Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 23, June 1979
Before the 1860s the only inhabitants of the Waihi district were a few Maoris of the Ngatikohe tribe who lived on the banks of the Ohinemuri River near the present township. They believed the Waihi plains were once a vast lake and that a great earthquake split the westward mountain range, releasing the waters into the rocky canyon which now carries the Ohinemuri through the Karangahake Gorge to Paeroa.
Fable or not there is ample geological evidence that the series of titanic eruptions which began in prehistoric times not only changed the shape of the surrounding country but started off the chain of mineral reactions which finally produced the vast goldbearing lodes for which the area became famous.
It was the lure of gold that brought the white man to Waihi, many of them fossickers from the neighbouring towns of Te Aroha and Thames. A geology report of 1870 refers to evidence of early prospecting but those pioneer miners found no satisfactory way of separating precious metal from quartz and made little headway.
The Mines Statement that "a man without capital can hardly do else than work for wages" did not deter the frantic rush to stake out claims when the Ohinemuri goldfields were officially opened in March, 1875. A Southern Cross report describes the scene: "We can see clouds of dust...horsemen flying over the ranges...behind the horses are men on foot in relays ... Edward Howard has pegged out his claim, so have Payne and Cashel ... there is a cloud of dust all the way."
None of those early miners struck it rich and in the weeks that followed most returned to their homes. The lodes were there but it was several years before mechanised mining operations brought the rich gold-bearing quartz to the surface.
It was in 1878 that John McCombie and Robert Lee, wandering in the hills west of Waihi, saw a quartz out-crop gleaming in the sun on Pukewa spur, the Maori burial ground which was to become the famous Martha mine. The men staked their claim and, satisfied with early sampling, drove a tunnel into the base of the hill. Progress was constantly interrupted by hostile Maoris who declared that Pukewa was "wahi tapu." Thwarted in efforts to seal the miners in the tunnel, the Maoris finally made off with all their food, stores and equipment. An official assay report that the ore so far recovered was barely worth the effort involved was the last straw and after working on their tunnel for 12 months the two men left their claim and went in search of richer fields.
In 1880 William Nicholl, fresh from the Coromandel goldfields, struck a promising patch some 60 metres from the abandoned tunnel. He pegged a 5-acre claim, naming it Martha after a female relative, and with a group of friends initiated operations on the scrubcovered hill which later became one of the richest gold mines in the world.
Although the value of the ore was still in doubt another nine or ten claims had been staked out by 1882, including the Union, Silverton, Britannia and other well-remembered mines. The presence of gold had been established but its recovery depended on large-scale mining operations and the capital to launch them.
Auckland financiers joined Nicholl and his partners and the Martha Extended Company was formed. Hopes were high but after seven years the company had treated some 30,000 tons of quartz for a total recovery of less than $60,000 - an amount which barely paid expenses.
It was the foresight and business acumen of English company promoter Thomas Russell which lifted gold mining out of the red and set it firmly on the road to prosperity. Realising its long-term potential, Russell bought the failing Martha mine for $6000 in 1889 and turned it over to a London company for $40,000 in paid-up shares and a chairmanship [the writer has combined Thomas Russel and his son Thomas Henry Russell into one person! Thomas was the financier and chairman of the Waihi Gold Mining Company, established in late 1878, and Thomas Henry purchased the Martha and transferred it to the WGM Co – E]. Under his direction and backed by much-needed capital, the former gold recovery rate of 25 per cent was lifted to 65 per cent which transformed the foundering industry into a highly profitable undertaking.
The adoption of the cyanide process of gold extraction in 1894 resulted in a recovery ratio of 90 per cent which finally put the seal of success on Waihi's gold mining industry. The new method proved to be particularly suitable for the treatment of local ore and further developments quickly replaced the primitive and costly systems of kiln roasting and dry crushing.
A battery of 200 stamps was built at Waikino using the abundant water power of the Ohinemuri River and with the later addition of two smaller plants the total capacity was increased to 330 stamps [the Waihi Battery was established in 1888, growing to 90 stamps by 1894. The Victoria Battery started with 100 stamps in 1898, enlarging to 200 stamps in 1901. Purchase of the Union-Waihi Battery at this time added its 40 stamps to the total – E].
If mining methods were emerging from the primitive the same could not be said of Waihi and its surroundings. When, lured by the promised Eldorado, hundreds of miners from less prosperous goldfields flocked to the district they found a windswept wilderness of manuka and fern dotted with tents and iron huts. Those early dwellings were gradually replaced by a more permanent settlement of miners' lean-to cottages which by 1900 covered an area three miles from the centre of the township.
While the mining company ran its own railway to carry up to 40 wagon-loads of quartz over five miles of track from the Martha mine to the Waikino batteries, the only form of transport for the miner and his family was the horse. Roads were little more than tracks - quagmires in winter and dust traps in the summer.
Eight horse teams hauled coal, timber and machinery to the various mines and extra teams were needed for the long drag up Turner's Hill, a notorious gradient between Paeroa and Waihi. In those days the local transport company owned 120 horses and 10 coaches and employed 28 drivers and stable-men. The mines flourished, ancillary industries came to the town and there was a great surge of building.
In 1902, Waihi became a borough and as a result of pressure from the mining companies the railway was extended to the town in 1905. By then the former mining settlement had become the leading town in the Auckland province, covering 3960 acres and supporting a population of nearly 600 [6000 – E] compared with Hamilton's 2150. Waihi people went to Hamilton for their long weekends to escape the boom-town bustle of their daily round.
In 1908 the hard-drinking mining fraternity made the perverse decision to vote in prohibition. Various reasons have been advanced for this astounding move, including a dispute with the publicans over the price of beer and a sudden attack of alcoholic remorse. Waihi was to remain dry for the next 18 years when a new industry flourished in the town - the manufacture of home brew of varying degrees of potency.
Prohibition did little to impair the work capacity of the 1500 miners employed at the Martha mine in 1909 for in that peak year the 100 miles of tunnelling which riddled the hill yielded some 400,000 tons of ore worth nearly $2 million.
Declining production in the ensuing years was aggravated by the miner's strike of 1912. Sixty police were billeted in the town during the eight months of the dispute and many miners left their homes to seek work in other areas. In 1913 electric power from the new hydro station at Horahora replaced steam and cut production costs but the outbreak of the First World War resulted in a further drain of manpower.
Coupled with a sharp decrease in the quantity and value of recovered ore, the industry entered a period of lower but sustained production which gradually tapered off until the last shovelful of gold was taken from the Martha mine in 1952.
In the declining years many miners shouldered their picks and moved away. Hundreds found work driving shafts and tunnels for the hydro schemes, providing the nation with a different kind of wealth. Today, green farmlands hide the scars left by the mining era. New houses share the hillsides with converted miners' cottages and the town has some 40 industries employing nearly 700 people.
Old Waihi diggers will remember when a miner's pay was 9 shillings a shift and the quartz trains rattled through the dusty streets to the Waikino crushing plants. With pride they will recall the long, dim tunnels where they dug for gold; the names of the mines they toiled in, famous names which echo like a drum roll across the Waihi hills - Crown, Woodstock, Grand Junction, Talisman, Golden Cross and the greatest of them all, the Martha mine.
In 61 years the Martha produced 67 million ounces of gold and silver which at today's prices would be worth nearly $1000 million.
The tree-crowned spur of Martha Hill now looks out across the town, the skeletal remains of the historic pumphouse stand on the slopes and ducks swim on the lake which covers one of the old mine shafts.
The noise and the bustle of the mining days has gone for ever, and the town nods gently with 100 years of memories.