“Leases to the left of them,
Leases to the right of them,
Leases in front of them,
Surveyed and numbered,
Out of the swarm of names,
Good for sharebrokers’ games,
What will prove paying claims -
One in a hundred?"
“Taking a liberty with Mr Tennyson’s 'Charge of the Light Brigade'”’
The “Nelson Evening Mail” has a satirical poke on 3 March 1882,
at the all-too familiar boom & bust nature of gold mining.
In 1860, while Julius von Haast was conducting a topographical and geological survey of the Buller and Grey Valleys at the behest of the Nelson Provincial Government, he encountered the range known now as the Marino Mountains, included within the present Kahurangi National Park in North-West Nelson. As was the habit of European explorers in colonial times, he took it upon himself to give the tallest, triple-peaked massif a name, calling it "Mount Owen" in honour of renowned English paleontologist Sir Richard Owen. He also gave the name "Owen" to the river running through the valley at the mountain's foot. He and his party looked for but found little signs of gold in the Owen River, though from his observations of the Buller and Owen Valleys from the top of another mountain, which he named Mount Murchison after geologist Sir Ronald Murchison, Haast noted that he believed an easy road could be made through by the way of the Wangapeka and Owen Rivers.
On 16 January 1864 the “Nelson Examiner” remarked upon the possibilities of rich gold-bearing quartz reefs around Mount Owen after a specimen of quartz and conglomerate containing a large percentage of gold was brought from the area and displayed in Nelson. Interest at the time, though, was focused on the more easily accessible alluvial gold to be found around the four rivers near the future Murchison settlement in what is today the Tasman District - the Buller, Matiri, Mangles and Matakitaki. However, the discovery and subsequent mining of extensive quartz reefs around Inangahua and Lyell in the 1870s led to a renewed interest in the Owen. The hunt for auriferous quartz was on, led by prospector Charles Bulmer (for whom Bulmer Creek was named), whose explorations resulted in the discovery of quartz reefs on the south-east slopes of Mount Owen around 1879-80.
In February 1882 Bulmer and his partners, Matthew Byrne of Lyell and Joseph Gibbs of Longford, made a formal application for a claim some 12 miles from the junction of the Owen and Buller Rivers. Getting into the rugged site was particularly difficult, and with trial assays of ore proving positive, by 1885 various of the other syndicates which had popped up - Wakatu, Uno, the Bonanza Quartz Mining Company, Owen Quartz Mining Company, The Zealandia, Broken Hill, the Enterprise, Lyell Quartz Mining Company, Golden Fleece, Comstock, Golden Crown, and Southern Star - were making applications for mining leases and clamouring for better access.
In March 1885 a delegation from the syndicates met with the Hon. William Larnach, Minister of Mines, in hopes of securing a Government grant for the construction of a road good enough to transport supplies and machinery up to their various claims. They presented a report prepared by Mr E. Butler, a specialist in the field of underground engineering hired to design and supervise a number of tunnelling projects around the Owen quartz mines. Larnarch concurred that the situation looked promising and agreed to facilitate some funding for a road if it could be freed up, though it appears the forthcoming amount was less generous than anticipated. Still, with Government backing, creating an access route was now possible.
A road along the Owen River was initially under consideration, but Jacques Ribet, proprietor of the Hope Junction Hotel and a partner in the Golden Fleece syndicate, jumped the gun and made a start on what he described in a letter to the Editor of the “Nelson Evening Mail” of 8 Jan 1886 as “a fair pack-track” over a low saddle to the Maggie Creek. This would run up the Owen Valley from the junction of the Nelson and Buller Roads which became known as “Owen Junction” (Note: this junction was where “Glenview Farm” is situated on today’s Kawatiri-Murchison highway. It should not be confused with the junction of the Owen and Buller rivers where the Owen River Hotel still stands, which was known as the Owen River Junction) After much bitchy wrangling over the pros and cons of the two routes, it was decided to make a dray road along Ribet’s track and a great deal of equipment would later be waggoned in along it, including timber for building, fluming and the machinery needed for the big stamper batteries at the Enterprise and Wakatu claims, used to crush the quartz as part of the gold extraction process.
Veteran surveyor and back-country roadmaker Jonathan Brough was appointed by the Public Works Department as overseer in charge of the road work. Butler’s pencil and charcoal drawing of the road under construction shown above was given to Brough by Butler and passed down through Brough’s family.
The story goes that Brough, who had himself worked as a digger in both New Zealand and the Victorian goldfields, had little faith that the Owen Reefs would be a success and quietly discouraged friends thinking of investing in the venture.
With the road issue now sorted, throughout 1886 it was all go at the Owen Reefs. In January applications went in for a number of mining licences and machine sites and by February work was underway at the Bulmer Creek, Uno, Wakatu and Golden Fleece claims, while Golden Crown, Golden Point and others were awaiting survey. Government mining surveyor, William C. Wright, was busy conducting a mining survey and drawing up plans for the Owen Reefs township, well up the Owen Valley above Brewery Creek and complete with streets named Bulmer, Byrne and Battery. A smaller informal settlement sprang up near the Wakatu mine workings.
Wright’s comprehensive map of the Owen area, dated 1 June 1886, details mining and geological features around Owen Reefs, along with tracks and roads then in use and accommodation house sites en route, and can be seen at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.
A number of miners nearby with claims at the Bulmer Creek/Owen River junction, panned for alluvial gold to tide them over as they waited impatiently for the road to be completed. By September the road had reached as far as the 3000 acre Owen Run in the Owen Valley, owned by Samuel Baigent of Wakefield but run by manager Dave Curran, where plans were afoot to plant a large vegetable garden to feed the new township. At this point contracts were let for the remaining 9km of road - 27 shillings & sixpence a chain (20.1168m) for side cuttings and seven shillings & sixpence a chain for clearing bush and stumping on flat land being among the going rates offered. It must have been around the time of this final push that mining engineer/surveyor E. Butler drew his sketch dated 20 October 1886.
The following day, 21 Oct 1886, was celebrated as a red letter day for the mining enterprises, the first dray, with six ctw (304.81kg) on board, having been driven successfully to Owen Reefs through the new road. Comment was made that Mr Jonathan Brough, the overseer in charge of the works, was doing his level best to make the road passable with the limited means at his disposal.
Little gratitude was expressed when the road was finally finished, miners and travellers alike (a visit to Owen Reefs soon becoming a popular attraction for the more adventurous tourist) excoriating it as “diabolical”, lacking adequate gravel coverage in wet weather and requiring a number of boggy patches to be corduroyed with logs before a dray could be safely driven over them. Reading between the lines, this was probably the result of skimped funding, though no doubt original advocates of the Owen River route would have been quick to point out that a ready supply of gravel along the river track and the large amounts of sticky yellow clay and swampy ground along the Ribet route were why they had objected to the latter in the first place. Packing charges were another favourite subject for complaint, being regarded as little more than daylight robbery.
September 1886 had seen a flurry of hopeful locals applying for accommodation and liquor licenses at places along the way likely to make the most of the expected rush to the area, and also at sites closer to the Owen Reefs township itself, like Thomas Tattershall at Bulmer’s Creek and Myles Dixon at Flowers Flat. Among others were George Henry Trower, who had taken over the Owen River Hotel, while Irishman Michael Fagan established a two-storeyed accommodation house, called the Owen Junction Hotel but better known as 'Fagan's", at the Owen Junction. Newmans’ coach service then added regular stops there on its twice-weekly Nelson-Westport return run to exchange mail and pickup/drop off passengers. Fagan’s brother-in-law, Henry O’Loughlen, who was running an accommodation house at the Owen Reefs township, was appointed the Owen Reefs’ postmaster and would ride back and forth to Fagan's by horseback to deliver snd collect the mail.
Jacques Ribet of the Hope Junction Hotel (situated about 4 km down river from the old Kawatiri railway terminus site) was their father-in-law and had quite a chunk of the accommodation business in the area tied up within the family at the time - yet another son-in-law, Alfred (Alf) Smith, was then running the Fern Flat accommodation house.
Michael Fagan put his Owen Junction Hotel up for sale in 1887, but it hadn't sold when both he and his wife Rowena died within months of each other in 1888, just two years after moving to live at Owen Junction. Their accommodation house passed around 1890 from Fagan’s executor, Jacques Ribet, to blacksmith George Edwards, who ran it with his wife Elizabeth and added tearooms to the facilities there. It was then run by the Edwardses’ daughter Rosina and her husband, Michael Dwan. After standing on site for many years, the former accommodation house, known as the "Old Coach House", was eventually deliberately burnt down by a later owner, who built a new house on the property.
After the Owen Reefs Post Office closed in 1890, postal services were transferred to George Trower's Owen River Hotel at the Owen River Junction. Both hotel and post office then underwent a simultaneous name change.
This was the first of two moves for the Owen Reefs Post Office, both times to a place called Owen Junction, and the start of ongoing confusion around the name and site of Owen Junction. A puzzle which has taken time and patience to untangle, and if anyone has found a better answer, please let me know!
In 1890 when the post office made its first move to Trower's Owen River Hotel, the late Michael Fagan's Owen Junction Hotel had just changed hands, and was now known as Edwards' accommodation house. The Owen River Hotel then took the name "Owen Junction Hotel" for itself. The former Owen Reefs Post office followed suit, becoming the "Owen Junction Post Office" at the "Owen Junction Hotel". The Owen River Hotel then kept the name Owen Junction Hotel for a number of years. However, by the time the old inn built by Trower was destroyed during the 1929 Murchison earthquake (much to the dismay of tired and hungry parties trying to make their way through from Nelson to assess the damage), it seems that it had since become officially known once again as the Owen River Hotel. And although Len Newman, proprietor at the time, called the new hotel he built to replace it the Owen River Tavern, the Owen River Hotel it remained.
The second move came in 1898, when Trower put his hotel on the market and the post office was shifted again, this time from the Owen Junction Hotel at the Owen River Junction to Robert Win's property at the "other" Owen Junction at the intersection of the Nelson and Buller roads. There the post office was set up at a site just across the road from Edward's accommodation house, originally named the Owen Junction Hotel by Michael Fagan in 1886.
Keeping the name Owen Junction Post Office after the move (no need for a change this time), the post office was then run at Win's for several decades from a building which had previously been the powder magazine attached to the Enterprise syndicate’s workings at Owen Reefs, hauled out down that troublesome track to Owen Junction on behalf of the NZ Post & Telegraph Department. Two generations of Wins served as postmasters there - firstly Robert Win, then his son Dudley.
During 1887 work and development continued at the mines, with eager speculators bringing in further funds, confidently expecting successes on the scale of those at Lyell and Reefton. In 1888 crushing began and gold fever excitement reached its peak, but the amount of gold extracted proved depressingly small. Regrettably, no notice had been taken of surveyor W.C. Wright’s earlier warnings that Mount Owen quartz was in huge blocks, more difficult and costly to work with than the usual continuous reefs, and that prospectors would be wise to take up extended claims.
And so, alas, despite all the high hopes and early promise, the Owen reefs proved a sad disappointment, with many of the syndicates and their members suffering disastrous losses as a result. Among those affected were coaching pioneers Tom & Harry Newman, who had pushed out the boat to purchase suitable heavy horses and waggons for the job after being contracted by an English syndicate to transfer all the gear for crushers and stampers from Nelson to their mine near Owen Reefs.
Although a substantial amount of silver was mined and exported, the going price being paid for it at the time was low. Without gold to fund it, the Owen Reefs’ venture was a bust. By 1890 the mines had closed down and the miners, storekeepers, brewer, butcher and publicans had moved on, leaving buildings and machinery behind. Exceptions were the Enterprise’s powder magazine, repurposed as the Owen Junction Post Office, and Wakatu’s big stamper battery, which was taken to Wakamarina for use at the reefs there.
Regardless of evidence to the contrary, the existence of a “lost lode” of gold remained a persistent rumour, though to date no one has found it.
Interestingly, in 1890 David Norris from Murchison, a man with much back-country experience and a knowledge of minerals, was hired by a company to investigate why the rich gold seam near Mount Owen had so suddenly petered out. He spent 6 years altogether tramping and climbing around the Mount Owen area working on this project, concluding in his final report that in ages past a big upheaval had broken layers of stratum off, to drop a thousand feet below, and that the gold seam had gone in like manner. He initially took his family with him and for the first 2 years they lived in one of the empty hotels at the abandoned Owen Reefs township. Life for the Norris family during this stage was later recorded by David Norris’ daughter Frances Jane, and recounted in Jeff Newport’s book “Footprints Too”.
The name Owen Reefs vanished from the maps, the area becoming known instead as Owen Valley and the land on which the township had been built later became part of a settler’s farm. What of that hard-won road? In 1905 the Owen Valley was opened up for settlement by farmers, and twenty years later a new road was built along the line of the Owen River to service the area - too late for those who had argued for that route back in the 1880s. It was known as Newman’s Road for local identity Len Newman, who ran the Owen River Hotel for nearly 30 years and was much involved in local affairs. This was the only road in use from that time. By the late 1940s it was noted that over time the old road had become almost completely obliterated.
“Colonist”, 1 April, 1887, pg 3
Indefatigable Nelson correspondent “Voyageur” made a visit to the Owen Reefs in 1887 and the account of his journey from Nelson, titled “A Trip to the Owen Reefs”, was published as a series of articles in Nelson newspaper, the “Colonist”. I’ve added a link here to the episode which describes his trip along the new road from Owen Junction up to Owen Reefs.
"Westport Times", 16 Nov. 1886, pg 2
"Correspondent" detailed his trip through to the Owen Reefs a bit earlier, when the road was still under construction. He mentions many people and places of interest along the route and describes the Owen Reefs village, where he stayed at surveyor William Wright's camp. A number of names once familar around the Murchison area appear in this article, including those of local accommodation house owners - "Correspondent" was clearly fond of his tucker and a drink or two!
"Plant Hunting on Mount Owen", by W. Townson
"NZ Illustrated Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 5, 1 Aug 1902.
Despite some paragraphs becoming confusingly misplaced in the digitisation process, this is fascinating account of a botantical expedition in the Mount Owen area. It describes a look around the by then decayed Owen Reefs township in the Upper Owen Valley, the two travellers putting up for the night in a room at the old "Enterprise" hotel which still had windows.
Note that the "Myles Nixon" mentioned would have been Myles D. Dixon, who was granted a licence for an accommodation house at Flowers Flat, Owen Reefs, in 1886.
Other articles of interest
"Lyell Times & Central Buller Gazette", 10 April 1886, pg 2
Describes work going on around the mines and mentions that "Mr Jackson of the Public Works Department "has just completed a survey of the road into the reefs, the total distance being about 10 miles (16.09 km)", describing the chosen route in detail.A history
"Nelson Evening Mail", 11 November 1939, pg 4
A history of the Owen River Hotel (for a while also known as the Owen Junction Hotel) at the junction of the Buller & Owen Rivers
Applications for accommodation house licenses relating to the Owen Reefs development.
"Lyell Times & Central Buller Gazette", 9 October, 1886, pg 3
"Nelson Evening Msil", 31 July 1886, pg 3
Click on the above hyperlink to see the plan for the Owen Reefs township drawn up by mining surveyor W.C. Wright, along with a description of life at the township once completed, in a short article made available online as part of the Murchison Museum’s Flashback series.