Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Oxenbridge Tunnel - From Gold Seeking to Thrill Seeking!

A receipt for two pounds and ten shillings,
being the "first call" on 20 shares in
"The Shotover Gold Claims, Limited,
dated 20th July 1926
[from my own collection]

"Fool's Gold"

90 years ago my Father 'risked' the sum of fifteen pounds on a speculative 20 shares in the "Shotover Gold Claims, Limited" company. After having been persuaded by the smooth talking company representative to part with his money he later kept his receipts as a "souvenir" of his own "fools gold". But what was this grand scheme and why did it fail? And how did his small investment indirectly and quite unexpectedly benefit others, including myself?

Highly Auriferous

Edmund (Ned) Oxenbridge and his brothers had early on devised a plan to divert the rich Shotover River in Central Otago New Zealand in the hope of uncovering a highly auriferous (gold bearing) river bed. In order to achieve this end it was necessary to manually bore a 550 foot tunnel through a huge solid rock bluff on the west side of the river at "Star Beach" about a mile north of Arthur's Point.

The location of the outlet to the Oxenbridge Tunnel
marked with Arthur's Point at lower right
[Source Google Maps]

16 Feet High by 15 Feet Wide

Work finally commenced about May 1906 with an eventual tunnel height of 16 feet high by 15 feet width to enable it to "carry a very big river" in case of a potentially damaging flood. But by October 1907 only 180 feet had been driven through and with three men engaged in the work completion was not expected for another 18 months. Tunneling involved holes being hammered into the rock of sufficient depth that explosives could then be placed in them. Work on a dam had also commenced in order to block the river flow once the tunnel was completed.

"Stupendous Undertaking"

This "stupendous undertaking" proved expensive for the brothers who, by around 1909 had already spent around £3,000 of their own money on the project. To provide additional capital they then formed the "Arthur's Point Gold Mining Company" with a capital of £10,000 to enable the work to continue. The concept appeared so simple and the general opinion was that "the venture will prove successful" and that "[the share holders] deserve to be richly rewarded for their enterprise".

A circa 1910 postcard view of a precipitous
bluff on the Skippers Road high above the
Shotover River. The road up the Gorge
has always been a serious challenge
[from my own collection]

"Stubborn Pernacity and Doggedness"

January 1909 marked the completion of the tunnel but through an error in calculating the angle of the tunnel drift (proper surveying equipment had not been used) it was found to be four feet too high at the top opening.

With half the Shotover River flowing through it further work on the tunnel now proved difficult. So, using a boat, a large amount of gelignite was placed on the cliff face causing it to fall and then block the tunnel entrance. This enabled further work on deepening the tunnel to proceed.

Final work now commenced on completion of the "wing dam" and the "lead" to divert the river. This work encountered further difficulties and in 1911 the papers noted;

"the stubborn pertinacity and doggedness of the manager, Mr E. Oxenbridge, who has, in the face of difficulties, which at times appears insurmountable, stuck resolutely to his convictions..."

"Above the Most Sanguine Expectations"

After several unsuccessful attempts a "lead" was formed in the river at a depth of 24 feet, being covered in a "stripping of big stone". As at October 1911 twelve men were employed on the site and that "The results of the first wash-up are quite above the most sanguine expectations..."

Unfortunately, the very day after completion of the "wing dam" it was carried away owing to "one of the most disastrous floods on the river". While the dam was rebuilt the river backflow still filled the river bed. Various pumps employed to drain the river proved a failure. Thus Oxenbridge and his company were only able to uncover a very small area of exposed riverbed, most of it just exposed solid rock. Only £600 worth of gold, "about 30 ounces" was able to be recovered.

Beaten by the Odds

The determined and persevering Oxenbridge then devised the idea of sinking a shaft to a depth of 60 feet and tunnelling under the river but water filled the tunnel and the pumps could not cope. At that point they finally abandoned the project. Oxenbridge simply appears to have been beaten by the odds including, it would appear, a lack of professional mining, engineering and surveying expertise.

The scheme had, according to the Queenstown Historical Society, cost the Oxenbridge brothers close to NZD$530,000 of their own money (converted to today's values) and had obtained a further NZD$1.78 million through the company float. After four years work only NZD$48,000 worth of gold had been recovered.

Ned Oxenbridge continued mining auriferous land on claims in the immediate area and in fact met with some success. Incidentally, I note that in 1928 he survived a 36 foot fall down a mine shaft when a winching rope broke.

"The Shotover Gold Claims, Limited" Prospectus, 1925
(part shown only)
[source : Papers Past]

"The Shotover Gold Claims, Limited"

Fast forward to December 1925 when "The Shotover Gold Claims, Limited" company issued a formal prospectus inviting public investment in advancing the original tunnel scheme and completing the work, this time utilizing skilled professional advice and expertise. The company itself appears to have been privately formed a couple of years earlier and had already acquired various mining rights in the immediate area, including securing ownership of "Oxenbridge's tunnel" and a gold mining claim for the section of river that would be exposed. The company based its proposal on further deepening the level of the tunnel thus obviating earlier issues with river flow.

£9,000 Capital

The company prospectus states that capital would be set at £9,000 based on 9,000 shares of £1 each. 6,000 shares would be offered to the public, the limit being imposed "so that original [share]holders could derive full benefit of the effort now being made.". Two shillings and sixpence would be payable upon application ("first call") with five shillings "on allotment", with the balance in calls at the rate of two shillings and sixpence at not less than two monthly intervals.

"A Richness Which is Almost Incredible"

Ned Oxenbridge continued as "Senior Partner", the work being under the professional direction of Mining Engineer, Mr FJ Williams of Dunedin. A total of 11 Chains (242 yards) would be laid bare by the river diversion in what miners believed was the richest part of the river. Earlier trial pannings had apparently "revealed a richness which is almost incredible".

Much faith was placed in this well planned and well resourced scheme that it would prove to be a well paying commercial proposition and in fact encourage further investment in and development of mining operations in the wider Lakes District.

In June 1926 the company called tenders for "the necessary extra excavation of the tunnel and the construction of intake gates and grillage". Contractors "Messers Wright & Byers" of Brydone were to complete the work within six months.

A receipt for two pounds and ten shillings, 
being for an initial "allotment" of 20 shares 
in "The Shotover Gold Claims, Limited", 1926
[from my own collection]

Smooth Talking and Persuasive

It was on the 8th January 1926 that Paul Brown, a smooth talking and persuasive company representative from Otautau, visited the family home in Southland. My Father parted with two pounds and ten shillings, being for an "allotment" of 20 shares in the company. He paid a further £2.10.0 in July 1926 being a "first call" on his shares including each subsequent call up to the 21st March 1928 when he paid the "fifth call", all being for the amount of £2.10.0 each This made his total investment in the company thus far £15.0.0 (five pounds) or around NZD$1,500.00 in today's values.

I note that in May 1927 a total of 570 forfeited shares in the company were put up for auction in Invercargill. My feeling is that with work proceeding slowly and with no imminent return forthcoming a number of shareholders appear to have taken fright and refused to contribute towards a 2nd call. But my Father retained his faith in the company and parted with a further £12.10.0 in the vain hope of receiving a windfall when the company struck 'paydirt'.

Sale of Forfeited Shares, 16th May 1927
[source ; Papers Past]

The Unpredictable Shotover River

In July 1927 a river flood damaged the dam then being built to block the river flow and divert it into the tunnel. It would take a month to repair the damage. This was still very reminiscent of the issues Ned Oxenbridge had himself encountered with the unpredictable Shotover River. The dam itself was expected to be finished in August.

As at September 1927 tunneling operations were still continuing under a "limited staff" but "would be extended by the employment of more hands". A bonus from the excavation work proved to be the "gold bearing wash" cut from the enlarged tunnel.

In March 1928 another gold mining company sought rights to water from the tunnel to which the afore-mentioned Paul Brown, formally objected. "Shotover Gold Claims Ltd" were then recorded as working the river bed below the dam they had constructed in the river.

In Liquidation

In February 1930 the company surrendered a mining right in the Queenstown Warden's Court (which regulated all mining, land and water rights) then in June 1930 Mr Cuthbertson, the "Liquidator" for the "Shotover Gold Claims Ltd (in liquidation)" was formally served with a notice of abandonment of a tailrace license. Mr Cuthbertson had in fact been 'The Shotover Gold Claims Ltd' Company Secretary, being a partner in "Leary, Cuthbertson & Webb", Public Accountants of Esk Street, Invercargill.

Finally a three way "drama" played out between the Liquidator, "The Good Hope Mining Company", and the Queenstown Borough Council, each pursuing their own specific ends. Mr Cuthbertson advised the court that "The Company worked under considerable difficulties for three years till April 1929. Subsequently [the] Liquidator endeavoured to sell the assets of the company, the right to the tunnel being practically the only saleable thing."

Notice of Abandonment

A three month 'stay of execution' appears to have failed and notice of abandonment of the tail race through the Oxenbridge tunnel was granted as the "Good Hope Mining Company" wished to make use of it but after having previously offered £170.0.0 for it they subsequently deemed that it now had no value and that they could claim it by legal means simply through "abandonment"!

Thus ultimately the company provided no "el dorado", any profits no doubt being expended on machinery, gear and wages and it is doubtful if they ever paid a dividend to shareholders. As noted, my Father kept his share receipts as a reminder of his "folly". That the family farm was unable to pay him a wage over the worst of the depression years simply added salt to the wound.

The entrance to the Oxenbridge Tunnel
on the turbulent Shotover River
[Source : Padallen.com]

Category II Historic Place

In 1985 the New Zealand Historic Places Trust registered the tunnel as a Category II Historic Place. But an even brighter future then ensued when river rafting companies sought permission to make use of the tunnel.

The outlook to the Oxenbridge Tunnel
on the Shotover River
[Source : Internet]

Worth Every Penny

Fast forward again almost 90 years since its final completion, the Oxenbridge tunnel now forms an integral part of the wild water river rafting experience on the Shotover River in the southern tourist mecca and adventure capital of Queenstown New Zealand. At least 25,000 adventurous thrill-seekers annually enjoy the unique and adrenaline pumping experience of negotiating the six river rapids of the lower Skippers Gorge (variously named "Aftershock", "Squeeze", "Toilet", "Oh Sh*t", "Pinball" and "Jaws") in a rubber raft then to be sucked into and through the 170 metre long dark Oxenbridge tunnel (lean in and no arms outside the raft!) before emerging into the final Cascade rapids. An even more exciting ride when the river is running "high" after heavy rain.

So was my father's fifteen pound [NZD$1,500.00 in today's values] "investment" well spent? Well I think it was worth every penny just for me alone to experience this 'wild ride' some years ago. But I doubt my Father would have concurred. The 'tunnel sequence' near the end of the video below has been sped up while the really wild water commences at about 2.02

Gold at the End of the Oxenbridge Tunnel

Mr Oxenbridge would simply be incredulous at how his tunnel came to be successfully and quite uniquely utilized as part of the Shotover River whitewater rafting experience. As David Hay of the Queenstown Historical Society put it, "Maybe there was gold at the end of the Oxenbridge Tunnel after all".

Sources :

- Personal Family Papers
- "Papers Past" [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
- Queenstown Historical Society
- Various Internet resources

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