Foundation of Gold - A Region Built on Gold Mining

Queenstown, Arrowtown, and the Gold Rush

Macetown at the top of the Arrow River


Gold itself held no value for the seasonal Maori hunting and gathering parties that inhabited the region from the late 7th century. They arrived from the South Coast in search of meat from the mighty Moa bird, the Kereru (New Zealand pigeon), eels and foraging for the highly valued Pounamu (Greenstone) which was refined into tools, weapons, ceremonial items and jewellery.  The first European settlement of the Wakatipu came in the 1860s in the form of explorers William Rees and Nicholas von Tunzelmann. The population was minimal and supported the farming endeavours of the two founding fathers but exploded with the discovery of gold, sparking the biggest gold rush in Otago.  In order to best explain, let's have a look at a few of the people who were critical in the discovery of gold in this region.

William Rees and Nicholas von Tunzelmann

In early 1860 these two early pioneers settled on the shores of Wakatipu basin - Rees on what is now Queenstown and von Tunzelmann across the lake on Mount Nicholas. Having been granted pastoral rights for the area, Rees promptly imported 3,000 sheep and life as a farmer began. The two had a fairly settled start to farming, before the gold rush of 1862 which changed the landscape of the Wakatipu and heralded in a new era of intensive regional colonisation.  We could talk for pages on their history, but it was Reese’s shearers who were to make the pivotal gold discovery that would change the course of the region.

(Maori) Jack Tewa, William Fox and John O’Callaghan

Rees was well aware of gold in the region, significant finds had already been made in Cromwell and other parts of Central Otago. However, he made a deal with his musteres  that they would see the shearing season out and then he would provide them with all with the food and money they needed to go gold prospecting. In August 1862, indeed it was one of Reese’s shearers, Jack Tewa, who ventured to the Arrow River and founded a large piece of alluvial gold lying on the riverbed.  Honouring the deal they had struck with his boss Tewa dutifully kept the find quiet.  Unfortunately, not long after, his fellow workers William Fox and John O’Callaghan also found significant deposits - and weren't so quiet about it!

It was Fox in fact that let the cat out of the bag so to speak. On on fateful day in August Fox went to Cromwell and immediately aroused suspicion. Here was a farming bloke arriving in the big smoke buying up gold panning equipment and paying with, you guessed it, gold! On his way back along the Kawarau Gorge (a two-day hike), Fox realised he was being followed. Although he cut a hole in the back of his tent that night and snuck out, it was too late, the damage was done - within weeks hundreds of prospectors lined the Arrow River, and the gold rush of the Wakatipu had begun.

A shanty town of canvas and caravans, bars and general stores were quickly established on Ree’s doorstep. Within weeks the now historical township of Arrowtown had sprung up and as word spread as far as the Australian and Californian goldfields miners flocked to the region. By Christmas of that same year over 7,000 prospectors had moved in to the once calm and tranquil region.  Within that first five months, 12,000 ounces (340 kgs) of gold were mined from the Arrow River and sent for monetisation with the first gold escort in January 1863.

Goldrush Chinese Miners

Thomas Arthur and Harry Redfern & the Shotover River

While the finds in the Arrow River were significant, it was the discovery by Thomas Arthur and Harry Redfern of gold in the Shotover River in November 1862 that was truly a pivotal point in the region's history. In the area now known as Arthurs Point, mere months after the Arrow River discoveries, 4 ounces of gold within 3 hours provided the catalysts of one of the largest gold rushes ever, anywhere in the world! For Rees local farmer, this was bad news!

The law of the time provided that farming give way to gold mining and although Rees worked tirelessly to accomodate the miners, developing much of the Queenstown area including the schools, hospitals and much of the services, he was eventually reluctantly pushed aside. Rees, for the era, was handsomely compensated by the government to move his pastures and he made his way from Kawarau up the country providing farming and government services, eventually dying in Wellington. His hard work and social structural provided the foundations of modern-day Queenstown.

In the meantime, the Queenstown region continued to explode. At the head of Skippers Canyon, the township of Skippers was established to house the Shotover River miners.  Like its Arrowtown and Macetown counterparts, the miners were followed by packers, blacksmiths, butchers and bankers. At its peak, the remote Skippers settlement boasted a post office, hall, hotel, stores and a school.

As quick as the emergence of commerce and infrastructure was in the region, it crashed almost equally as quickly. At the gold rush's peak in 1863, hotels bars, and tent cities populated the basin. In April of that year a whopping 59,308 ounces of gold worth a quarter of a million pounds was exported.  And just like that in 1864 as news of large finds on the West Coast of the South Island filtered in the miners up and left to follow the new ‘rush’.  

Gold Rush Bank of NZ skippers canyon

Chinese Miners

With the departure of the European gold miners, the Otago Provincial Government faced the almost inevitable collapse of the industry and region. In response, an innovative initiative was launched in partnership with the Guangdong province in southern China inviting Chinese miners to Queenstown to keep the industry going.

Startling different gold mining techniques meant the Chinese workforces were happy to rework the fields left behind by what they considered haphazard European mining practices. In effect, they left ‘no stone unturned’ and managed to continue extracting gold for some time.  It’s estimated that some 5,000 Chinese workers settled in Otago during this period which created the "Chinese Village" at Arrowtown which having been restored, is an attraction worth visiting today.

The Decline

By the late 1800’s the gold ‘rush’ was pretty much over and by the early 1900s what had been diverse multicultural and busy twin townships had dwindled to a collective population of less than 200.  The Wakatipu returned to its original if not brief, farming heritage and the rise of grain farming for flour production and brewing took centre stage. 


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Today, Queenstown and Arrowtown wear the marks of their gold mining heritage proudly.  Skippers Canyon, accessed by Skippers Road, is one of New Zealand's better known (but scary) scenic roads. The Canyon and road have become a must-visit among thrill-seekers. The area is primarily used for jet boating, rafting, and canyoning and the ghost town of Skippers Settlement is protected by Heritage New Zealand.

Skippers Bridge has become a major attraction – its remarkable height, 100 meters (328.1 feet) above the river, is a launch pad for many adrenalin seekers. There are numerous operators which will take you for a trek into this historical and visually spectacular area – check out our reception area for more details!

Arrowtown has retained its historic charm and is easily accessible via bus or car. Physically not much has changed since its creation over 150 years ago. One of the highlights, aside from a café or a pint at any one of the historical buildings is a morning of good old fashioned gold panning in the Arrow River.  Talk to our helpful reception staff for more information!