Rush to Invest in the Kawarau Falls Dam! Fortunes assured!

Rush to Invest in the Kawarau Falls Dam! Fortunes assured!Photo credit: Lakes District Museum

What if riverbeds were dry so that the gold could be reached easily? In 1867 when the Kawarau River was very low, rich un-worked gold deposits were exposed below Kawarau Falls.

In 1920 the scheme to dam the outlet of Lake Wakatipu was proposed by an engineer, E. J. Iles, who was well-known in Central Otago and gold-mining circles. He won support and the backing of a group of businessmen who established the Kawarau Gold Mining Company.

They promoted the plan in glowing terms in a booklet ‘Kawarau Gold’ (45 pages, well illustrated). It’s a very persuasive and imaginative document. All obstacles are easily countered, and Mr Iles’s plan, simplicity in itself, would result in incredible riches being available to the 84 claim-holders and the shareholders. Government engineers endorsed the scheme, and scepticism vanished before the mass of evidence in support of the scheme. A dam was also to be built on the Shotover River, and the crowning achievement was to be the damming of Lakes Wanaka and Hawea, thus drying up the Clutha River. Imagine the riches which would be revealed!

Naturally, some of the locals weren’t happy – some things don’t change. The ‘falls’ or rapids around a group of low-lying rocky islets were a tourist attraction for visitors who came from Queenstown by launch to admire them and have refreshments at a nearby house or picnics on the Frankton beach. But the dam required the demolition of the islets – the desecration of a scenic beauty.

queenstown historical society queenstown community blog crossing kawarau falls part 2 2Photo credit: Lakes District Museum

After a year of hearings, in January 1924 the licence for the dam incorporating a bridge was granted, fulfilling the desire for both a road bridge and a gold-mining dam. The Public Works Department and the Lake County Council were relieved of any financial obligation to provide a bridge, so no wonder they looked favourably on the venture. So did the Dunedin Stock Exchange.

The newspapers extolled the importance of the scheme, the Otago Daily Times (3 December 1923) writing: An enterprise such as the Kawarau scheme must be regarded as one of national importance, ... one that not only vitally concerns Otago and New Zealand, but the Empire also, when gold is badly needed to bring back the rate of exchange to its pre-war level.’

The Lake Wakatip Mail, under the heading ‘A Great Enterprise’ trumpeted the granting of the licence with pomposity and mixed metaphors: What has yet to be unfolded when the giants of enterprise set the machinery of the undertaking in motion lies in the bosom which is pregnant with potentialities of vast importance to this district, this province, and this fair Dominion of ours....The scheme is rich in promise.... [We are] on the threshold of the great future which lies ahead.’(22 January 1924)

Each claim, 400 metres wide, cost one thousand pounds plus a percentage of any gold won. The promoters and vendors allocated themselves the lion’s share of the first shares. The remaining shares and on-sold shares were snapped up. Gold fever is highly contagious. Would you have invested?

On 22 November 1924 G.J. Anderson, Minister of Mines, fired the first shot before a large crowd. All the speeches reflected the high regard in which the Company was held and great financial optimism. Work began on the estimated three-month £30,000 project.

Golden riches would surely soon be revealed.

In our next blog, learn about the building of the dam – with not a crane or high-vis vest in sight!

Clarkson, R. J. ‘Kawarau Falls Dam and Bridge’, Queenstown Courier Issue 56, 1996
De La Mare, A. J. Wakatipu’s Golden Days, Lakes District Museum, 2000, on sale there

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Queenstown Historical Society

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