In 1873 a little gold was discovered at Algebuckina, named after a nearby waterhole on the Neales River. More gold was discovered near the same river in1886. This river did not turn out to be a river of gold, like the Palmer River in northern Queensland, discovered at the very same time. There were no tales of cannibal blacks or thousands of pig-tailed Chinamen. There were no lynch law hangings or gambling dens, grog shops or shanty towns either. Instead it had only a few prospectors, miners, Aborigines and Chinese and one murder. Even so the location looked promising and with several ‘more or less permanent’ diggers, expectations and hopes ran high during a time when work and income were hard to come by in South Australia.
A telegram from the Peake Repeater Station informed Government Geologist HYL Brown that RH Biddle had brought in ‘about two pennyweights of rough gold which he had washed from two buckets of stuff’. Biddle was now following the reef to the Neales as he was certain that there would be gold on the flat. The stationmaster also wanted to know if he should supply Biddle, ‘who was red hot with gold fever’ with a tent and utensils, for which he had asked.
Two weeks later Biddle’s son came up to join his father as already ‘six men were making wages’ on the field. Biddle was keen enough to register a quartz claim, which was accepted on 5 November 1886. There were others as well on their way north. In August, a prospecting party, led by AT Perry, left Yorketown for Mintaro to travel by train to the north where Perry had located a good field.
Meanwhile Charles Pritchard and party were busy checking out the field. Constable William Garnet South issued fifteen Miner’s Rights in November. Among them was one for Herbert Biddle, Michael Lynch, Charles R South and RM South. A month later he issued a further ten licences to Martin Brean, Samuel Hayward, John Spriggs, Robert Spriggs, Herbert Wilson, A Lovegrove, Martin McCormack, Richard Scant, William Taylor and James Boyd.
As a result of the renewed interest in the far north, Brown was granted £200 by his department to test the Algebuckina area, as it would probably turn out to be a good field. He took Biddle, the discoverer, with him and although he did find more gold it did not turn out to be a prosperous field at all. Brown returned to Adelaide but left Biddle at the Neales River to do some further prospecting for a few weeks. While working for the government, Biddle asked Brown if he could take out £1 a week from his wages and pay his wife in Adelaide. Brown’s reply was that the Audit Office would not take orders for portions of wages. To add insult to injury Biddle was told that he would be charged for the cost of the telegram and the answer as well.
By November FS Andrews, postmaster at the Peake, reported about thirteen or fourteen men working at Algebuckina, all of them satisfied. Several shafts had been dug or deepened but nothing was found except a little colour while sinking. The total amount of gold raised in South Australia during 1886 was just 8,825 ounces. Very little of it had come from the far north except a meagre 12 ounces from Algebuckina. Even so, John Gowan had enough confidence in the Algebuckina field to apply successfully for a business licence ‘to go butchering on the diggings’.
During January 1887 a further eleven Miner’s Rights were issued by Constable South who in March reported that most men were still working on the northern side of the Neales. In March there were still about twenty-five men, including Biddle, trying out the flats. Although only about sixty ounces had been found at Algebuckina up to March 1887, several men were game enough to try their luck on the Neales, including W Cooper, William Crick, John Thompson and John Smith. William Ryan tried where others had failed during the hot November days of 1887 but he too had to admit defeat.
Little gold was found after the initial discoveries of the year before. Algebuckina may not have lived up to the initial high hopes of some of the diggers, it certainly had created a renewed interest in gold mining, not just in the north but also in other parts of South Australia. In May 1887 about 20 men were still at work on the field. All were getting something, but none were getting much. Only 120 ounces of gold had been obtained so far. Meanwhile Biddle was suffering from internal injuries which prevented him from working and Peterswald ordered his removal to the Port Augusta Hospital.
In October 1887, Alfred Frost wrote from the Victoria Hotel in Adelaide to the Warden of Goldfields requesting a special prospecting licence for Pindelpena. On 18 January 1888, Thomas and Henry Shepherd of Eurelia applied for Miner’s Rights and the latest mining regulations. F McLean from Mount Eba Station was also interested and applied for the same information. Neil McDonalds from Leigh’s Creek wanted a Miner’s Right as did M Walsh of Moochra and James Edwin and E James of Johnburgh. Constable JH James, who had replaced South after his transfer to Alice Springs, issued four Miner’s Rights, including one to J Spriggs.
Chin Chue from China had made a living providing the men with fresh vegetables from his garden until murdered by Yep Sue Esse on 26 July 1888. He left an estate of £2. Leno Ho and an Aborigine found his body six months later.
By the middle of 1888 the extension of the Great Northern Railway, which employed some 500 men, had reached Algebuckina and a large number of men had made camp near the waterhole. They were not at all impressed with prospects on the Neales River nor the extremely dry weather and many left for the Broken Hill mines or the ruby fields at the MacDonnell Range. They believed that both places would provide a better income than what they were earning working on the railway or prospecting along the river.
The South Australian Government had decided that the crossing of the River Neales would require a rather long and substantial bridge. Tenders were called on 29 March 1889 for its construction and the delivery of ironwork for the superstructure. The successful tender was from James Hooker owner of the Lion Foundry at Kilkenny. James Hooker was a boilermaker by trade and had already built several iron bridges for the South Australian Government. Among them were bridges near Kapunda and Undalya. However the contract for the Neales Bridge was one of the biggest he had ever undertaken.
Apart from the occasional murder, accidents did also happen, either in connection with mining or the railway construction. On 23 November 1889 John Douglas of Warrina, son of J and M Douglas accidently drowned at the Algebuckina waterhole. He was only 25. On 18 April 1891, 30 year old Charles Carlson, a native from Sweden fell from the 10 metre high bridge, which was still not finished, and was killed.
Meanwhile a site for a town was surveyed in 1890 and navvies were sinking the cast iron piers. By the time the first of the wrought iron arrived for the superstructure, most of them had been completed. Considerable progress was made during the first half of 1891 and the Public Works Report, for the twelve months ending 30 June, stated that the abutments had been finished, the pier cylinders were sunk into position except for two or three at the northern end, and that eleven spans of the superstructure were in place.
However the initial intention had been to have the works ready in time for the opening of the Warrina – Oodnadatta narrow gauge railway section on 7 January 1891 but delays in delivery of the ironwork to the Algebuckina site had prevented this. A temporary causeway placed across the river bed for construction trains during June 1889 had to be used in the meantime, and it was during the life of this causeway that the only instances of the line ever being cut by floodwaters from the River Neales occurred.
The first such incident was on 5 February 1890 when after some heavy local rain the track was cut for sixty hours. The second happened after even more rain on 8 April in the same year and lasted 168 hours. By October of 1891 all 19 spans of 101 feet were in place and the bridge was completed and opened for traffic on 8 January 1892. The track across the causeway was taken up soon after the bridge had been opened
The exact dimensions of the Algebuckina bridge are: 19 spans of 101 feet 6 inches making a total length of 1,928 feet 6 inches or 587.8 metres which is 15.7 metres shorter than the River Murray bridge. Even better news was that the original estimate of cost of the bridge had been £42,000 but the engineers now estimated that it would only cost £38,000. However when much later all costs had been worked out the amount came close to £60,000. Still not everybody seemed to be happy. Charles Frost, a not too successful prospector, had enough and poisoned himself with strychnine in November 1893.
A year later, on 22 October 1894 Ernest Courtenay Kempe, third son of the Rev. Alfred Arrow Kempe married Marquerite Maude Giles, eldest daughter of Edgar Giles at Algebuckina. In 1896 gold was once again found and in May Goldfields Warden LCE Gee left Adelaide for the field to arrange government funded prospecting parties. This time the government was willing to pay up to 150 men 12 shillings a week who could keep all the gold they found. However they had to supply their own tools and take out a Miners’ Right.
In July 1897 A Teasdale, who was in charge of a government prospecting party at Warrina, reported that some men at Algebuckina were getting gold by dry blowing. Finally land was set aside on the railway line, 211 miles north of Marree for the establishment of a town to be called Algebuckina. By September 1898 a private battery had been erected to treat the local cement for gold.
On Saturday 27 August 1898 the Chronicle reported that the warden of goldfields, LCE Gee, had reported to the Commissioner of Crown Lands as follows: — 'I arrived at Algebuckina on Saturday, August 6. Good rains fell during my journey, and the country between Hergott and Warrina was practically under water. Lake Eyre presented every appearance of a vast inland sea. Accompanied by Mr Edgar Giles I examined the battery which he has erected on the bank of the Neales River, close to and north-west of the Algebuckina-bridge.
Mr Mayfield who is Mr Giles's manager, had the plant in working order; connection between the battery and waterhole was only remaining, and this I understood was to be done at once, and the battery put in work next day. This battery was purchased by Mr Giles from the Nillinghoo company. The Algebuckina waterhole is now over four miles long. The country is in a better state than it has been for the last 20 years, and although the geranium has flowered prematurely, yet in a short time the vegetation of the district will be luxuriant.
From Algebuckina I went via the Peake station to Copper Top, where 1 examined the mine now being worked by Mr Kempe. The copper seems to have cut out completely, and the quartz underneath looks hungry and poor. However, rose and red tinted quartz now appears, and I have taken specimens from the bottom, 30 ft. From Copper Top I went to Mr Teasdale's mine, near Mount Denison. The shaft there is down 38 ft. on a slight underlay 38 ft. northward. The quartz is heavily stained with copper, and fine prospects of gold can be obtained by dollying.
I took samples for assay, results of which will be known in due course. I then returned via Hergott to Leigh's Creek, and went over the claims held by Mr CA Perry. Here is a large ore body from 5 to 6 ft. wide. A shaft has been sunk on the body of the lode to a depth of 50 ft. proving the lode throughout. Mr Perry and Mr Stacey have erected a May's concentrator at Windy Creek, where there is a good supply of water, three miles south of Leigh's Creek railway-station, and three miles from the mine.
The plant is working admirably, and Mr Perry and Mr Stacey anticipated no difficulty in forwarding weekly from 10 to 15 tons of copper ore dressed up to 20 per cent. These gentlemen deserve every encouragement and support for their enterprise. During my stay at Leigh's Creek district I visited and examined a large number of copper shows, and have come to the conclusion that within a radius of 30 miles from Leigh's Creek railway station at least 30 copper shows are at work, affording employment to at least 60 men, and returning payable ore.'
In 1899 a Melbourne syndicate was working the field and on 16 February government land sales in Adelaide offered town lots at Algebuckina, which had been proclaimed on 21 July 1898. Very few blocks were ever sold at Algebuckina nor did many people live there. EC Kempe, JP and Charles A Perry also a JP both lived at the Peake Overland Telegraph Station in 1899.