On 20 May 1861, Gabriel Read, a lonesome prospector, tried his luck in a gully near modern Lawrence. Heaving away the gravel, he exposed the creek bed and saw, in his words (poetic for an itinerant gold miner), “gold shining like the stars of Orion on a dark, frosty night”. This discovery led to the Otago Gold Rush and transformed our city and province for decades to come.
The rush took its time to get going. The Presbyterian Scots, who made up the majority of Dunedin residents, were intensely suspicious of anything that looked like easy money or a good time. They feared that gold mining would bring with it the ills of drunkenness, lasciviousness and fun. Half a dozen other “goldfields” had also been discovered in this period, with nothing much coming of them. But this initial scepticism gave way when, after the first few months, spectacular returns were witnessed. By August, “gold fever” had taken hold and Dunedin found itself at the forefront of an international gold rush.
The Tuapeka wilderness was soon covered in the white tents of 11,500 miners. Dunedin’s population doubled to 5850 in six months, trebled within three years, and by 1870 it was New Zealand’s largest and richest city. Gold brought with it soaring land values, disastrous sanitation issues and crime. It also brought unimagined benefits such as the finest architecture in New Zealand, the first daily newspaper, the first university and the notorious Vauxhall pleasure gardens — a den of drunkenness and prostitution and a true benefit to our town.
By 1865, the West Coast rush was drawing away many European miners. The Dunedin Chamber of Commerce countered this by recruiting Chinese miners from across the Tasman to work the Otago fields. In 1866, 12 Chinese men arrived from Victoria; by late 1869, over 2000 Chinese men were working the “New Gold Mountain”. Among them was the now-famous Dunedin entrepreneur, Choi Sew Hoy, who led a breakthrough in dredging in the 1890s to reach hitherto un-tapped gold seams.
When the boom inevitably burst, Dunedin still had plenty to thank Otago gold for. The money allowed for the expansion of trade links, while the advent of refrigeration meant that we could ride the protein money train from Port Chalmers to Britain. Many of our grand buildings are hangovers from this golden era. The School of Mines Archway building on campus is one. So too is the Union Bank on Princes Street, which is now home to Stilettos Strip Club, perhaps the first honest day’s work a bank has ever seen.