When ‘gold fever’ swept across state

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - - NEWS -

wa­ter. As he washes the dirt away, he finds specks of the pre­cious metal at the bot­tom of the pan. With his blood pres­sure ris­ing and sweat bead­ing on his brow he re­peats the process five more times and four times col­lects lit­tle pieces of gold.

If the big bear of a man were any lighter on his feet Har­graves would dance with joy.

It is Fe­bru­ary 12, 1851, and Har­graves names the area Ophir, af­ter a re­gion of vast wealth men­tioned in the Bi­ble. The Bathurst Free Press fa­mously re­ports that gold fever has quickly gripped the lo­cal pop­u­lace with a com­plete “men­tal mad­ness’’.

Peo­ple of all trades, call­ings and pur­suits throw in their jobs to be­come prospec­tors and the news­pa­per warns “that there ap­pears ev­ery prob­a­bil­ity of a com­plete so­cial rev­o­lu­tion’’.

Soon there are news­pa­per re­ports of gold finds in Vic­to­ria, at Clunes, War­randyte, Buniny­ong and Bal­larat and on Septem­ber 2, 1851 the Times in Lon­don re­ports that “Gold Fever in Aus­tralia may yet put Cal­i­for­nia to shame’’.

News of golden nuggets ev­ery- where in the Great South Land is re­ported in news­pa­pers through­out Eng­land, Europe and the Amer­i­cas. A starter’s gun had been fired, set­ting the whole world on a race for un­told riches and thou­sands of hope­fuls ar­rive in Aus­tralia ev­ery week hunt­ing trea­sure. Small gold de­posits are soon found across the Dar­ling Downs and the first great gold rush in Queens­land comes at Canoona near Rock­hamp­ton in 1858 with the ar­rival of more than 15,000 prospec­tors, most of whom leave empty-handed. Nine years later James Nash is cred­ited with sav­ing the in­fant colony of Queens­land from bank­ruptcy with the dis­cov­ery of gold at Gympie. There are sub­se­quent gold rushes at Char­ters Tow­ers in 1872 and the Palmer River a year later. Bris­bane au­thor Bruce Heiser, who runs an art gallery in For­ti­tude Val­ley, has writ­ten a mar­vel­lous new book about the gold rush on the Dee River about 35 kilo­me­tres south of Rock­hamp­ton. The rush took place near the small town of Struck Oil, named af­ter the play that was the foun­da­tion for the the­atri­cal ca­reer of the great Amer­i­can-born Aus­tralian im­pre­sario JC Wil­liamson who had staged Struck Oil at the School of Arts Hall at Mount Mor­gan, 40km south of Rock­hamp­ton in 1894. Around the same time gold was found nearby at the top of the Dee River.

A mi­ne­shaft was sunk and the mine was called Struck Oil af­ter the hit play. A small town­ship grew and while the first gold rush was soon over, a prospec­tor found some small nuggets in the river near there in 1903 and be­fore long there were 1000 dig­gers on the field. The largest nugget taken from Struck Oil weighed more than 7kg.

Heiser’s book Tempt­ing Dame For­tune re­calls the hard­ships and pri­va­tions of the au­thor’s great­grand­fa­ther as a miner on the Dee River and the lives of other prospec­tors he en­coun­tered.

Be­tween 1903 and 1907, 8980oz of gold, worth about $16 mil­lion to­day, was ex­tracted from the river bank as the Dee buzzed with prospec­tors.

The only ev­i­dence re­main­ing from the gold rush there now, though, is scarred earth, a si­lent re­minder of what was once a vi­brant and thriv­ing com­mu­nity. Grantlee Kieza’s bi­og­ra­phy of Banjo Paterson will be launched at Tat­ter­sall’s on Novem­ber 14.


FOR­TUNE SEEK­ERS: James Nash (top left) is cred­ited with sav­ing the in­fant colony of Queens­land from bank­ruptcy with the dis­cov­ery of gold at Gympie (main pic­ture); Ed­ward Ham­mond Har­graves kicked off the gold rush in NSW (top right).

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