Historic mining town wants to move on from discord over gold
There’s still plenty of gold in Canvastown, but there won’t be a second gold rush any time soon. Reporter Jennifer Eder discovers the highway-side community is keen to leave the conflict behind.
Canvastown residents like a get-together. The men swap home-brewed beer and the women swap fruit from their gardens.
But close-knit as the community is, the gold mine that was turned down this year is one topic they avoid discussing over a home-brewed stout.
While the settlement was forged by goldmining during the 1864 gold rush, residents are split over whether a US-owned company should have been allowed to start up a new mine.
* Iwi opposes gold mine proposal at historic Marlborough mining town
* Bid to mine gold in Marlborough blocked over environment concerns
* Canvastown residents stranded after Wakamarina River bursts its banks
Canvastown retirees Pete and Barbara McCaffrey say the gold mine is a topic best forgotten about, after a year of residents choosing sides.
“It seems to be a bit of a sore point. Everyone’s got their own take on it,” Pete says, taking a break from building a table in his garage.
The McCaffreys meet up with their Canvastown neighbours, off State Highway 6 in Marlborough, once a month to taste each other’s home-brewed alcohol.
Pete makes draught beer and others make stouts and ales. Lately the wives have been going along too, bringing nibbles and civilising the event somewhat, Barbara says.
The neighbours gave Pete the nickname ‘thistle inspector’ because he likes to haul his neighbour over the coals about all the thistles in his paddock.
“They get very silly. It’s like the last of the summer wine when they get together,” Barbara says.
Barbara is a descendant of Elizabeth Pope, who first discovered gold in Canvastown while washing clothes in the Wakamarina River.
The township got its name from the tents that sprung up during the 1864 gold rush, when thousands sought their fortune in the Wakamarina Valley, between fledgling farming town Blenheim and settler city Nelson.
The McCaffreys live in a 104-year-old goldminer’s cottage that bears sepia photographs of Canvastown in its heyday on the walls.
Most residents won’t speak publicly about how they feel about the commissioner’s decision to decline Elect Mining’s application.
But Barbara says the gold mine could have been a boon to the township.
“It would have brought jobs and money back into the area. And they were going to take people up there in a bus and let them pan for their own gold and make a tourism business out of it,” Barbara says.
“It wouldn’t bother us. Most of the people who opposed it were the ones living down beside it.”
Those residents living near the 46-hectare site, behind the town’s only pub, the Trout Hotel, spoke at Elect Mining’s resource consent hearing in August.
Wakamarina Rd resident David Hall said at the time he would not have bought his house, bordering the site, if he had known about the application.
His wife was pregnant, and having worked in the mines in Australia he knew how loud mines could be, he said.
“There’s no way you’re going to be happy living there during the day with a baby,” he said at the hearing.
Other residents living nearby said the mine would ruin their quality of life and devalue their homes, and they worried about how the earth and groundwater would be affected.
Canvastown flooded every few years, as heavy spring rains overflowed the Wakamarina River, cutting off most of the residents from the highway.
Neighbour Brittany Slape, 17, has only been a resident for about a year, but says she knows of the conflict over the gold mine, and is happy to stay out of it as a newcomer.
Brittany and her mother moved from Renwick, near Blenheim, into a 7.4-hectare section last year.
But the enthusiasm the locals have for gold is evident, whether they supported the mine application or not, she says.
One of her neighbours likes to rove around with his metal detector, and is convinced there’s rich veins of gold under Slape’s property because the metal detector lights up along their fence, she says.
“The main stream of the river used to flow through here, so there probably is gold underneath us.”
Several residents still pan for gold up the river as a hobby, and some make good money from it.
Elect Mining says the concentration of alluvial gold in the rolling farmland is among the richest the company and its drilling contractor have seen in New Zealand.
The company estimates there is about 3000 kilograms of gold at the site, worth about $126 million based on recent gold prices, and they could offer five jobs at the mine.
It sought a 10-year consent, but would only mine for five years, the application says.
Submitters against the proposal include Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Kuia Trust, Friends of Pelorus Estuary, Marine Farming Association, Heritage New Zealand and a number of Canvastown residents.
Even the Ministry of Education opposed it amid concerns over noise disruption for Canvastown School, the possibility of heavy vehicle movements at pick-up and drop-off times, and airborne dust.
The commissioner said in September his decision would have been “finely balanced” had it not been for concerns over sediment control and permanent stockpiles.
Even with proposed mitigation, Macky said adverse effects would be moderate, with greater effects for some residents.
The mine could cause higher sediment levels in the nearby Racecourse Stream, and when the Wakamarina River flooded sediment could be transferred across the town.
Elect Mining decided not to appeal the decision.
Forestry worker Isaacc Harvey lives in a goldminer’s cottage built in the 1880s, believed to be the oldest existing house in the town.
The original chimney lost a few bricks in the earthquake last year and Harvey’s bore in his backyard well appears to have cracked.
He’s hoping there’s enough collected rainwater left to see him through the summer.
The cottage is just across Racecourse Stream, a few hundred metres from the proposed mining site, but he is conflicted about whether the mine should have gone ahead, he says.
“We just didn’t know what effect it would have on the land around here, and on my bore.
“It’s been put to a stop and that’s probably a good thing, it did upset people. It created a lot of bickering that I just wanted to stay out of.”
But the town could have used a boost in business, Isaacc said.
“I would have been more interested if I knew it would bring more jobs here. When I was a kid there wasn’t much here, but there was a shop down the road that’s closed up now. I’d love to see that shop open again.”
Bickering or not, the residents were a tight-knit bunch who looked after each other no matter which side of the mining argument they were on, Isaacc said.
“If you didn’t like somebody and their car broke down, you would still go and help them. That’s country life. That’s the way it should be.”
Resident Joy Simpson shares cherries, lemons, peaches and oranges from her fruit trees with her neighbours.
“It’s a really good community. We look after each other. If anyone needs anything, we’re there.”
Pete McCaffrey says the next challenge for the community will be the hot, dry summer that has arrived earlier than usual.
The McCaffreys are gearing up for scorched vege gardens and vexed farmers are running out of silage to feed their cows, Pete says.
“We certainly don’t get heat like this at this time of year, generally. Everything has just dried out.”
When the residents without wells run out of rainwater in their tanks, they send their kids to bathe in the river, Barbara says.
“Water is like gold around here, especially drinking water.”
While the rough lifestyle of colonial goldmining has since been replaced with a peaceful farming community, the residents are still characterised by a certain amount of grit required to survive in such an isolated area.
Barbara shrugs over whether the town’s goldmining forebears contributed to that grit.
“I suppose it does make you a tough sort of person, but I think it’s more the way we were brought up. You’ve got to be able to look after yourself, but we all look after each other. Come rain or shine.”
– Sunday Star Times