The Next Big Thing

Remains of a wooden flume, which was used to channel water

The economic depression during the 1890s saw many Tasmanian prospectors renew their search for gold and the lure of the next big thing.

Amongst the prospectors was wheeler and dealer Rudolph Wachsmuth, a potato-growing, piano-tuning, violin-playing former engineer in the Prussian Army who had been mining gold in four colonies before setting his sight on Tasmania.

Using Victorian capital and his own experience of hydraulic sluicing on the Otago goldfields in New Zealand, Wachsmuth and fellow speculator Robert Symmons examined an abandoned gold deposit on a Van Diemen's Land Company's land holding on the north west coast of Tasmania. In October 1895 the Mayday Gold Mining Company, No Liability, was registered in Launceston. The VDL Co did not own the mineral rights to its land, so simply became an interested spectator in the activities in a corner of its land holding.

Hydraulic gold mining was a mining technique popularized during the Californian gold rushes where it was introduced in 1852. Two decades later it came into vogue in Tasmania for tin mining and, following its success on the Otago goldfields of New Zealand, became a gold-mining craze in Tasmania in the 1890s.

Telescoping pipes

The technique relied upon being able to bring water at high pressure to the mine face. Usually, races carried the water to a holding tank from which narrowing (telescoping) pipes fixed with a canvas nozzle concentrated the water on to the mine face, blasting the mineral-bearing rock with a jet of water like a firehose. The infrastructure needed was expensive to install, but one man manipulating the hose effectively replaced many armed with pick and shovel.

More telescoping pipes and the remains of the nozzle

Spruiking of a hydraulic gold mine usually involved regular press reports however the Mayday Gold Mining Company operated almost anonymously from the start.  In May 1985 a two-line progress report was published: 'Simmons and Wacksmuth's [sic] party, working at the Mayday, likely to be a big thing'. Little else was heard and after two calls on shares in December 1895 the company disappeared from the newspapers.

Ultimately, hydraulic gold mining did not work in Tasmania because the elevated level of many of the terraces made it difficult to supply high-pressure water, and because the comparatively small amount of gravel available to sluice made the process uneconomical.

Despite operating for a short period of time, the Mayday Hydraulic Mine is the most intact of its type in Tasmania and has remained largely untouched since it operated. Its water races, telescoping pipes and wooden flumes are still in place, and its mining face and mullock dump (a pile of stacked rocks) are clearly discernible. These features provide an insight into the enormity of the infrastructure needed and why most companies exhausted or almost exhausted their funds on infrastructure before discovering that their claims were unpayable.

Around 30 hydraulic gold mines were established in Tasmania. The Mayday Hydraulic Mine is the only one that so clearly demonstrates how they operated, the disastrous results of over-capitalisation on an unproven proposition and why the hydraulic gold craze of the 1890s failed.

For a full copy of the Tasmanian Heritage Register entry click here.

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