In 1861 there was gold mining of all kinds in places across the district. It was only a matter of time before gold was found in Diamond Creek as well.
The discovery of gold in Diamond Creek in 1862, by Joseph and David Wilson, on land bordering Dr. Phipps’ and Charles Orme’s properties, was the beginning of a mining industry that brought in so many new families to swell the township’s population.
With this article about the destruction of above ground workings and the main shaft of the town’s largest mine that supported 200 men and their families, we cover what was the beginning of the decline of gold mining in Diamond Creek. The fire couldn’t have happened at a worse time for local families and businesses as well as itinerant workers as the government and populations attention was focused on the First World War.
A meeting of shareholders of the Diamond Creek Gold Mining Company on Saturday, 16th January was held in the Oddfellows Lodge Hall in Collins Street where is was reported that ‘the cleaning of the mine resulted in a return of 199 ounces of gold, of which 34 ounces were from the plates.’
Four days later, on Wednesday, 20th January 1915, the wind blew hot and from the north. So when, at 3 o’clock, a spark from the boiler room escaped and was blown into the wood heap that was close by, it started a fire that quickly became a raging blaze that rapidly spread into the engine house, up the poppet head and down the shaft lighting the timbers. It was very quickly out of control.
There were men working in the main shaft at the 900 foot level. A telephone message warned them that the mine was on fire. The poppet head burned rapidly and the damage quickly blocked access into and out of the shaft.
A report in the Herald a week later noted ‘One of the heroes of the fire was Mr. George Stephens, the engine-driver, who stood by his engine and saved the life of the blacksmith, though he was almost enveloped by the smoke from the burning truck of wood in the engine-house, and flames shot up in all directions. When the truck burst into flame he attempted to reach the injector to flood the fire, but a knock warned him that there was a man in the ascending cage. Despite the smoke and flames he clung to the engine and raised the cage to the top, thus rescuing Frank Armstrong, the blacksmith. As the men stepped out of danger, one of the Oregon timber poppet legs gave way, and the structure collapsed.’
Constable Rose had telephone the Melbourne Fire Brigade a van and crew with steam pumps and smoke helmets was on its way. Men at the mine head did all they could to try to extinguish the blaze but it was clear that the mine’s machinery was ruined and all they could do was wait. Three hours after the fire had started the fire engine arrived and a great effort was made to get it up the hill to the mine itself; the track was difficult to navigate and the van was heavy and cumbersome.
The men down the shaft couldn’t use the ladders or the cages and access upwards was blocked by falling debris, so they were forced to climb for about 400 feet by disused ladders to reach the surface and safety. For two hours they worked their way through the darkness, until they reached the open air only to see the machinery on which they had staked their savings a mass of scrap iron, and the shafts ‘glowing like the maw of a furnace.’
News of the fire travelled quickly, with smoke rolling thickly from the hill top, anxious wives rushed to the mine. Eyewitness accounts tell of wives and children waiting near the mouth of the escape shaft until dusk when the last miners emerged. All men made it out of the shafts safely and emerged to scenes of welcome – no lives were lost.
The fire destroyed the entire above-ground plant except for the change room and the Manager’s Office which stood apart from the other buildings with the damage estimated to be about £3,000.
Only that morning, the men, who belonged to a co-operative party working the mine, had congratulated themselves on the quality of the stone they had at last found after six months’ working for little or nothing. Good time were, they believed, in front of them. In six months they had crushed 562 tons or ore, producing 634 oz. of gold, fetching £2,513 which had all gone in wages and expenses – they still owed £506 in wages.
Many anxious meetings had been held for the men working as a co-operative and who were looking forward to working on a payable basis. It was noted after the fire that ‘Altogether, with wood-cutters and others, we had about 50 men employed here – they are all thrown our of work. And our work seems to have gone for nothing. The machinery was insured by Messrs. Cameron and Sutherland. It’s bad luck’.
A deputation waited on the Minister of Mines who sent an inspector to consider the possibility of re-opening the mine, but the First World War was into its second year and the Government had more important concerns. Some insurance money was also available for the leased machinery, but delays in gaining support took its toll. As weeks of waiting went into months it was realised that the increasing depth of water in the mine shaft would make re-opening the mine almost impossible. The co-operative of miners and investors would have no opportunity to make up their losses.
The correspondent for the Evelyn Observer wrote ‘The stoppage is a serious blow to the township and has cast a gloom over the district.’ They were correct because the destruction of the mine meant that some 200 families had suddenly lost their livelihoods.