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The History of Gulgong

Gold in the Leads

Gulgongís gold rush began in 1870, almost twenty years after the finds at Ophir, the Turon River and Hill End. During that time, prospectors scoured the surrounding country and a few staked claims that yielded little.

One of these, Joseph Dietz, searched in the area around Gulgong for several years before his employee, Tom Saunders, found significant traces of gold at Red Hill, in the heart of the present town.

The Gulgong find has been called the last of the small manís gold rushes, because large amounts of gold were close enough to the surface to be mined with hand tools, rather than the heavy machinery needed for deep reef gold.

The gold was washed, over eons, from quartz at the peak of Red Hill. From there it was pushed down the small streams that led off in all directions, became mixed with silt and plants and mud, and was eventually covered over.

The prospectorís task was to find the leads, track their twist and turns, and discover the levels at which the gold had been spread. Even for experts, it was a daunting task, over an area covering hundreds of square kilometres. For amateurs it could be a futile gamble.

Spreading the Field

There were many willing to try their luck. Thousands had tracked gold finds through the Australian colonies, in the process learning that mining was hard work, conditions were primitive and the chances of success were slim. Many of those who came to Gulgong were married and had families. Some had been born on one goldfield or another.

Chances are that few of the Gulgong miners had wild dreams of fortune, like those who had flocked to Ophir almost a generation earlier. But those who arrived first could stake the best claims. And the other fields were losing their promise.

No wonder, then, that within a year or so of the Gulgong find, the area had a population of more than 10,000 people: not all in the present town, but spread for kilometres along the leads running from Red Hill, 'the head of the golden octopus'.

The names of the leads, and the roads to them, give some idea of the feelings of the miners: Eureka, Happy Valley, Coming Event, Star; along with Perseverance, Nil Desperandum and Gamblerís Retreat. Some of these names can still be seen along the roads leading in to Gulgong town.

The gold field reached further when discoveries were made at Canadian Lead, between Gulgong and Home Rule, in 1871, and at Home Rule itself in 1872. New prospectors arrived, and others moved from the Gulgong leads that had been worked out.

bark hut

Living Under Bark

In the restless search for gold, little appeared permanent. Arriving with tents, most prospectors built huts of bark and poles, lining them with canvas, hessian and newspapers. The first Gulgong hospital was built of bark, as were the churches, public houses and stores. Signs of substance and prosperity came to Gulgong by 1872, with weatherboard buildings forming uneven lines along Queen Street (now Mayne Street) and Medley Street.

There were commercial centres at all the main leads. In January 1872, 4 boarding houses, 2 stores, a public house and a hay and corn store were being built at Canadian Lead. In November of that year the Shamrock Theatre at Home Rule was for sale, complete with scenery, chandeliers, and seating for 700 people.

But these buildings rarely survived after a lead was worked out. The more substantial ones were dismantled by owners or neighbours, and moved to the next gold field or paddock. The bark humpies slowly collapsed. Within a year or two there would be little sign of the rush that had once occurred.

After the Rush

Within five years most of the leads had been worked out. By 1880 the rush had definitely ended, and the deeper reef gold proved too expensive to recover profitably. The diggers moved on, and Gulgong shrank to a tiny hub.

Gulgong had no river, like most successful farming towns, and the remaining residents could be expected to move to, say, Guntawang, on the Cudgegong River and a few miles to the west. Yet, unlike nearby Home Rule and Hill End, Gulgong has survived for almost 130 years, supported by farmers, pastoralists, miners and wine makers.

Today Gulgong and its surroundings present a unique cross-section of Australian history.

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