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Ophir, NSW

Site of Australia's "first significant gold discovery".

Ophir (pronounced 'o-fa' to rhyme with 'sofa') is famous as the site where payable gold was first found in Australia. In April, 1851 what is now a peaceful recreation reserve with picnic and camping facilities where Summer Hill Creek and Lewis Ponds Creek meet, was the site of a discovery that changed Australian society and the Australian economy dramatically. Today it is a pleasant picnic area with two excellent walks through quiet bushland which was once the site of mines, tunnels and furious activity as more than 2,000 miners dug for their fortunes.

Location

Ophir is located 27 km north east of Orange and 280 km west of Sydney via Orange.

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Origin of Name

Prior to European settlement the area was inhabited by the Wiradjuri people who knew the gorge as 'Drunong Drung' which was said to mean 'many snakes'. The first Europeans into the area called it 'Yorkey's Corner' after a shepherd from Yorkshire who grazed his flock along the creeks.  Reputedly it was the father of William Tom (one of the trio who found gold in the area) who suggested 'Ophir' which was a reference to a place in the Old Testament famed for its fine gold.

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Things to See and Do

The True History of Ophir and the Discovery of Gold
It has become part of local mythology that Edward Hargraves was the first man to discover gold in Australia. This is simply not true and the story is an almost perfect example of how someone, eager to claim glory and fame, can push themselves to the front of the crowd without too many objections.

It seems likely that the first person to find gold at Ophir was a Sydney jeweller who, discovering gold in 1849 in the district, tried to persuade the New South Wales government but was met with disinterest.

Two years later, in February, 1851, Edward Hargraves and a colleague, John Lister, found gold-bearing gravel at the junction of Lewis Ponds Creek and Summer Hill Creek. The gold was poor quality and Hargraves temporarily abandoned the search.

In April, 1851 William Tom found a 14 gram gold nugget on a rock bar which he named FitzRoy Bar after Governor Fitzroy. It was near the junction of the two creeks. At the time Tom was accompanied by his brother, James, and a friend, John Lister. Lister and James started fossicking in a nearby creek and in three days had discovered 113 grams of gold including a 55-gram nugget.

They then made a terrible mistake. They informed Edward Hargraves who took the samples to Sydney, showed them to the Colonial Secretary and revealed the location of the finds. The New South Wales Government, quite incorrectly, recognised Hargraves as the "first discoverer of gold in Australia". He was paid £10,500 reward and, in 1877, was granted an annuity of £250 a year. He also received £2,381 from the Victorian government and was asked by the West Australian government to prospect there in 1862. Hargraves travelled to England in 1854 where he was presented to Queen Victoria and he published a book entitled Australia and Its Goldfields in 1855.

It is a cruel irony that he enjoyed so much fame and fortune when, with panning expertise he had gained on the Californian goldfields, he had been unable to find gold at Ophir. The true heroes were William and James Tom and John Lister.

Ophir was not the first gold. It was the first payable gold and within weeks the gully was overrun by at least 400 eager prospectors. With the miners came pubs, blacksmiths, general stores selling wood and canvas, a police station made from rough hewn logs, sly grog shops and a Commissioner's Camp which comprised tents and a slab-and-bark cookhouse.

Further down the creek, at Tinkers Point on a bend in the river, a second settlement named Newtown grew. It is claimed that at its peak Newtown was home to 2,000 prospectors by the winter of 1851. This was early days and the rules were chaotic. Only 446 licenses were issued in July, 1851. Many prospectors were fossicking illegally and fleeing at the approach of the Commissioner's men.

Then, as was to become a pattern on all the goldfields, word spread that there was easier gold to be had on the Turon fields and many of the prospectors, confronted with a wet and bitterly cold winter and poor returns, left Ophir for easier pickings.

There were only 84 licenses issued in August, 1852. The gold rush had lasted a little over a year.

Ironically tenacity was rewarded. A few miners stayed on and had some success and by 1855 the highly organised Chinese had moved in and were reworking many of the old mines. They camped on the flats below Murray's Hill and their earthen water races can still be seen in the hills.

The Belmore Reef was discovered in 1866 and reef mining was still producing profitable returns as late as the 1890s. The veins were rich in gold but often short-lived. In the 1890s Doctors Hill became an important mine and a small settlement grew up there, although flooding of the shafts proved a major problem. Today gold is still mined in the area but the returns are so marginal that when the price of gold falls the commercial operations stop.

The Ophir Reserve and the Walking Tracks
The main attraction at Ophir is the 560 ha Historic Ophir Reserve which comprises camping and picnic facilities; the junction of the Summer Hill and Lewis Ponds Creeks which flow into the Ophir Creek; two pleasant walking trails which include the site of the original 1851 gold strike and of the 1866 Belmore Reef find; earthen water races, a rare stone gravity-fed water race (c.1890) for washing the crushed quartz from the stamper batteries; abandoned tunnels, old diggings, a flagstone causeway, mullock heaps, the remains of a flying fox and the old cemetery. One tombstone identifies Charlie Corse who received a bullet in the head when he dared Richard Spencer to shoot him in a dispute over a saddle. Spencer was gaoled in Bathurst prison. On the northern side of the causeway is an obelisk to commemorate the historical importance of the site which was built in 1923.

Walking Tracks No.1 and No.2
There is a large sign, complete with a good map, in the picnic area on the south side of the river, which indicates the two walks which offer a comprehensive overview of the remnants of the gold site.

Walking Track No.1
This walking track, on the southern side of Summer Hill Creek, passes along the creek's bank past the Bluff Tunnel (it can be safely explored for about 23 metres from the entrance - the tunnel was used to transfer mined rock from shafts on the Bluff Hill above to the tramway which ran past its entrance), up Eau De Cologne Gully, past Belmore Reef Mines, Salvation Bob's Mine and Spencers Cut and then via the former site of the 7-header stamper battery back to the Historic Reserve.

Walking Track No. 2
This track starts on the northern side of the ford, takes in the Ophir Monument (across the road) and the former site of Ophir township before making its way along the banks of the Ophir Creek, past the site of Newtown at Tinkers Point, heading up to the earthen water races and heading back to the picnic area.

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History

* The area was known to its original inhabitants, the Wiradjuri people, as 'Drunong Drung'. This is said to mean 'many snakes' as the creatures were apparently attracted to what was a very reliable water source.

* To the early European settlers it was known as 'Yorkey's Corner' after a reclusive shepherd from Yorkshire who kept his flock here.

* A Sydney jeweller tried to make the government aware of the gold traces he discovered there in 1849, with no success.

* In February, 1851 Edward Hargraves, who had garnered some experience and success at the California goldfields, together with John Lister, turned up a pan of gold-bearing gravel at the junction of Lewis Ponds Creek and Summer Hill Creek. The find was of little value so Hargraves temporarily abandoned the search.

* In April, 1851 William Tom found a 14-gram nugget near the junction of the two creeks. Three days later, with his brother James and John Lister, he had found 113 grams including a 55-gram nugget.

* Within weeks there were 400 prospectors in the valley and Australia's first goldrush had started.

* By July, 1851 hotels, blacksmiths, general stores, a police station and a commissioner's camp had been built.

* A second settlement called Newtown grew up at Tinkers Point and by mid-1851 there were 2000 diggers in the area. 446 licenses were issued in July 1851.

* By 1852 the rush was over. A small number of hardy diggers persisted.

* By the mid-1850s Chinese miners were reworking the diggings with some success. They camped on the flats below Murray's Hill and their earthen water races can still be seen.

* In 1866 the Belmore Reef was discovered and reef mining was pursued for the next 30 years.

* Copper was mined at Lewis Ponds in the 1860s and 1870s and silver, lead and zinc in the 1880s.

* In the 1890s Doctors Hill became an important mine and a small settlement developed there.

* There have always been miners in the area. As recently as the late 1970s a 5.22 kg nugget was found.

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Visitor Information

The Orange Visitors Centre, Civic Square, Byng St, tel: 1800 069 466 has information on the walking trails and Ophir.

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Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

12 suggestions
  • What is the road like to Ophir. I would be driving a Toyota sedan via Orange. Is the road dirt or tarred? And how long would the trip be?
    Thanks

    It is a perfectly good road. Most of it is sealed but there is a dirt (good quality) for part of the way. The distance from Orange is 17 km. It will take around 20 minutes.

    Bill Griffith
  • is it still possible to pan for gold at Ophir?
    Are there any designated areas for panning with maps if possible?
    Any help would be appreciated
    Thank you
    Graham

    Very simple answer: there is an exceptionally good Visitor Information Centre in Orange and they will provide you with all the information you need. My memory is that there is panning at Ophir and that the Visitor Information have maps. But I may be wrong.

    Graham Bishop
    • I used to live at Emily Downs on the Ophir Rd. A great area to discover. The granite outcrops just up the road are one of the undiscovered highlights of the area.

      Matt
  • Does anyone please know of the Cantrell family in the Ophir area or nearby? Please, I want to know more about my mother’s side of the family. The name might mean something to someone she knew. Please answer me.

    Brett lindsay
  • I lived at Ophir from 1972 to 1975. The Father’s Day nugget was found on our property in 1975 – just behind our house. Don Peters and Phil Culverson and Russel Peters found it. My name is Glenn Johnston. I now live at Forster, NSW. The house is haunted also a fact not many people know either. I know because I have seen the ghost when I was 15 in 1975. That is the reason my mother sold the 25 acres and mud cottage for a measly $10,500. Don’t know if anyone else has seen the thing since but I did. It was terrifying. I’ll tell you that I’m 57 yrs old now and have never seen anything like it since. Any inquiries ring me 0490131204. bye

    Glenn johnston1@gmail.com
  • I visited Ophir today to see where my mother MarionMcConnell was born and found that her grandfather my great was at rest in the cemetery along with other family members, who had live there since the gold rush of 1851 her father Leslie Lewis McConnell was born at lower Lewis ponds, and his father was Samual McConnell

    Rob Williams
    • I take it that Lewis Ponds named after your LEWIS family. Do you know if these LEWIS’ are related to Richard LEWIS the first Commandant of Bathurst and Superintendent on the Cox Road construction?

      Graeme ROWE
    • Hi Rob Williams,
      I too am a descendant of Samuel McConnell, one of his sons, Andrew William McConnell is your Leslie Lewis’ father and Leslie’s older brother was Theodore Valentine McConnell who is my Great Grandfather on my fathers side of the family.
      Samuel and Agnes had 10 Children, (John; Mary; Samuel Jr; Edward; ANDREW WILLIAM; William; Agnes; Emily; Robert James and Archibald Smith). John, Robert, William and Archibald discovered and named the following mines The Belmore – The Young Australian – Lucas Gully – Nelsons Reef and Murrays Hill around Ophir. John was killed in an accident at the Young Australian mine. Andrew and his wife Elizabeth Jane (nee Owen) had 7 Children (Sarah Elizabeth; Mary Eliza; THEODORE VALENTINE; Agnes Beatrice; Mabel Pearl; LESLIE LEWIS and Bertie Cecil). I hope this can be of some help to you. Kindest regards.

      Lynette Hoskins (nee McConnell)
      • Hi Lynette Hoskins and Rob Williams I am writing in regards to information further about the McConnell family there are two granddaughters (elder still alive ) with further info and correct info of the family tree.

        Nicole Mac
      • hi lynette do you have a contact email there is two granddaughters of Andrew McConnell and Elizabeth McConnell alive and have notice that there father and his siblings are not spoken of any where except the only sibling being Marion McConnell sister of Agnas Sarah and Andrew just wondering where you come into the family tree and why Andrew is never spoken of

        Nicole Mac