Aniseed Valley Copper
The discovery of an outcrop of copper ore in the upper Aniseed Valley by Fred Stratford in 1881 led to the development of an industry that saw a 30-year flurry of activity, both on the ground and in the share market. No fortunes were made; plenty were lost. However, most of the people behind the succession of companies that worked the copper mines were eternal optimists who believed the next outcrop would repay their efforts. They have left us places to explore with an associated collection of relics and stories.
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Following the discovery of native copper, most of the Mineral Belt in the area was soon taken up with prospecting licences.
Leaseholders were entitled to investigate the economic potential of the ore, but they all had two problems in common. One was finding capital, the other was the isolation of the lodes.
However, companies were formed and took their names from the lodes they were to open up. While company politics sought deals to gain finance, workers sweated on the ground. Access was established; exploratory drives were tunnelled. Ore was packed out and shipped to Newcastle for testing. Promising results and the discovery of the rich Doctor's Lode prompted the directors of the Champion Company to cease exploration in favour of more permanent works.
‘Losing' the lodes early did not create enough suspicion about ore quantities to dampen investment in plant. At the Champion Mine, a shaft was sunk in 1884 to a depth of 150 feet and another nearby in 1886. A main United Mine drive was begun; the wooden rails for this were hand-sawn on site. Tramways were built to move ore from both mines to the newly-built smelter, and these were up and running by 1886. In hindsight, the company would have been wiser to spend money establishing the extent of the ore, rather than investing in plant.
Over time, the upper Aniseed Valley was eventually worked as a single property. The main sites of operation, which you can explore via walking tracks and routes today, were the smelter, the Champion Mine and the United Mine.
Mining peaked around 1886. However, only eight days after molten ore flowed at the smelter, all operations shut down. Low copper prices and insufficient funds were cited as the reason. Various caretakers tried to look after the plant, but bush fires during periods of dry weather proved costly, damaging the smelter and tramways.
In 1903 work began on reopening the mines under the Maoriland Copper Company. By 1907 the United Mine's underground levels had been re-timbered and were open, with underground ore chutes operating. At the Champion, the tramway was overhauled, the North shaft dewatered, and new headworks and winding gear installed.
Work did not last long however. Both mines were abandoned by 1909. The end of operations was blamed on the impassable condition of the road, but subsequent geological reports show that ore reserves were insufficient. At, or close to, the surface the copper ores were almost pure copper, or copper compounds consisting of mostly the green-coloured carbonate malachite. However, below the surface the rich ores gave way to lean iron sulphide pyrrhotite containing only a trace of copper. It appears that the main purpose of reopening the mines was to enable share-trading in a highly speculative venture.
Over the years many people and contracting businesses were employed in the industry - at the mines, the smelter, on ore haulage, road-making and engineering design; on making and supplying machinery, timber-milling, inspections and company business. For a time a mine manager lived in relative comfort in a house at the smelter, while workers lived in tents and shanties on the United Creek river flats. Access was sometimes cited as a reason for failure of the copper mines, but although funds had to be repeatedly put into maintaining the road, failure was actually due to the sporadic occurrence of the ore which did not match with the ambitious investment in plant.
Today's Historic Walks
From the early days of farming and mineral prospecting, a series of walking tracks and later pack tracks networked the hill sides.
A system of horse-drawn and gravity-fed tramways transported the ore to the smelter. These tramways allow us access to the mines today. The walking track to the United Mine along United Creek is well-formed, but is steep and of route standard to reach the mine levels. The old tramway formation to the Champion Mine is of tramping track standard. The steep link over the ridge between the mines is a route, with excellent views from the ridge top.
Champion Road in Richmond is named after the mine, following the formation of a pack track from there in 1883. The journey took 3 hours, probably longer when packing out heavy ore. The Barnicoat Track to Nelson took 2 hours in 1884, following several upgrades. The Aniseed Valley Road was extended right up to the mines by 1885, but tracks remained a direct way for miners to get to town for a weekend. Other ideas for mine access, such as a Barnicoat Road over the range or a railway tunnel under it, were deemed too ambitious and expensive.
The mines - a history in pictures
c.1885 Champion Copper Mines, mine entrance
The Main or North Shaft showing the horse-operated whim that raised or lowered materials and miners in the shaft. A wire rope, encircling the horse-drawn drum, was connected via a pulley system to a cage in the shaft. The direction of the horse was reversed to change the direction of the cage. The Champion Mine was finally abandoned in 1908 and in general its yields were richer than those of the nearby United Mine.
However, the United remained open for a fraction longer. During 1909 ore from the United Mine was taken to the Globe smelter near Reefton for experimental use as a flux in gold extraction, but the exercise was unsuccessful.
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c. 1885, Champion Copper Mines, Incline
Engineer Henry Hughes designed this incline to transport ore between the United Creek and the United Mine. It illustrates the steep terrain of the upper Aniseed Valley which presented constant challenges for the engineers and workers. Hughes' incline was abandoned but the lower section was later utilised to truck ore from the United Mine as part of its tramway journey from the mine to the smelter.
1885 Doctors no.2 level entrance 1885, Champion Copper Mines.
This was on the west side of Champion Creek and reached the ore rich Doctor's Lode of the Champion Mine. It was named after Dr Irvine, an enthusiast and one of several directors of the first Aniseed copper company, the Champion Lode Association. Dr Irvine died around the time the lode was discovered, a time of great optimism for the industry.
1886 Champion smelter
This was the high point of copper mining in the Mineral Belt with the Champion Company's smelter sited on a hillside beside United Creek, with the mine manager's house on an opposite knoll. The smelter was built in late 1885 and early 1886, after the Aniseed Road reached the mines, enabling machinery, timber, bricks and coke to be carted in by dray. The tall brick chimney discharged fumes from the roasting stalls where the ore was treated before smelting. The final process was to pour copper into an ingot. The first molten metal flowed on 26 April 1886. The road to the smelter is well formed and makes for easy walking; the river needs to be crossed in three places. Site relics provide fascination. There is a picnic table, toilet and information panel on site.
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1898 Champion Mine Copper Smelter, Aniseed Valley
The Champion smelter had two instances of bad luck. The first destructive fire occurred on 5 February 1898 following a 3-month dry spell. The smelter had not been in use since 1886, but was looked after by a caretaker who lived in the old manager's house. A second fire swept through the area in March 1904. Between these fires the buildings were boarded up. When the Maoriland Company reopened the area for mining in early 1900 they rebuilt the smelter.
1908 Maoriland Copper Co Smelter
This was the second smelter on the site. The original chimney of the roasting stalls was demolished. The new chimney had an inclined flue connected to the smelter building (the open-sided building). The closed-in buildings are a new engine house, workshop.
This text was written for the Nelson City Council heritage panel at Aniseed Valley, 2008.
Updated December 7, 2021
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Further sources - Aniseed Valley Copper
- Johnston, M. (1987). High hopes: the history of the Nelson mineral belt and New Zealand's first railway. Nelson, N. Z.: Nikau Press. p.106-109.
- Johnston, Mike. (2007). Mettle and mines: the life and times of a colonial: Geologist Edward Heydelbach Davis (1845-1871). Nelson, N.Z.: Nikau Press. p.148.
- Lash, M. (1992). McMurtry, George Cannon. In Dawn Smith (Ed) Nelson Notables 1840-1940: a dictionary of regional biography. Nelson, N. Z.: Nelson Historical Society. p.107-108.
- Whittaker, R (1990). Pioneers of Aniseed Valley. Richmond, New Zealand: R. Whittaker.
Book review: Pioneers of Aniseed Valley (1995) Journal of the Nelson Historical Society, 2(6).
The Champion Copper Mine. (1886, April 26). Nelson Evening Mail, p.2.
Prospects of the Aniseed Valley Copper Mines. (1888, January 18). Nelson Evening Mail, p.4.
Prospectus of the Champion Copper Lode Company, Nelson. (1882, October 14). Nelson Evening Mail, p.4.
Smelting Operations Commenced. (1908, August 4). Grey River Argus, p.1.
- Johnston, David. (1866 - 1918). Johnston family Collection. Unpublished archives. : Held by The Nelson Provincial Museum. Ref # AG 255. Along with his sons William and James, he became involved in a number of mining ventures including the copper mining in the Aniseed Valley in the 1870.
- Nelson Trails. Champion Mine circuit. Mountain Biking: Retrieved 7 December 2021 from: