Tin mine reclaimed from bush

MICHAEL FOX IN STEWART ISLAND
Last updated 05:00 06/03/2014
Tin range mine
Michael Fox

The dam on the Tin Range on Stewart Island.

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A historic tin mine is being reclaimed in Stewart Island's picturesque Pegasus Bay.

The mining began in 1888 when hundreds of hardy pioneers rushed to what was then known as The Remarkables in Stewart Island to make their fortunes.

The rush, later described as "spectacularly unsuccessful", was sparked by the discovery of tin ore by gold miners.

By 1890 the tin rush was over though there was another unsuccessful attempt to find tin when prices recovered between 1912 and 1917.

The latter miners built a wharf at Diprose Bay, a 7km tram line following the contours of the mountain to the western side of Tin Range, about 500m above sea level, a hotel and post shop, a mining camp, dam and sluice guns. It all cost about £9000 - a fortune in those days.

All told the amount of tin taken out of what was renamed, perhaps ironically, the Tin Range was negligible and the area was abandoned, leaving the infrastructure the miners so painstakingly built to be reclaimed by the bush.

It remained that way until 2001 when the Department of Conservation carried out an archaeological survey of the site, spread out over an area of about 36 square kilometres, and declared it of major historical significance as New Zealand's best-preserved alluvial mining field and the only tin mining one.

Since then, DOC has been using volunteers to reclaim the mines and tramline and ensure the relatively well- preserved workings were maintained.

DOC Ranger James Ware said it was an important site.

"It was quite a big thing and a major part of Stewart Island's history even though it was a short lived project. It also goes to show what the early pioneers were up against . . . They must have been some pretty hardy guys back in those days."

The workers were dealing with isolation, being more than "a good day's sail on a good day" from the nearest town to get food and supplies.

Their marine base at Port Pegasus was a two-hour walk down the hill.

"They would have had to cart all their food supplies, all the steel work required to make the tail races, the sluice guns, they also would have encountered short daylight hours over winter as well as storms regularly coming through, often laced with hail and snow."

They also had to quarry the massive stones required to build the dam at the top of the mountain with hand tools.

"Tonnes and tonnes of soil have been moved to put the infrastructure in place."

When the recovery work first started, more than 80 years after the mines were abandoned, most of the mining operations had been lost to the bush.

The tramline had been largely enveloped by mud and the bush though small sections were maintained to help with the kakapo protection operations in the 1980s.

"It just looked like the rest of the bush," Ware said.

"If it had been left, in the next 20 to 30 years then it would have been extremely hard to find any evidence of anything happening down there and it's a pretty important period in Stewart Island's history and a snapshot into the past."

The archaeological survey had identified the most important areas of mine work, he said.

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The area is now used frequently by hunters while about 100 people walked the Tin Range a year.

The tracks were dotted with kiwi burrows - Stewart Island is home to about 15,000 to 20,000 kiwi - while there were also bellbirds, tomtits and wood pigeons in the area.

Metservice volunteer Ross Carroll visited the site this week while the HMNZS Wellington he was travelling on was anchored at Pegasus Inlet and said it was great the mine and its workings were being rediscovered and conserved.

"It was pretty neat to see wooden railway lines too . . . Just an amazing effort back in those days for the tin miners to do what they did in what's generally pretty rough weather and very basic living conditions."

He said the dam built high in the range must have involved "a pretty outrageous effort."

"I think it's really worthwhile that DOC carry on with the volunteer programme and just slowly rediscover what they can, because there's so few people that are going to get there that just sheer weight of numbers on the track is not going to keep it clear."

MetService electronics engineer Greg Simmones said there was a "phenomenal amount of work" that had gone into building the mines and related infrastructure.

"Those guys must have been pretty damn greedy to go to those extents. I was amazed how much of the workings could be seen and how good condition some of it was in."

He said there was little evidence of houses or the mechanical side of things and hoped this would be unearthed in what was a truly picturesque area. However, he was not sure the miners would have appreciated the environment they way visitors did today.

"It would be funny to think how they felt about it all, whether it was just there to be cleared and worked, or did they appreciate what they were in? It's hard to think."

He was not previously aware of the mines but said it was important to protect that history.

"I think it adds something to the region, rather than just overgrown bush there's something else to see there."

- Fairfax Media

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