John Ryan and Teddy McDonald arrived breathlessly at Thomas Craig’s timber mill at Whangapoua. Although mill workers, they had been fossicking for gold for some weeks on the spur leading to Whangapoua mill, on the east side of the dividing range. And now they had discovered a splendid gold bearing reef, so rich and so easily worked that they believed they would be able to make fifty pounds a week with a pick and shovel.
The news caused excitement so immense that around 4:00pm on a Friday afternoon in early October 1868, Mr Craig shut up his mill so that all hands might go and try their luck. Once the electrifying news reached Mercury Bay, the ship Nautilus was chartered by a party of 18 men to take them to Whangapoua to see what truth lay in the rumour. The Nautilus was ordered to stay for a day in the harbour while investigations were made. The next day word was sent to the captain that he might proceed to Auckland. The men would remain behind as the astonishing news appeared true. All of Mr Craig’s men had taken to the reef and others were making their way to the Warden at Thames to get miner’s rights.
Next came the news that as well as the Whangapoua reef find, a party of miners had been working on the black sand of the beach at Mercury Bay and gold was discovered there which would pay from two to three pounds per week. Ever since the Coromandel diggings were proclaimed, fossicking parties had repeatedly gone over the district and the colour could be got almost at any place, but nothing payable had been found.
As the news filtered through to Thames, anticipation grew. Everybody had heard about it, but nobody knew anything definite on the subject. They waited impatiently for the arrival of the Auckland steamers returning from Mercury Bay. Just a month before, there had been a rush to Mercury Bay where gold was allegedly found. The information was false and condemned as “the greatest duffer rush on record”, causing outrage amongst hoodwinked miners. The news from Whangapoua was met with raised eyebrows by the Thames Advertiser which archly said, “We fear it will prove a repetition of the farce which has of late so frequently been enacted in Auckland, much ado about nothing.” The Daily Southern Cross also threw cold water over the report. “We daresay that the unfortunate termination of the rushes to Kennedy’s Bay and Mercury Bay will be a caution to the mining population not to treat Whangapoua in a similar manner. We may say at once that there is no appearance of alluvial gold at Whangapoua, and there is not likely to be any found so far as we can learn.”
When James Mackay, gold commissioner, reached the Whangapoua range, he found about 40 men at work on different claims, but gold had been only found on the original claim of John Ryan and Teddy McDonald. Mr Mackay took back with him to Auckland some of the gold, which was mostly in thin flakes. To all appearances, he thought the claim of Ryan and party would turn out well. Arrangements were made for the area to be prospected, which opened up the last piece of ground in the Coromandel Peninsula. The whole country from Omahu to Cape Colville was now able to be mined. Despite a promising start, pessimism remained.
A Shortland gentleman who visited the locality of the Whangapoua rush arrived on a wretched day of wind and rain. The gold of John Ryan’s Prospector’s party was of good quality, but very light, almost like leaf gold. None of the new claims had found anything. There was gold, but the whole country from Cape Colville to the Aroha Mountain, being of a wooded nature, it would take years to develop. At Whangapoua, despite the initial exodus of workers, which lead to fears of a timber shortage, the mill went back to work again.
At the diggings, many men had left but among those who stayed, a great deal of work had been done near John Ryan’s claim, one party having gone in 40 feet. No one could get the colour but the Prospectors and they had stopped working for a fortnight. The general opinion was that they were afraid to drive in for fear of losing what little show they had. They did intend to commence work again and it would soon be known whether their lead improved or not.
By mid-January John Ryan’s Prospector’s claim was declared by everyone to be the most extraordinary claim yet seen. The gold was flakey and wiry, and obtained from very small leaders in sandstone. The yield averaged from five to six ounces a day and was obtained merely by dish washing and sluicing. They were losing some of the fine gold through not having the proper appliances, but they planned to put up a waterwheel and acquire some stampers.
John Ryan and his party persevered and at the end of January 1869, Thomas Craig arrived in Auckland with the first fruits of their labours. The parcel of gold consisted of 104ozs, 17dwts, and 17grs and was deposited in the Bank of New Zealand. This quantity was obtained by the Prospector’s party in six weeks.
Mr Craig also brought to Auckland a quantity of very excellent specimens. He reported several other claims had been pegged off in the vicinity of the Prospector’s claim, and men were turning out very promising stone. About 30 men were on the ground and feeling very optimistic.
But Thomas Craig had other news. The day before, John Ryan had spent an evening visiting those on board the cutter, Prince of Wales. He returned to shore in a dingy but as he crossed the Whangapoua bar, it capsized. John Ryan could not swim and was drowned before help could get to him.
Mining continued at Whangapoua fairly successfully. In the claim of John Ryan, between 500 and 600ozs of gold were eventually obtained. John, aged 25, whose life was cut short on the threshold of such promise, is probably buried at Mercury Bay cemetery as the Whangapoua cemetery did not come into use until 1878.
Pictured is a ship at anchor off the beach at Whangapoua in 1868. Watercolour by W Eastwood. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 7-C1340.