The goldminers of the 1860s wrote a colourful chapter in the history of New Zealand place names. They were tough, practical men in a strange and empty land. New towns mushroomed overnight and they often disappeared just as quickly.
They were heady years and there was a vitality, and sometimes a sardonic humour, to the name-giving. Not for the gold seekers the nostalgia for places left behind. The rocky ranges in the arid vastness of Central Otago became the Knobbies, the Raggedy Mountains and the Old Man Range.
A hundred creeks and gullies from the Coromandel to the West Coast simply bore prospectors’ names. There was Jones’s Terrace and Liverpool Dave’s and Gabriel’s Gully where Gabriel Read, with only a butcher’s knife, unlocked a bonanza. The names Antonio’s, German Flat and Chinaman’s Creek are reminders that fortune-seekers from around the globe came here in search of riches.
In all this long list of names, none shines more brightly than that of George Fairweather Moonlight. Wherever there were goldfields there was soon a Moonlight Creek, Moonlight Gully or simply a place called Moonlight.
George Moonlight became a legend in his own time: flamboyant adventurer, storekeeper, explorer, publican and above all else, prospector. A romanticism grew around him, but his name might not have been Moonlight at all. The tale the miners embraced was that Moonlight was a loner, an elusive will 0′ the wisp who worked by night and who would lead those who could find him to certain gold.
There were other legends. Roaring Meg, the turbulent stream that plunges into the Kawarau River not far from Cromwell, brings vivid images of a red-headed barmaid named Maggie Brennan. Maggie kept law and order in her grogshop by the force of her voice and the impact of a short-fuse Irish temper.
It didn’t take the diggers long to equate the sound and fury of a mountain torrent with Maggie’s forceful character. Roaring Meg the stream became, and though its voice is now muted by a hydro power station, the name and the legend live on.
Cromwell itself was not named by the miners, but they had a hand in it. The story goes that when surveyors arrived to map the town a group of Irish prospectors saw their presence as a threat to their claims. Suspicion turned to anger and anger to violence. A fight erupted and peace wasn’t restored until the head of the survey party sternly warned “Stop! Get back to your diggings or I’ll put the Curse of Cromwell on you!”
The town became Cromwell and the name ‘The Junction’, where the Clutha and Kawarau rivers converge, disappeared from sight.
Tempers flared again in Cromwell when Cromwell and Clyde were vying with each other to become the county centre. Noted politician and entrepreneur Vincent Pyke preferred Clyde, calling Cromwell “the city of dust storms and typhoid”. Enraged residents hanged an effigy of Pyke on the steps of the town hall, dragged it through the streets and flung it off the bridge.
Other names blossomed on the goldfields and none more forgettable than No Town. When the survey party looked at their map they declared that it all looked quite impressive on paper, but “it’s really no town”.
And there was Merrijigs, a few kilometres from Reefton, which in those days was better known as Quartzopolis and achieved fame as the first town in New Zealand to boast electric lights in its muddy and potholed streets.
Reefton and its pubs were a magnet for miners but the track was rough, criss-crossed by creeks and in heavy bush. Getting there meant dancing a merry jig, and perhaps a merrier one by lamplight on the way back to the diggings.
Legends still dot the rivers, streams and gullies where the gold fossickers briefly paused. There was Charleston, said to be so named because at least seven diggers named Charles had claims there. And who was Red Jack, the legendary red-bearded giant who ruled his domain in the gold-rich Grey Valley by sheer physical force? He unearthed a nugget weighing more than 58 ounces but is best remembered for the district still known as Red Jacks.
The miners have gone and the easy gold is gone too. But the riches of the names the miners left behind still stirs the imagination and adds colour, and some excitement too, to our maps.