In 1873 Alec “Wheelbarrow” Patterson left the overcrowded diggings at nearby Mac-Mac, pushing his belongings in a wheelbarrow, to try and find his fortune elsewhere. (It is rumored that he disliked horses after a painful kick.) He struck rich gold at Pilgrim’s Creek but kept his find a secret. Another prospector, William Trafford, however came across him and made the gold find public by immediately registering a claim with the Gold Commissioner.
The Gold Rush Era
The Pilgrims Rest area was proclaimed a Gold Field in September 1873 and within a year there were 1500 diggers from all over the world working around 4000 claims. These prospectors recovered alluvial gold (free gold sediment in rivers and on the banks) from the streams in and around Pilgrim’s Creek.
This gold was mainly in powder form with occasional nuggets and was extracted either by panning for the gold or using a sluice box. By 1877 the alluvial gold had started to peter out and by 1881 there were only about 8 diggers left.
Development of Gold Mining
The next step, shaft mining in the surrounding hills, necessitated more extensive machinery. The gold contained in rock mined from veins and lodes in the mountains is no longer free gold, but bound to other metals. This requires mechanical and chemical processes to extract the gold. In 1882 the ZAR-government accepted an offer from a London financier for exclusive mining rights for the farm on which Pilgrims Rest is situated. The Transvaal Gold Exploration Company was floated in London. This marked the end of the digger era and the official beginning of the gold mining industry in South Africa.
From 1882 to 1895 mining consisted of driving horizontal shafts into exposed veins of gold on the hillsides. Welsh coal miners experienced in tunnel mining were brought in to provide expertise. Theta Reef was one of the richest at the time, producing about 2 kg of gold per ton.
Similar mining syndicates had been formed in surrounding areas and in 1896 a number of companies amalgamated to form The Transvaal Gold Mining Estates (TGME) which still exists today. When it was formed, the company owned 200 000 hectares of land, with mineral rights extending over another 70 000 hectares. A metallurgical plant, the Central Reduction Works, was built. This plant which is situated in Pilgrims Rest, is currently on the World Heritage tentative list as an industrial heritage site.
With the mines scattered over a large area, the greatest challenge was to get the ore to one of three reduction plants where the gold was extracted. Until 1887 oxen were used to transport the ore from the mines to central loading points and thereafter mules were harnessed until the 1950’s. From these points the ore was transported by electrical tram (notably the first electrical rail system in Southern Africa), a coco pan line and even aerial cable ways. In its time this transport line, which covered some 20 km, was seen as a feat in engineering.
Proclamation as a Heritage Site
Between 1885 and 1971 a total of 26 mines operated, opening and closing with the rise and fall of the gold price, the dictates of world politics and economics, and the ravages of nature, including a severe flood in 1909.
In 1971 TGME operations ceased and the village of Pilgrims Rest was sold to the government in 1974. It was proclaimed a National Monument in 1986. Also in 1986, Rand Mines bought back a piece of property on which to erect a new metallurgical plant to reclaim gold from the old mine dumps. TGME was later sold to Simmers, a listed gold mining company, which resumed underground mining operations in 1999 and also extracted gold from old dumps using the heap leach method.
Active mining was discontinued once again in 2010 due to the economic decline but it is probably only a matter of time before the search for the elusive metal resumes – there is still much “gold in them thar hills”