The town had its beginnings in 1862 when two bearded miners, Horatio Hartley, an American, and Christopher Reilly, an Irishman, deposited in Dunedin eighty-seven poundweight of gold that they had recovered from a spot about a mile below the junction ofthe Kawarau and Clutha Rivers. The strike earned the two men a reward of 2,000 pounds for the discovery of a new goldfield and it precipitated a gold rush that threatened to denude Dunedin of its male population.
The rush opened up a wild and inhospitable area of the South Island. Freezing cold in winter and mercilessly hot in summer, there were no roads or bridges, no timber or fuel.The track through the Cromwell Gorge led through deep gullies and ravines and skirted precipitous cliffs but the miners came in their thousands. It was a rich field and the first gold despatched to Dunedin under the escort of Sergeant-Major Bracken and three troopers was a highly satisfactory 6,031 ounces.
In no time canvas towns sprang up as the miners and the entrepreneurs of the day sought to bring a little comfort to their harsh lifestyle. So it was with Cromwell. In its earliest days it was known as The Junction and the few photographs of the period that exist show it as a barren, treeless strip of ground bordered on two sides by the rivers. Miners flocked to the area and at one stage there were reputed to be 3,000 of them under canvas or in makeshift rock shelters.
Typical of the early arrivals in the district was John Marsh who, with his pregnant wife and their child of two, walked from Clyde to Cromwell leading a packhorse carrying their worldly possessions. They settled at Cornish Point across the river from Cromwell and there, in a tent pitched in the lee of a rock, their twin daughters, Mary and Jean were born in 1863. The twins were the first white children born in the district. Marsh eventually became a town councillor and the proprietor of the BridgeHotel.
The pubs were quickly on the scene and until timber was floated down the Clutha from Makarora, they were just as makeshift in their construction as the miners' huts. At the height of their trade there were 30 hotels in the district catering for the needs of the thirsty miners. Some were no more than unsavoury grog shops but there were others that catered for a real need by selling stores and providing accommodation.
The town developed as a straggle of houses and shops on either side of the road that is now known as Melmore Terrace. The buildings were makeshift in the extreme. The Bank of New Zealand's premises were so narrow that the manager was unable to sleep full length in his bed located behind a curtain at the back of the counter. He solved this by cutting a hole in the wall for his feet and nailing a gin case over it to protect them from the weather.
In 1866 Cromwell was made a borough and it was given a government grant of 500 pounds to see it on its way. Captain Jackson Barry, the town butcher and entrepreneur was elected mayor with a council of four.
The election began one of Cromwell's most colourful periods of local government. Barrywas a man with a propensity to settle debates by direct action and at least one councillormade a hasty exit via the council chamber's window.
By 1871 the permanent population of Cromwell was 497. The town had three banks and a post office, in addition to a number of substantial buildings made of stone. The post office had an uncertain start when the first two postmasters succumbed to attacks of gold fever and departed to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
The discovery that gold wasn'talways found on the river bottom led to the development of the sluicing technique and the building of many miles of water races to provide their motor power.
In the 1860's two pioneers of dredging, Franz Siedeberg and Hennan Schultz invented a type of spoon dredge. Mounted on a crude pontoon, a large spoon-like arm was used topick up spoil from the riverbed and transfer it to shore where it was processed. It was a crude system but it worked and was to lead on to the bucket dredge which processed the spoil on board.
Just how much gold was taken out of the rivers will never be known but in 1873 Cromwell's total gold recovery was 19,947 ounces. In 1899 more efficient methods resulted in the Hartley dredge under Captain George McLay returning up to 1,000 ounces a week. Little wonder that in the same year 137 dredging companies were floated with an aggregate nominal capital of 4.5 million pounds. The story of dredgingis well told in the display in theCromwell Museum. It was an industry that dominated thelife of the town but all good things come to an end and the last dredge disappeared from Cromwell in the 1950's.
The lure of gold brought Cromwell its share of scoundrels but it also brought men and women of courage and enterprise. It was this group who stayed on as the claims peteredout, to develop the orchards, the farms and the business ventures that held the town together. It was a dry and hungry corner of New Zealand and the laboriously dug waterraces that had served the miners took on a new meaning as they were diverted to theneeds of horticulture. But in the 1950's the engineers began to think of another use for water in the Clutha Valley. This time energy was to be the king.
The following historical guides can be obatined from the Muesum:
- Cromwell & Districts
- The Cromwell Gorge
- In Search of Main Street
- 1848: First settlers follow Maori hunters and traders into the Clutha Valley.
- 1862: Hartley and Reilly discover gold at Brewery Creek in Cromwell Gorge.
- 1863-1869: Towns of Cromwell, Wakefield and Bendigo surveyed.
- 1866: Chinese miners began to arrive.
- 1870: Miners races start being converted for fruit growing.
- 1878: Bannockburn town surveyed.
- 1919: Regular goods and passenger train service through Cromwell Gorge.
- 1930: Second gold rush with Government Unemployment Scheme.
- 1965: ODT announces Cromwell to be flooded for hydro-electric power.
- 1985: Minister of Works and development opens new Cromwell Mall.
- 1988: Melmore Terrace cleared and being mined.
- 1989: Clyde Dam completed, lake filling delayed.
- 1992: Lake Dunstan begins to fill.
- 1992: First vineyards being established at Bannockburn.
- 1994: Official opening of Clyde Dam.