Unfortunately the good years of the early 1860s did not last. The year 1863 saw the onset of a drought, which has ever since been known as the 'great drought'. The direct result of this prolonged drought was that almost all the mines in the Northern Flinders Ranges were forced to close. Very few new mines were opened up during this time. In 1865, J.B. Hughes, pastoral pioneer of Bundaleer, went as far north as the Yudanamutana mine while travelling the Flinders Ranges. He was one of several people who wrote extensively about the devastating effects of the drought on both the pastoral and the mining industry.
Another dramatic account of this difficult time was given by John Lewis in his book 'Fought and Won'. Despite the drought, newly discovered mines, and the few which were working in the Northern Flinders Ranges, were still able to attract miners from the south. At times both the Burra mine and the newly opened Moonta mine faced a shortage of miners, because of the widespread departure of miners to the mines in the far North.
The drought was to last in some areas of the Northern Flinders Ranges until well into 1866. Interestingly though, 1866 saw the highest tonnage of copper produced yet in South Australia, representing a value of $1,6 million which was also a record high. The drought also had devastating effects on the Aborigines. Robbed of their own natural food supply by nature and the white man, they now resorted to killing sheep, cattle and any shepherd who stood in their way.
During April 1865 a large group of Aborigines congregated in the Northern Flinders Ranges and killed more than a hundred sheep and sixty head of cattle. Walter Jerrold, who tried to prevent the killings, paid for it with his life. Unfortunately the police, stationed at Angepena, were unable to give any assistance, due to the poor condition of their horses. Another group of people severely hit by the drought were the pastoralists. Many of them lost so many of their stock that it put an end to their business. No wonder some left the Northern Flinders Ranges forever.
One solution which would overcome the transport problems in the north, and at the same time assist with the further opening up and development of both pastoral and mineral properties was the building of a railway line. A railway line would make it possible to reduce the ruinous freight charges which now had to be paid. The idea was certainly not a new one. As early as 1860 people had been talking about it, but it was not until 1870 that the South Australian Government appointed a Select Committee to look into, and report on extending the Port Augusta railway about three hundred kilometres northward.
During its inquiry many witnesses were called, among them Fiveash, Gleeson, Tonkin, Bonney, Goodlier and Wallace. All of them spoke of the necessity of cheap transport to keep the mines economically viable. The fact that such a railway would open up the country and thereby increase employment opportunities in both pastoral and mining ventures was not overlooked either. Many of the glowing statements made during the inquiry were not much different from opinions held ten years previously.
One optimistic witness said that 'the people had no conception of the immense mineral resources of the north', while another pointed out that 'the north was one of the greatest mineral countries'. One far-seeing witness strongly believed that 'a railway would bring a population of 25,000 persons, who would contribute to the Customs as well as consume colonial produce'.
While the arguments continued in parliament, and promises were being made, they brought little benefit to the mining industry. The smaller mines, and even big mines like the Blinman and Sliding Rock, found it hard to overcome their transport problems. Two years later in April 1872, Neales moved during the parliamentary debates that 'in consequence of the non-completion of a railway from Port Augusta, and the absence of any made road to the northern mines, the Government be recommended to amend Act 3, 1869/70, by a further remission of rents of another three years'.
He also made it abundantly clear to the members of the Legislative Council, that mine owners could not make a profit under the terms of the existing leases. H. Mildred added to this that up to $100 per ton had been paid by mine owners to bring stores to their mines, and as much as $50 per ton for carting the ore to the port. The number of applications for mineral claims had also sharply declined. During September 1872, when as few as 163 mineral applications were made in South Australia, the Northern Flinders Ranges could account for only thirty-one, out of which twenty claims were located around the Sliding Rock Mine. Six months later, there were even fewer applications for mineral claims. During March 1873, only sixty-eight were taken out, of which ten were for properties in the Northern Flinders Ranges.
Despite of the many problems faced by the mining industry in the Northern Flinders Ranges, including the lack of a railway and the occasional drought, the urge to find minerals in that part of South Australia had certainly not disappeared. Neither had speculation, nor the non-payment of licence fees, both of which had actually increased, and often resulted in the locking up of land and the eventual forfeiture of the claims. These evils had already reached such alarming proportions by 1870, that Quin moved in parliament 'that a return be laid on the table of this House showing the names of all mineral lessees who have not complied with the conditions of their agreements'. The main reason for the request was the large number of mineral lands 'held by mere speculators, who did not work them, but waited and prevented the practical miner from taking up the land and developing the resources of the colony'.
One efficient way to stop speculation of this kind was to enforce the labour conditions of the lease. Two years later though, very little improvement could be shown. There were still numerous individuals and companies who failed to comply with the regulations of the leases. This time it was A. Blyth who sought the cancellation of all leases on which the necessary expenditure had not been made.
Another kind of speculation was that in shares after a company had been formed. This kind of speculation often had 'a disastrous effect on the successful prosecution of mining enterprises'. Often, as soon as a company had been formed, speculators would push up the price before anything had been done to prove the value of the deposit. The newspapers of the day also pointed out the dangers associated with this kind of speculation, not only for the mines or companies concerned, but also because it would create a bad name for South Australia.
An excellent example of speculation, which went beyond all reasonable limits, was provided in Beltana during 1883. The local stock exchange, cashing in on the silver boom, pushed up the shares of one company to the astronomical height of $1,600. Even though the mining industry, particularly in the Northern Flinders Ranges, was fraught with major problems and setbacks, mining did continue during the 1870s and 1880s. Several mines operated for many years at the time in the North, and the South Australian Government was still interested in promoting the mineral industry.
Participation in mining among individual members of Parliament was extremely high. During the 1880s more than thirty members of parliament were in fact directors of mining companies. More than half of these were directors of more than one company and five were on the Board of four or more different mining companies.
After 1885, very little copper was mined in the Northern Flinders Ranges. In 1886 it was reported that the copper industry was unprecedentedly depressed, mainly because of the low copper price on the world-market. Whereas in January 1880 the price per ton in London was $160, by 1885 this had dropped to $92 per ton. Another reason given was the large output in other countries, especially in South America. The low cost of production there had 'led to the practical suspension of copper mining' in South Australia. The total value of South Australia's mineral exports during 1885 amounted only to $690,000 of which copper had contributed $646,000.
The mining industry was certainly not the important income earner it had been for so many years. Its importance was overshadowed by that of wheat and other grain products, the value of whose exports during the same year stood at a very healthy $4 million. By 1887 matters had still not improved. The total number of mineral claims made that year was 1,217, whereas the number of mineral leases issued was a meagre fifty-eight.
On the brighter side though, 1,142 gold licences had been issued, and the Government Geologist was still convinced that South Australia was exceptionally well endowed with minerals. He had no hesitation in forecasting that their full recognition and exploitation was only a matter of time. Unfortunately very little copper was extracted from the mines in the Northern Flinders Ranges after that prediction. The Blinman mine was still going in 1887, but very few other copper mines could make a contribution of any importance. Copper mania had truly finished. However this did not mean that people had given up prospecting.
During the latter part of the 1880s and during the 1890s different minerals attracted prospectors and mining men. This time it was silver and even gold! According to the local newspaper, silver and lead deposits had been known to exist in the Northern Flinders Ranges for a long time, but had been ignored until the fabulous success of the Broken Hill mines in New South Wales. Numerous mining companies were starting to work the silver fields, particularly in and around Beltana, where the Ediacara mine looked the most promising.
The same newspaper admitted that there were still some pessimists who were convinced 'that the North will never pay for mining'. It was also of the opinion that it would be, 'the height of absurdity to ignore the proved existence of silver ore of payable quality in the new field'. At the close of the 1880s several silvermines were worked, and enough people were working on the Nichol's Nob goldfield for Charles Todd to contemplate a mail service to these diggers. Once again the Northern Flinders Ranges seemed to be South Australia's mining field 'par excellence'. Mineral claims were taken out by the score, month after month, and during 1890 as many as fifteen mines were in operation. Eight mines produced copper, four produced silver, two were mining cobalt and one bismuth.
Hopes ran high again, not only in the Northern Flinders Ranges, but also in Adelaide, where the Government decided that towns should be surveyed around these northern mines. Adelaide based company-directors planned to build smelters and concentrating plants for their ores to reduce transport cost to Port Augusta. Even the Leigh's Creek Coal Mining Company had started diamond drilling for core samples. No doubt, it hoped to supply these smelters with their coal.