An economic windfall
In the late 1860's Gympie became known as the “Town that saved Queensland”. Following years of drought, the colony was virtually bankrupt, unemployment was sky high and the Bank of Queensland was closed.
All that changed when, in 1867, Englishman James Nash was prospecting on Gympie Creek in what was then a fairly remote region. Until that time, the few Europeans in the area were mainly graziers and timber cutters and there were only a few scattered settlements. In October of that year Nash struck gold in the creek and surrounds. He returned to nearby Maryborough with about half a pound of gold which he only disclosed to a select few people. They immediately travelled to the site and less than 2 weeks later returned with about 140 ounces of gold. That same day their findings were announced in Maryborough's main street which prompted a small stampede of people rushing to purchase supplies.
The effect on Maryborough was dramatic and immediate. Many businesses had to close as both employees and owners dropped everything and simply left town. Within that week, almost 400 men made their way to the goldfields to seek their fortune.
Here come the masses
What had been a trickle of prospectors quickly became a mass invasion of the goldfields district. By 1868 the settlement that had initially been called 'Nashville' had a population of thousands. The settlement was renamed 'Gympie' meaning 'stinging bush' in the local aboriginal tongue.
In February 1868 a young man called Valentine Briggs and his uncle George Curtis were working on their claim not far from where Nash's original gold was discovered. They uncovered a huge nugget weighing over 900 ounces which was later valued at £3,675. This became known as the 'Curtis Stone'.
Men from across the globe were learning of the gold riches to be found in Australia and many found their way to the Gympie goldfields. Heading this group were the Chinese and the Europeans but even much smaller nations from Africa and South America were represented and lived together (mostly) in harmony regardless of race or class.
Initially alluvial gold could be found close in and around the shallow waters of Gympie Creek and its tributaries. The men used simple pans or 'tins' to sift through the sand to collect the numerous grains of gold. Soon they began digging small pits moving further away from the creek to avoid flooding. It is this technique that earned them the name of 'Diggers' which later became used more broadly as the colonies and then the new federation went to war overseas.
At this point the fields were made up of mainly single men or husbands who had left their families behind while they searched desperately for the gold that would allow them to return home and prosper. The men generally worked alone on individual claims.
As the supply of gold near the surface dwindled, the men began to dig shafts sometimes up to 30 feet deep that were supported with timber struts. These required horses and winches to bring the gold up to the surface. As these were quite labour intensive, the men began to work in groups or small companies.
In the years from 1868 – 1872 the region (and subsequently the state) was booming. The value of gold that was escorted to Maryborough alone was over £900.000. That does not take into account the gold escorted to Brisbane or transported privately. Roads and railways were quickly built to transport not only the gold but people and all sorts of goods to and from the goldfields.
In the 1870's and 80's the shafts got progressively deeper, requiring even more manpower and new types of expensive machinery. Pumps were developed to move water and sift it through purpose built tubs and cradles. The creek courses were diverted and small dams were built to direct the flow and pressure of water. Such industry needed the funds that only larger companies or more wealthy individuals could supply. The diggers often had more security working for the companies rather than for themselves. This shift from men being self-employed to being workers in large companies followed the general pattern of the industrial revolution happening right around the world.
While the men may have had more security within a company, they were certainly still exposed to many potential hazards. To extract the gold from large lumps of rock, potassium cyanide was sometimes used. This was passed over zinc shavings through several tanks which often resulted in serious burns and other injuries.
In the Gympie area it was widely believed that there were rich reefs in the quartz veins deep below the limestone so new approaches were needed. Deeper shafts were sunk and the produced rock was crushed using huge steam-powered batteries. Some of these were available for hire but most were retained for the exclusive use of each mining company.
In 1895 the Scottish Mining Company bought a mine that had originally been leased in 1889. Their No 1 mine quickly became the most productive in the Gympie area and accounted for nearly 14% of production at that time. In 1901 Gympie's population was around 12,000 and the gold production in that era was about 2.5 million ounces.
With the development of other goldfields around the state such as Charters Towers and Mount Morgan, and the reduction in accessible gold supply, the town of Gympie lost much of its peak population. However by that time the township was well established and many residents stayed on. Most of the mines had closed by the 1920's.
In the 1980's the gold mining industry in Gympie experienced resurgence as BHP and other companies conducted extensive research into the viability of re-opening the Monkland mine and the development of the Lewis Mine. The Gympie Gold company was formed with the support of the town.
The mine operated until the company collapsed in 2004. It was briefly revived again only to be closed in 2008 and then sold to an overseas company in 2014 with areas of the land subject to redevelopment.
A new direction for mining in the Gympie area is shaping up with the expected opening of the Tiaro Coal mine at Gunalda just north of Gympie. While this will boost the regional economy it has also met with widespread public backlash with many local communities now declaring themselves 'mine free'.
The proximity to World Heritage Areas containing diverse ecosystems is an issue due to the possibility of pollution and contamination. Others are concerned for the future of the thriving fresh produce and tourism industries. Whatever the outcome, there is no doubt that mining will continue to feature strongly in the identity of the town for years to come.