Excerpt from “The History of Mining: The events, technology and people involved in the industry that forged the modern world” – by Michael Coulson

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BROKEN HILL, AUSTRALIA – SILVER IS DISCOVERED

The story of Broken Hill began on the NSW state border with South Australia when silver was found at Thackaringa in 1876. Prospectors, excited by the news, pushed west from the copper discoveries at Cobar. The Thackaringa silver deposits, however, did not have a long life and soon petered out.

In due course prospectors found gold in modest amounts at Mount Browne, 200 miles north of Thackaringa, and this started a mini-rush to the new goldfield. Conditions were appalling with temperatures holding steady for weeks at an end at over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Disease was rife and the cost of supplying food and water so high that Mount Browne never really had a chance of measuring up to other gold fields in Australia and around the world. Interest soon switched back south towards Thackaringa, where prospectors had begun to search for silver again.

The first of these new discoveries was the Umberumberka silver and lead mine and this spawned the town of Silverton, which today – though pretty much a ghost town – is a magnet for tourists and film makers. At the time it was the centre for some highly profitable silver mines and a busy stock exchange. The grades found at three of the mines were astonishing, even for those times – rock from the Chanticleer mine ran 10,000 ozs to the ton, the Marine ran 10,724 ozs and the Hen and Chickens mine assayed a less juicy but still mouth watering 3,400 ozs to the ton.

Intermittently, droughts created problems for miners and prospectors, and the mid-1880s witnessed a particularly serious one, but Silverton survived and the town’s population based on silver mining was in the thousands by 1885. The Silverton stock exchange that year also saw it start trading the shares of Broken Hill Proprietary, then merely an exploration company with leases a few miles to the east of the town. But as the silver began to run out again, interest in Broken Hill, despite problems of geological interpretation, was on the rise.

BROKEN HILL IS BORN

Broken Hill had attracted prospectors for many years, but surface samples taken had yielded only small shows of lead and silver mineralisation. What fascinated those people who had stopped, looked and wondered about Broken Hill, named after its jagged top, was the size of the area stained by the oxidisation of the surface iron and manganese. Those oxides were much larger than others in the area, but those samples that had been chipped from the surface were unexciting, giving no hint of what actually lay beneath this stained cap.

In September 1883 sheep boundary rider, Charles Rasp, a German who had become interested in prospecting in the wake of the Silverton silver rush, was working close to the Broken Hill and decided to take a few samples of his own. Two contractors, David James and Jim Poole, excavating a dam nearby, were shown the samples by Rasp and were intrigued by their weight. With Rasp they put a little money up to secure a mining lease over part of the Hill. They then took further samples and sent these off to Adelaide for assaying; the results showed lead and some silver present.

Whilst the paucity of the silver was a disappointment, the three decided to persist and hired a miner to drill a single hole to see what might be found at depth. The three partners also took on four more pastoralists, including the station manager, George McCulloch, and with the expanded syndicate having contributed £500 the partners were able to secure almost 300 acres of ground. Additional drilling was done on behalf of the syndicate and it further confirmed the presence of lead and silver in the Broken Hill mineralised lode near the surface. The silver assayed around ten ozs per ton, a respectable 300 plus grammes in today’s silver mining world but disappointing then, particularly when compared to the riches of nearby Silverton.

Perhaps if the syndicate had been made up of geologists the drilling programme would have been abandoned there and then, for high grade silver not lead and silver ores was what the group was hoping to find. The syndicate pressed on believing that higher-grade silver might well lie deeper. Further drilling confirmed the presence of substantial quantities of lead, but high-grade silver still eluded the drillers. This was a difficult time for the project with money very tight and so the syndicate had to pass over the opportunity to buy the freehold of the Broken Hill leases.

When the lode finally showed its potential this decision proved to be an expensive if unfortunately inevitable one as Broken Hill had to pay millions in royalties to maintain the lease when it came up for renewal in the early 1900s. Shares in the syndicate also occasionally changed hands, often at prices that would eventually be seen as bargain basement. Also for the first time in 1884 a mining man, W.R. Wilson, bought a stake. Some of the new members of the syndicate were only in for the short-term ride but others stayed the course and reaped huge rewards in the form of capital growth and dividends.

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