The British Government bestowed upon him a gift of fifty thousand dollars. The Government of Victoria a gift of twenty-five thousand dollars. New South Wales gave him a life pension of two thousand five hundred dollars per annum. Hargraves became a great man.

Of the others, Thomas Hiscock, who discovered Ballarat, died before he enjoyed much material reward. Harry Frenchman, discoverer of Golden Gully at Bendigo, became a wealthy woolman. Fortescue, the brilliant emancipist attorney, tossed away a fortune in the cause of his oppressed brethren in Ireland, but died poor. Marshal owned race-horses, envied alike by English peers and South African magnates. Nat Bayley and Charles Ford, the pair who later found gold in Western Australia, retired with great wealth.

The Australian gold rush must be reckoned among the world’s great stampedes, one which yielded huge prizes to the few and good prizes for nearly all who had the high courage and cool foresight to take a chance.

Transcriber’s Note: This story appeared in the May, 1926 issue of The Frontier magazine.