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A day at the mines

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Saturday 12 August 1893, The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser

A Day at Hillgrove.

(Contributed )

Hillgrove, to speak in the language of the modern “Guide Book,” is a mining settlement situated on Baker’s Creek, in the county of Sandon, electorate of New England, and police district of Armidale, planted away in what metropolitan imaginations doubtless conceive to be the wilds of Australia – 389 miles from Sydney. It has communication by coach with Armidale, and boasts of such accessories to civilisation as a Public school, Anglican, Wesleyan, and Roman Catholic churches, a convent school, hospital, branches of two banks, several hotels and their almost inseparable accompaniments, a gaol and court house. The population is now well over 2000, and these figures are likely to be largely increased in the near future, as the district is rapidly developing and becoming one of the richest and most important mining centres in Australia, many minerals being won from the undulating hills and gorges in the neighbourhood ; but gold and antimony are just now the chief exports. Water is plentiful in the vicinity, a magnificent supply being conserved near the town, and a much larger scheme is being formulated for the mines. Recently the writer, with some friends, including Mr. H. T. Marsh, of West Maitland, with his amiable wife, had an opportunity of peeping at the “El Dorado of New England,” and what we saw may be interesting to some who will probably never look upon it.

It was on a Sunday morning that we left the Cathedral city of the North on our trip to West Hillgrove, for the town is divided by a deep gorge, one of many which intersects the country thereabouts, and which lend a wild charm and bold grandeur to the scenery which could scarcely be obtained in any other land under the sun, unless mayhap it be in America, that land of big things and apocryphal stories. Although the sun was nice and bright, the frost lay thick and white on all the sheltered nooks, and as we drove along we noticed that the little pools which nestled by the roadside were still frozen over. Our party consisted of two ladies and three gentlemen (without the driver), just enough to fill the drag comfortably and snugly. The horses were excellent animals, and as the roads were fairly good, the 16 miles which had to be cast behind were rattled over all too briefly in the crisp morning air, which made the blood tingle and brought the roses to the cheeks. As we neared what politeness and usage have designated “the township,” the usual array of hastily-built dwellings peculiar to mining villages from time immemorial met our gaze. These were scattered in all directions utterly regardless of future neatness or the requirements of streets, etc., and many of them were sufficient to make a departed architect turn and groan in his grave. The fences round these one or two-roomed mansions were in some instances rather startling affairs, and afforded us some little amusement. One in particular was evidently meant to be “fowl proof,” as some one suggested, for it consisted of thin saplings, about nine or ten feet high, placed closely together and bound with hoop iron, and no entrance to the sacred enclosure was visible.

We were driven to a hotel, and after divesting ourselves of wraps, etc., we sallied forth to the West Sunlight Mine, and there we were introduced to the manager, who proved himself a very courteous and efficient guide. The tramline there was working, so after some little hesitation we were persuaded to get on the truck, and run down to the mine. Looking down at this tramline from an eminence it appears to go over the edge of the cliff at the same angle as going over the side of an orange, but instead of completing the circle the line branches out somewhat. The comparison and simile may be a homely and incomplete one, but it is the best available, and may serve its purpose. Almost needless to say the ladies preferred to sit down in the truck whilst it rolled over the cliff’s edge, for it certainly did look as if one would pitch out headlong. However, that disaster being happily averted, and the awesome spot being left behind, they stood up and enjoyed the weird beauty of the scene with the rest of us. On one side were huge boulders of rock standing out bare and defiant, seemingly ready to fall at the least provocation ; on the other a long vista of the gorge, with peak after peak rising in the distance. A pheasant startled by the whirr of the tram rose on the wing, but was soon lost to view among the bracken and thick undergrowth about, and all around were trailing vines and mountain blossoms. The mine is situate about half-way down the falls, and the tram runs into a small platform cut away in the side of the mountain. On looking up one could scarcely believe it possible that a truck could go up and down such an incline. After leaving the platform we proceeded along a path (very narrow in some places) to get a good view of the ravine. And such a ravine ! From top to top it is about a mile across, and it sinks down 1500 feet. At the bottom the Baker’s Creek mine was clearly seen, and further along could be noticed the other mines half way up the side of the hills, as is the West Sunlight. In some places the cliff seemed to go down precipitously, and looking up, the rocks appeared to be almost overhanging us. It strikes one as passing strange that men could ever come to live in such a place-and all for filthy lucre. The manager assured us that the miners become so accustomed to going up and down that they think nothing of walking over to the other township after a hard day’s work even. On returning to the platform the manager asked if we cared to go down the shaft, and as we wished to see all there was to be seen we accepted the kind offer. The cage is on the same principle as a lift at a hotel, but, of course, not such a fanciful affair, merely consisting of the floor, four iron posts, and a bar across the top. The manager escorted the ladies down, as it would only carry three at a time, and we of the sterner sex followed. On reaching the bottom, a depth of 230ft., we were each provided with a lighted candle, and told to follow our guide and walk on the rails. This last piece of advice was warranted, for as we proceeded we found that unless we kept to the rails we would be walking through water over our ankles. The tunnel is 240ft. long, and varies in height from 10ft. to 12ft. ; and what with the water underneath, an occasional drip down one’s neck from above, and the cold and darkness combined, this part of the trip was not specially enjoyable. The manager was exceedingly kind in pointing out the different strata, etc. The stone from this tunnel is a whitish quartz, interspersed with a slatey formation which also carries a small amount of gold. I think, myself, that none of us were sorry to get back to the real sunlight itself, and breathe the fresh air again. After a short inspection of the stone standing in the trucks, we again “fixed” ourselves in the car, and the signal being given, we were drawn up the steep incline. Then we were kindly shown over the machinery and battery rooms. The first thing noticeable was the engine used for driving the stampers, of which there were ten head. Another frame for ten more was almost completed. Descending a few steps, we came across the winding drums used for raising the trucks from the mine. Passing into another room, we were shown the copper plates, blanket tables, Berdan pan, and other appliances necessary for the extraction of the precious metal. Then we went on to the retort house, and the method of separating the gold from the quicksilver was explained to us. The manager showed us some nice little specimens which bad been obtained from the mine. On our way back to the hotel we passed the two large dams used for the storage of water necessary for the working of the batteries. After lunch we walked over to the Sunlight mine, about three-quarters of a mile off. The country about here is evidently rich in many minerals, as we saw several shafts which were being worked for antimony, and others for schelite [sic]. After a little stiff climbing, we reached the top of the cliff, and such a wild weird scene as met our view cannot be described. As far up and as far down as we could see was this terrible chasm, varied here and there by precipitous cliffs jutting out into it. The township opposite was plainly to be seen, also the village at the bottom, and the various mines and tunnels dotted about here and there up the sides of the hills. From where we stood, the tramline attached to the Baker’s Creek mine appeared to go down the face of the hill almost perpendicularly ; but our guide informed us that, except in one part, it was not at such an angle as the one we had traversed in the morning. The Baker’s Creek line goes the full depth of the falls from top to bottom. The absence of timber on the hills would strike one as strange, but we were told that the trees had been felled for the furnaces. Once again we wended our steps back to the hotel, and were soon comfortably settled in the little drag, with our faces toward Armidale, which we reached safely at 7 p.m., after an enjoyable day’s outing.

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Written by macalba

November 1, 2010 at 8:09 pm

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