A brief mining history of South Australia

In September 1840, four years after South Australia (SA) was first settled, two Cornishmen discovered a vein of silver-lead ore at Glen Osmond in the Adelaide foothills. At the time mineral rights belonged to the land owner. In March 1841 the SA Mining Association was formed, SA’s first mining prospectus was issued, and mining at Wheal Gawler, named after the Governor, commenced. Approximately 300 tonnes of ore were produced between 1846 and 1849.

Wheal Watkins, discovered on the adjacent property in 1841 was developed in 1843. A 91 m deep underground mine it produced 1,000 tonnes of ore averaging 73% lead and 18 oz of silver by 1851.

Mining was by traditional Cornish methods. Tutworkers sank shafts and drove the levels, and were paid by the amount of ground mined. The Tributers, who developed and mined the stopes, were paid by the value of ore produced.

Ore was manually broken, bagged and shipped to smelters in England as the first mineral export from Australia. Shipping accounted for more than half the costs and in 1849 Glen Osmond Union Mining Co constructed one of the first smelters in the state. The closure in 1851 meant that very little ore was actually smelted here.

Gold was first produced in SA in 1846 from Victoria Mine in the Mt Lofty Ranges. This lead a sequence of subsequent of gold discoveries, predominantly in the Mt Lofty Ranges, characterized by short campaigns of high production as miners rushed to each discovery in large numbers.

In 1851 miners joined the rush to the Victorian goldfields. The SA government offered £1,000 for the discovery of a payable goldfield to curb the exodus of miners. This lead to the discovery of Jupiter Creek in 1852, which produced between 25,000 and 50,000 ounces.

The discoveries of other significant mining provinces were by farm workers as more remote areas were developed. The discoveries and the subsequent development of towns including Kapunda, Burra, and Moonta saved the state from bankruptcy.

Copper bearing outcrop was discovered at Kapunda in 1842. Mining commenced in 1844, and ore was shipped to Wales. In 1848 the first Cornish engine house was constructed in Australia to handle the water from underground. In 1849 the first smelter was constructed. Mining here halted between 1951 and 1955, as miners left for Victoria. The mine closed in 1879 due to economic failure.

In 1845, two separate discoveries of copper mineralization at Burra led to a scramble for land. After government intervention, the northern Burra Mine became the largest mine in Australia for the first ten years of its life. It supplied 5% of the world’s copper for 15 years producing a total of 50,000 t of copper metal. Open cut operations commenced in 1870.

In 1848 low copper prices pushed wages down and forced the Burra miners’ strike, the first industrial strike in SA and the earliest workers’ strike of any consequence in Australia. The mine closed in 1877 due to the low copper price. It reopened in 1971 by Samin Ltd and was mined until 1981 producing a further 24,000 tonnes of copper.

The Moonta Mining Company began in 1862 after the discovery of copper mineralization in 1861. The grade was initially 30% copper and by 1876, dividends paid by the company totaled one million pounds. Along with the nearby Wallaroo Mines at Kadina, the region known as the copper triangle on the west coast of Yorke Peninsula brought prosperity to the state as mining activities in Kapunda and Burra declined. In 1875, Moonta was SA’s second largest town, and Wallaroo the largest seaport. The value of copper produced by 1917 exceeded the total value of mineral production from the rest of the state since settlement.

In 1889 the mines amalgamated to form the largest mining company in SA, the Wallaroo and Moonta Mining and Smelting Co Ltd. The post-war copper price and coal shortages lead to wage cuts, which the workers refused to accept. The company liquidated in 1923. As is typical with historic mining areas in SA, entities have revisited and made various attempts to reestablish mining. At Moonta smaller-scale operations recommenced in the area in the 1990s, and ended two years later.

After the Victorian goldrushes, and the return of experienced, but mostly unsuccessful diggers, gold, copper, and silver mines were in production within a short time. Some of the best known among them were the Talisker, Teetulpa, Kanmantoo, and Aclare mines. Later there were the many mines in the Flinders Ranges. All these mines, and the different smelters at Copley, Bolla Bollana and Port Augusta, provided work, stability and settlement in the arid north of SA.

Opal was discovered at Coober Pedy in 1915. With a population of around 1,700 it still supplies most of the world’s opal. The industry is regulated to protect the small-scale operations.

South Australia also benefited from the successes of mining at Broken Hill in NSW. Charles Rasp, who discovered silver and lead deposits at Broken Hill in 1883 and was one of the founders of Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP), used Adelaide for its shipping ports and made it his home. His residence “Willyama” is still one of the highest valued properties in Adelaide.

In 1901 BHP established Whyalla at the end of the tramway carrying iron ore from its mines in the Middleback Ranges to Port Pirie. These operations are currently being run by Arrium, a company spun out from Onesteel in 2012 to focus on mining.

The earliest coal discoveries were at Leigh Creek in 1888, but these were not mined commercially until 1943, reducing coal dependence on NSW. Leigh Creek has seen the township moved more than once as resources are exploited. The mine is run by the SA Government.

Brukunga is one of SA’s biggest mining legacies, mined for iron sulphide from 1955 to 1972 to produce sulphuric acid and superphosphate. The exposed waste dumps and acid forming materials continues to be managed by the government.

Olympic Dam is named after a dam and bore put down on the Roxby Downs pastoral property in 1956 during the Olympics in Melbourne, is now the fourth largest copper deposit and the largest known single deposit of uranium in the world. Although uranium represents only a minor portion of the mine’s total revenue, it caused great controversy when the first drums of yellow cake were trucked to Port Adelaide. Discovered in 1975 by Western Mining, it commenced production from underground in 1988, and was acquired by BHP Billiton in 2005. The study for a proposed open pit expansion was completed in 2008, and both state and federal government granted approvals in 2011. In 2012 BHP Billiton postponed the expansion to investigate cheaper design options.

The history of uranium in SA goes back to Radium Hill discovered in 1906. Ore from here was mined and processed near Sydney between 1911 and 1915 for radium bromide and uranium. In 1948 tax concessions were offered by the commonwealth government for successful discoveries, and in 1954 Radium Hill reopened as a uranium mine. The Port Pirie Uranium Treatment Complex commenced operations in 1955, processing ore from Radium Hill and Wild Dog Hill (Myponga). The £1,800,000 complex was operated by the state government and closed in February 1962.

Beverley Uranium mine, discovered in 1969, commenced in situ recovery mining in 2001 and continues to expand with the opening of Four Mile. Honeymoon Well commenced in 2011 as Australia’s fourth uranium mine after the Labor Party scrapped its three mine policy in 2007.

There have been several new graphite discoveries on Eyre Peninsular and Uley graphite mine has reopened. Discovered in 1910, and worked intermittently since 1920, it operated continuously from 1986 to 1993, when the price fell.

As a reminder of the state’s diversity, jade has been mined near Cowell since 1976.

Angas zinc mine was discovered in 1991 on the outskirts of Strathalbyn, a town with a silver and copper mining heritage that dates back to 1848. Angas was mined between 2008 and 2013, and highlighted the importance of local community engagement for both miners and regulators in the modern era.

SA slowly opened up to further exploration discoveries and mine openings in the modern era. These include Challenger Gold mine, Prominent Hill, and more recently the discovery of Carrapateena and Hillside. Kanmantoo mine has reopened after 35 years. In 2009 Iluka commenced activities at Jacinth-Ambrosia, west of Ceduna, the largest, highest assemblage zircon development globally for several decades, capable of producing up to 300 thousand tonnes of zircon per year.

Since, 2000 there has been resurgence in magnetite and hematite discoveries encouraged by the high iron ore price, with operations such as Cairn Hill, and Peculiar Knob getting off the ground. Arrium came into being and has stepped up mining production in the Middleback Ranges. Other companies are poised to develop their projects but are hindered by the current iron ore market.

In addition to mining, South Australian firms supplied mining machinery to other colonies and even to overseas mines for most of its first hundred years. Its strong economic growth made finance available for the opening up of mineral deposits in New South Wales and Western Australia. South Australia was seen as the cradle of the Australian mining industry.

Now, often seen as the home to Olympic Dam, South Australia is also home to a tenacious group of explorers and miners quietly seeking to advance their projects, of varying scales, in a tough market.

Andrew Proudman
Principal Geologist