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RESERVE - Mining History

A bit of rock encased in solid gold

In 1884, Fred and Henry Barber, who were well infected with gold fever set off on a hunting trip in the Valley of the Kaap – and instead of elephant they found gold. They excitedly pegged their claim and on 21st June reported the find to the government. Within days, hundreds of other diggers heard the news of what was known either as Barber’s Reef or the Inkenkisa Reef, from the African name, Nkhenkesa or The Gap, for the ravine in which it was found. Some ten thousand diggers descended on the Kaap Valley. They came from far and wide: the Klondike in Alaska, Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, California and even Russia, not to mention from all corners of South Africa.

For a digger’s town, Barberton could hardly have had a more auspicious christening. The reef was rich in gold; the liquor was strong and only prospectors were around to break a bottle of gin and name the place Barberton. It became a prosperous and probably the rowdiest town in Transvaal. It also became the town famous for flashy, buxom barmaids who were “sold” to the highest bidder for a night. As TV Bulpin described them in his book “Storm over the Transvaal” many of them, including Cockney Liz, “were, like well read books, slightly thumb-marked due to circulation”. It was a town of saloons, as many as one to every 15 people. A rough, tough town that had three newspapers, two stock exchanges (where shares in one mine leapt from £ 1 to £105 in a day), ten hotels, two clubs and a public house on every corner. It had all this long before the first church or courthouse could be built.

mining history

The hectic story of gold in Barberton only lasted some four years, but they were four years packed with dreams, many lost hopes and where shovel merchants probably made the most money of all – provided they did not give credit. Not that the gold has ended in Barberton. The discovery of the Sheba Reef north east of Barberton and bordering Mountainlands was destined to become the most famous gold mine in the world. It was sensational in its richness and became at once the greatest blessing and curse of Barberton. It turned a gold frenzy into utter mania. Yields of twenty ounces to the ton were quite common and by 1898 this wonder mine had returned 519, 565 ounces of gold, valued then at over £2, 000, 000. The discovery also resulted in a fresh flood of racketeers who rushed into the Kaap Valley. Claims were indiscriminately pegged and bogus companies were flooded with lavish capital. New villages sprang up to contain the influx of people. In the center of the numerous companies on Sheba Hill, an ex-Durban butcher named J. Sherwood established a butchery and hotel in December 1885. His worn out wife was notoriously the most hideous woman in the Kaap Valley. The diggers knew her as the queen of Sheba; and Sherwood named his hotel in her honour – The Queen of Sheba Hotel. His establishment became the nucleus of what became Eureka City, the ruins of which are today in the northern section of Mountainlands Nature Reserve. Eureka City was probably one of the world’s shortest-lived cities.

Only a few walls of this once flourishing mining town remains in Mountainlands. It was a town, which, at the height of the boom in 1886, held a roaring population of about 650 diggers. It had three stores, three hotels, a dozen canteens, a chemist’s shop, a baker, a racetrack and a music hall. It was a boomtown always noted for its fights. Its climax came in February 1887 when the once celebrated band of thugs, known as The Irish Brigade, took the town over for a hectic week and practically wrecked it. Bars and stores were smashed up and a succession of free fights and assaults took place, until police reinforcements from Barberton broke into the town and arrested four of the principal hooligans. Eureka should have been the South African golden city. The diggers had meant to live in the heart of the mountain ranges with glorious views from every doorstep, but this dream vanished as the gold ran out.

Situated on the edge of Mountainlands, the famous Golden Quarry is a short way down the steep mountain from the crazy road leading from Eureka City’s remnants to Sheba mine, which is now the oldest working gold mine in South Africa. Also known as Bray’s Golden Quarry, its huge silent galleries are eloquent of a golden yesterday when Eureka was alive on the mountain above. This awe-inspiring site was sculpted by hand and portrays a giant underground “Swiss cheese”. It is a man made wonder worth visiting.

Early transport routes etched in stone

The way to Barberton was a bitter one for many. In the beginning there were no beaten roads. Whichever path people took from Delagoa Bay (now Maputo) or Natal, they risked heat exhaustion, predatory animals, solitude and human cutthroats who would murder a man for his pack and money-belt. Going away from Barberton was even more risky than reaching it, for the travelers were then more likely to be carrying riches.

The transport riders, through sheer necessity, were forced to do something about the roads. In 1886 Robert Pettigrew made into a road the wagon trail which branched off from the Jock of the Bushveld road at Nellmapius Drift across the Crocodile River. It then went up along the south bank of the Crocodile River until the Kaap River at Kaapmuiden joined it. His road then followed the Kaap River through the hills and into the great Kaap Valley. In 1888 Pettigrew made a new road, known as French Bob’s Road. It branched off from Pettigrew’s Road at Fig tree Creek and it went into the mountains up the creek, nowadays named Low’s Creek. The road climbed the heights of the Makonjwa mountains, crossed over into Swaziland, past the 4, 776 feet high mountain landmark known as the Bearded Man and eventually joined the Jock of the Bushveld Road at Furley’s Drift across the Nkomati River.

These two roads kept Barberton supplied; and throughout the twenty-four hours, heavy transport wagons rumbled from them into the town, loaded with all the provisions and impedimenta required for mining. Unique remnants of the trade routes are still visible in Mountainlands and portray the sheer toughness of maneuvering an ox wagon over the mountains as evidenced by the ruts cut into solid rock ledges. It was customary to “lock” the wheels with thick branches wedged between the spokes that enabled the wagon to be dragged behind the oxen. Many of these marks are now protected within Mountainlands while sadly some of those outside are being destroyed by 4x4 enthusiasts.

But elephants are even better civil engineers than humans and are probably the best in the animal kingdom because their migration routes never exceed a gradient of three in one. Even before the coming of the Europeans earlier people sometimes used elephant routes from the east coast inland, as these were easy to traverse. Recently, conservationists came across an elephant migration route that stretches from Chrissiesmeer, where some of their pastures are presumed to have been, passing through the Kaap Valley, over the Makonjwa Mountains through Mountainlands into Swaziland. An interesting footnote is that when elephants were reintroduced in the adjoining Songimvelo Nature Reserve in the 1980’s, after an absence of nearly a hundred years from this area, they rediscovered an ancient elephant migration route and crossed over the previously presumed impassable mountain area into the Malolotja Game Reserve in Swaziland.

Interesting facts and fables

Many weird, wild and wonderful legends still remain alive in the mountains and valleys in this corner of the world, once inhabited by people with colourful names such as Charlie Tinker, California Wilson, Yankee Dan, Harry the Sailor, Northern Territory Jack and Canada Joe.

There is ample evidence that in ancient times a sizeable population graced this area as can be seen by the collection of stone artefacts found in the region. The San left their paintings on the rocks and Stone Age and Iron Age man is represented here in a rich legacy of relics that are turned up from time to time, such as porcupine quills still carrying evidence that gold dust was carried inside it and used for trade at the east coast.

This is the world where many stories are told about the beautiful, the brave and the ugly: Cockney Liz, Jock of the Bushveld and the “Queen of Sheba” who was the wife of the then owner of Sheba Hotel.

And the story about the intelligent mule. Harry Culverwell was a digger and apparently the owner of an exceptionally intelligent mule. This animal attended all the diggers’ meetings and used to be a respected “citizen” that knew all the prospector paths as well as the bars in town; and was said to be impervious to sickness. But one day it did become sick, very sick. Sir Harry Graumann offered Culverwell 5 pounds for its chances. Culverwell accepted whereupon the remarkable animal promptly recovered!

Yankee Moore was a shop owner. If any line of goods was in short supply then it was only sold to regular customers; Yankee was no profiteer, he kept his prices as low as possible; a reasonable man he was. One day a newcomer walked into his shop and bought himself two drinks and a new suit. He drank both drinks, put the suit on and then confessed not having any money. Yankee was not impressed! He forced the newcomer to undress right there and then and threatened to get the drinks back via a stomach pump!

Often wondered where the term “rat race” came from? In the late 1800’s “rat races” were held in De Villiers Street in front of the old Transvaal Hotel in Barberton where the diggers would use the rats that they had caught in their dwellings or diggings as “bait” for their dogs to chase. Huge sums of money were gambled on these races! Great entertainment in a place where there was a pub a mile; twenty-seven pubs between Barberton and Sheba! A route that could take a week to complete; a record that can hold itself anywhere in the world!

A few useful tips when visiting this area: If you encounter a “hanging tree” you know that you are next to the De Kaap River just north of Mountainlands where justice was swift; when you unexpectedly walk into a “cathedral” you are in the Sheba mine, the richest mine the world has ever seen and when you read “Duiwels Kantoor” you know you have arrived in Kaapsche Hoop”.


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