Kawarau Falls Dam – Where’s the gold?

Kawarau Falls Dam – Where’s the gold?The Grand Opening, August 1926. (Photo from Lakes District Museum)

In 1924 when work began on the dam it was expected to take three months, but in fact, it took 21 months and incurred huge cost overruns. These were not good omens, but were largely ignored except that Otago Daily Times noted that the local residents had been regarding the scheme

‘somewhat oddly and critically.’ With good reason.

By the time of the grand opening in August 1926 the largest company, Consolidated Kawarau Claims (Ltd), was ready to begin prospecting. It had 40 men, 38 huts built and several chairs across the river.

Expectations were high as a crowd of 2000 people, hundreds of motor cars and several launches gathered for the festive opening of the bridge and lowering of the dam’s gates. People came from as far afield as England, Sydney and Auckland for the event. Local memory has it the one well-dressed lady was seen to be carrying a bucket and spade. Cameramen, including a party from a Dunedin theatre with a moving picture outfit, were in abundance, and speeches lauded the engineering skill which accomplished ‘a great national work’.

From the Auckland Star, 30 August 1926:
The gates of the stupendous dam across the egress of Lake Wakatipu were closed this morning. With the sounding of the whistle, the ten winches on the bridge were set in gear, the gates slowly closed to block off the waters of the lake, and flags were unfurled above the dais on the left bank. ... August 30 will go down in mining annals as the opening of a colossal venture to disclose the bed of the turbulent Kawarau, one of Nature’s great sluice channels, and one of the richest gold rivers in the world. ... Will Kawarau’s banks and bed be another Klondike? ... Gold is in the river, but who are going to be the lucky holders of the rich claims?

All were disappointed.

Many people had invested, and many mining companies, including some from Australia, had taken up claims downstream. They had optimistic names such as Vogel’s Vision, Golden Bed, Golden River, Golden Gorge. Nowadays would they be accused of false advertising and misleading investors? Certainly the dam prevented most seepage from Lake Wakatipu, but the water level fell only until it was the same as at the Shotover delta, creating a large backwater. Wasn’t that predictable? In addition, there were rock bars across the riverbed which would hamper dredging, and there was a lot of debris caused by earlier sluicing of the banks. As a mining investment, the dam was a complete failure.

For ten years one of the strongest road bridges in the country led only to Kawarau Falls Station until the road to Kingston was completed. Its single lane has been the land link between the Wakatipu and Southland ever since.

Once our new curved two-lane bridge is completed, the dam will remain as part of the walking/cycling trail. Wouldn’t it be great if it also had seats, planter boxes and of course interpretive panels telling its unusual history?

Main Sources:
Photos from Lakes District Museum, Arrowtown
Newspapers accessed from www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Our Place in the Sun by George Singleton (Kelvin Peninsula Community Assoc. 2013)

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