A long Easter weekend presents the perfect opportunity for an adventure away from home. I’d received a tip off that a remote beach in Westland might be right up my alley. Once a busy mining settlement, Gillespies Beach is now home to only a small cluster of baches and a few relics to remind us of the people who lived, worked and died there.
It was a marathon seven hour drive from Dunedin to the township of Fox Glacier. But rather than stick around to check out the famous river of ice, we turned down Cook Flat Rd which took us back into the countryside. We then reached the gravel Gillespies Beach road and continued down it. Just before entering the bush we encountered a frightening array of bright yellow warning signs. Narrow road! Winding road! General alarm!
We bravely soldiered on, and found the road was in fact easy and well-maintained, with nary a pot hole in sight. Sure, there were some tight corners with low visibility, but overall it was much easier than anticipated.
Then it was out of the bush and a right turn to the free DOC camp site, which turned out to be a pretty nice clearing near the beach with a fireplace, picnic table and shelter as well as the usual nasty long drop toilet full of bugs.
Even though it was a long weekend we managed to stake out a decent spot to put up our tent before getting down to the business of exploring.
Tourism materials claim that the beach got its name from a miner called Gillespie who discovered gold here. However, the memoirs of Robert Logan, a prospector who claimed to have been present at the time, tell a slightly different tale. He was a member of a party of five, including Gillespie, which was heading back up the coast in 1866 after suffering disappointment at Bruce Bay. As they passed the untouched beach, they felt that it might be a good place to find gold, so loaded up on supplies in Okarito and hurried back. Logan and another man named Nelson rushed on ahead, and the pair discovered the first traces of gold before the rest of the party caught up.
According to Logan family legend, Gillespie was a popular Scottish Canadian with a fondness for boozing and billiards. He let the secret slip while on a supply trip and thus the word spread of “Gillespie’s beach” as prospectors flocked to the site to try their own luck.
Some numbers quoted in the newspapers of the time give us an idea of the nature of the rush. In April 1866 it was reported that there were 1500 people and four stores at Gillespies Beach. By May there were 600 miners, eleven stores, two bakeries and two butcheries. By October the population had fallen to 200, there were ten stores and nine closed stores, with most remaining stores preparing to close. In 1867 the place was described as looking “very dull, only about a dozen buildings to be seen” while there were only 50 miners, three stores, one butcher and one baker. When 1868 rolled around the population was reported as being only 17.
And then in 1879 a rather curious thing had happened, with the paper reporting that the nine married couples living at the settlement had between them produced fifty children, “increasing and multiplying with a vengeance”.
Our first mission was to find the historic cemetery and pay our respects to the people for whom this beach is their final resting place. We wandered back down the road a way, past some very Shrekish sheep. Could they be…feral?
The cemetery itself is reached via a short path to a small clearing surrounded by forest.
The cemetery was officially established in 1896 but may have been unofficially used before that time. There are nine marked graves, and several more that are unmarked. One unmarked grave is surrounded by a little picket fence, small enough to suggest that the story behind it must be terribly sad. Thankfully, there is a memorial here acknowledging the pioneers, so it isn’t quite so tragic to know that some people lie here unremembered.
One of the first headstones you will encounter is that of Edward Ryan, better known as Ned or Neddy. He was the keeper of a hotel and store, one of the few residents of Gillespies Beach who intended to settle permanently. At the Gillespies Beach Hotel guests could enjoy succulent goose cooked by his wife Catherine as well as participate in card games. But in 1899 this pillar of the community suffered an ignominious end when he fell from his horse aged 57 years. He was followed by his son Thomas, who died of tuberculosis in 1900. Another of his sons, John Edward Ryan, intended to sell the hotel and the family’s run of 1800 acres with 400 head of cattle, 800 sheep and 35 horses along with a 14 room house. Unfortunately, he too passed away from the disease in 1902 at only 31 years of age and was interred with his father.
By 1903 Catherine Ryan, the bereaved wife and mother, was offering it all for sale with the intention of leaving for the North Island, and who can blame her? Her husband may have loved the West Coast, but what comfort would that be after such losses?
The next grave is unusual. It commemorates James O’Leary, but was erected by our friend Ned Ryan. James was cared for in his last hours at Ned’s Hotel, and while it’s said that he was an old and respected member of the community, it was Ned who nursed him in his final three weeks of illness, and Ned who paid for his headstone. Perhaps poor James had no family of his own.
The next two graves belong to John and Annie Quinlan. All I could discover of these two was that John was a trustee of the cemetery and that the nearby creek is marked as Quinlan Creek on some maps.
Nearby is the headstone of Patrick Carroll who in 1890 “was drowned in Cook’s River” aged 17 years. The inscription seems innocuous (though sad), but takes on a shade of blame once you learn the full story. The young man drowned attempting to cross the Cook River in the absence of Robert McIntosh, the appointed ferryman. Apparently there had been many complaints about the conduct of McIntosh, and the bereaved father, Michael Carroll, felt the the ferryman was at fault for the accident, saying “I blame him for it the longest day I live”. The issue divided the small community, with the Ryan family taking the Carroll’s side, and friends of McIntosh collecting a petition of 45 names attesting to his “courtesy and efficiency”. Ned Ryan blasted the petition, suggesting that some of the names were forged and others belonged to people who hadn’t used the ferry in years.
Robert McIntosh’s headstone is not far from Patrick Carroll’s. Only two years later he too was drowned while attempting to cross the Saltwater Creek, for which he also manned a ferry. He was mourned by his wife and seven children.
As for Michael Carroll, he mined Gillespies Beach for 36 years before retiring to Wellington, where he passed away at the age of 73. He was survived by four daughters and two sons.
Henry Morrison was a respected miner of English descent who, with a partner, constructed a water race to address the water issues which caused problems for the local miners. I could find very little about James Walsh, except that he left behind a large family.
The most elaborate headstone in this small cemetery belongs to Eleanor Meyer and was erected by her husband Frederick. The elderly woman was feeding her chickens one afternoon in 1898 when she experienced a pain in her chest. Her husband tried to help, but was unable to save her. Eleanor was praised for the dedications she showed to her housework until her very last day.
This story has a tragic addendum. Eight years later Frederick’s body was found near Five Mile Beach. The 67-year-old had been embroiled in a court case and had ended his life by taking arsenic. And one of the unmarked graves here may belong to Edward Mortley, who also took his own life. It seems that suicide was a common cause of death for West Coast miners, suggesting that life in these rugged outposts was not only physically trying, but psychologically difficult as well.
It was with sober hearts that we returned to the camp ground. Nearby is another relic that is worth investigating – the scattered remains of the suction dredge that operated briefly here beginning in 1891. The dredge, designed by Edward von Schmidt, had impressed a scout with its ability to clear out channels in the San Francisco Bay, and so one was ordered by the company of J & A Anderson to be built on Gillespies Beach. The “cutter”, or vertical element that would loosen the sand, is mounted near the car park.
We proceeded on to the short loop walk beyond which would lead us to more dredge parts.
When established, this was said to be “the most powerful dredger ever placed on South Westland beaches” and the little community had high hopes that the business would provide a revitalising economic boost to the area.
However it soon became apparent that the design was not suitable for the environment. The suction mechanism was constantly being clogged by branches and stones.
The company collapsed after only one year. They had spent £5000 and not passed a single ton of sand for gold collection. Worse, it claimed the life of engineer in charge Job Hartwell who was pulled into the machinery while his son who was acting as assistant could only look on in horror.
As the sun began to set, we left the rusted machine that had disappointed a community, ruined investors, and left a family without a father, all in only a year. We returned to the beach, where our spirits were lifted by the sight of a cheerful little friend.
The evening concluded with what was surely the most beautiful sunset I have ever witnessed. I joined my fellow campers on the beach to watch the show.
Clearly this place is not all misery! The pioneers may have had hard lives, but perhaps they sat on this very beach and marvelled at the beauty before them, just as I do now, a hundred years later.
With that, we retired to bed, ready to continue our adventure in the morning. But I’ve already gone on too long, so that is a story for another post.
Logan, R. 1992: How Gillespie’s Beach got its name. The Press (6 May): 17