The story of a 19th century mine and its legacy in the small township of Blinman, South Australia
The Blinman Heritage Mine is located in Blinman in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia, some 500 kilometres north of Adelaide.
The town of Blinman is situated on the Blinman Diapir. The diapir covers an area of approximately 44 square kilometres and consists of a mass of brecciated and crumpled sedimentary rock, believed to be of the Proterozoic Willouran era, which is intruded into younger Sturtian rocks. Within the breccia, there are blocks of varying rock types ranging in size between 1.5 km and one metre. These include siltstone, sandstone, shale and dolomite. Plugs of dolerite also intrude the breccia. Mineralisation is associated with melaphyre, dolerite and dolomite rock types.
The orebody at the Blinman Mine consists of dolomite impregnated with copper minerals. In the oxidised zone, above 90 metres, the main copper minerals were cuprite and malachite. Below this level the ore consisted of the sulfides of chalcopyrite, bornite and chalcocite.
In 1859 Robert ‘Pegleg’ Blinman, a shepherd, discovered an outcrop of copper ore while sitting on a hill. The mining lease taken out in 1861 was made out in the names of Robert Blinman, Alfred Frost, Joe Mole and Henry Alford. In February 1862, Blinman and the other lease holders sold the ‘Wheal Blinman’ (as the lease area was known) to the Yudanamutana Mining Company for about £7000.
Mining commenced in February 1862; by the end of the year five shafts had been sunk into the deposit, with the main shaft reaching 18 metres. Ore was transported to Port Augusta by bullock cart. This was an expensive and wasteful process, so to reduce cartage costs a smelter was erected on site in 1863, which eventually contained four reverberatory furnaces producing high- grade copper ingots.
By 1870 the workings had reached 90 metres, where water was encountered. In 1871 a second-hand steam engine from the Nuccaleena mine roughly 40 kilometres away was erected at a new main shaft to pump water and haul ore. In most mines the discovery of water is seen as a major problem, but it was a positive for Blinman as they now had a reliable source of water for the town and the mine.
The 1870s was the heyday of the Blinman Mine and the population of the town reached 1500, with 200–300 men working in the mine. However, there were many children roaming the streets and surrounding hills getting into mischief. In 1868 the first makeshift school commenced in South Blinman, and the local chapel eventually catered to 95 students.
In 1872 financial difficulties caused the Yudanamutana Mining Company to be reformed as the Blinman Consolidated Copper Company, but this this was unsuccessful and the mine closed in 1874.
During this period, many attempts to economise were taken, some with adverse side effects. Most significant was the prolonged strike by the wood cutters and carters due to a reduction in the price the mine paid for timber. This raised the general discontentment in the town and much lawlessness was reported. Also during this time Captain Thomas Cornelius introduced the tribute system of work in an endeavour to increase production and decrease costs. Initially, payments (wages) were good, too good perhaps, because a modification to the arrangements (reducing wages) resulted in a strike, with many employees leaving for work elsewhere. This closure had a devastating effect on the town as not only miners, but woodcutters, teamsters and even the doctor left town, thus deterring families from making a home in Blinman. Unlike other mining areas, such as Kapunda and Burra, Blinman did not have wheat to sustain a population. The pastoral industry provided some support but not enough to sustain the town.
In 1882 the railway reached Parachilna, 32 kilometres to the west of Blinman, and a new company called the Corporation of South Australian Copper Mines Ltd worked the mine. More machinery was installed from the Prince Alfred Mine, located 120 kilometres south near Hawker. This included a steam engine and crushing and concentrating machinery to treat a stockpile of low-grade ore. Falling copper prices caused closure in 1885 and assets were transferred to the South Australian Mining and Smelting Co Ltd.
The mine reopened in 1888 with about 80 workers employed but the operations were wound up again in 1889. Small syndicates worked the mine on a tribute basis between 1890 and 1899. The population had now dropped to 260 and by 1898 the town was referred to as ‘the historic township’. During this period, most of the machinery was removed to the Clara St Dora Mine; interestingly, in 1899, an adit was dug to enable ore to be trucked to the surface from workings in the upper part of the mine. One can assume there was a relationship between the removal of the machinery and the construction of the adit, but no clear accounts have been found.
By the early 1900s the Tasmanian Copper Company secured the mine for the sum of only £850 and so commenced the final revival of mining operations. An enormous amount of money was spent on improvements including dams, smelters, water supply, poppet heads, boilers, electric light and new roads. All works were completed by 1904 and the mine restarted, employing 46 miners. The workforce grew again that year to employ another 250 men and boys. By 1907 the mine employed more than 400 people and the 190 miners had produced ore to the value of £152 174. Copper prices were higher than in previous years and the enthusiastic mine captain Clarence Moor Henrie was a driving force behind developments.
Things changed abruptly when Captain Henrie died on a trip to the neighbouring Leigh Creek, and the company had other setbacks at its Sliding Rock mine and copper prices fell again. The Blinman Mine closed in 1908.
At this time there were substantial buildings on the site including a smelter, powerhouse, crushing plant, boilers and workshops. During the tough times of the depression, in the 1920s through the 1930s, the mine’s remaining buildings and infrastructure were auctioned off and materials were removed to build other structures in the region. Barriers were erected to stop children playing at the mine, but of course they still did, with tales of children taking dares to walk the ‘jacks’ – the horizontal pillars in the open cut stope.
During its operating life, the mine reached 165 metres via the main shaft to the depth of 145 metres and an inclined shaft for the remaining 20 metres. Four shafts remain today and many of the hand dug stopes are over 60 metres high.
The population of Blinman reduced dramatically after the closure of the mine in 1908, but the town managed to hold on as a service centre for the surrounding pastoral area. The population has hovered around 20 within the town and 70 in the region for many years. The school, which was built in 1883, finally closed in 1980 and about this time the police station also closed. Being an outback town, Blinman does not have a local council for services and support, the townspeople ‘self-govern’ through the Blinman Progress Association with support from the Outback Communities Authority.
Ever a tenacious lot, the townsfolk investigated the development of the mine into a tourist attraction in late 1990s. Funds were raised, grant monies received, and a ten year project commenced to dig two drives to open up the historic 1860s workings. These were an inclined drive from the adit to the original tunnels of the 1860, and a drive to allow viewing into an underground stope.
Grant monies provided the installation of the ‘theatrical light and sound’ component that complements the 70-minute underground tour. The Blinman Heritage Mine Tour is a community not-for-profit initiative of the Blinman Progress Association, and tours run all year. For more information visit heritageblinmanmine.com.au.