Innovator 'prolonged life of Otago goldfields'

Alexandra Author John McCraw, with his book on mining entrepreneur John Ewing. Photo by Lynda Van...
Alexandra Author John McCraw, with his book on mining entrepreneur John Ewing. Photo by Lynda Van Kempen.
St Bathans Blue Lake owes its origins to a man known as the Gold Baron.

Gold-mining entrepreneur John Ewing is the subject of John McCraw's latest book.

"He was an innovator, a man well ahead of his game," the author said.

Mr McCraw's book, The Gold Baron, was published by Central Stories and launched as part of the Alexandra Museum's 50th anniversary celebrations at the weekend.

"John Ewing was one of the most interesting characters in our goldfields history and his expertise in hydraulic elevation probably prolonged the life of Otago's goldfields quite considerably," Mr McCraw said.

Ewing was a Scotsman who settled at St Bathans and started the Kildare Hill claim, which later formed the Blue Lake.

He started his mining operations in the 1870s and was the first to bring in hydraulic sluicing methods using canvas hoses and then pipes.

"He worked in a methodical way, testing the ground for gold, acquiring land and then sorting out the water he needed."

At one stage, he owned eight mines in Central Otago, including some at Cambrian, Fruitlands and Roxburgh, and employed 100 men, "ruling over them like a feudal baron".

Branching into so many different investments was his downfall, as it was difficult to oversee them all, and in 1895 the bank he borrowed money from collapsed.

Ewing was forced to remortgage the mines and put up equity, but his financial difficulties snowballed and he was declared bankrupt in 1905.

He was involved in several court battles to retain his property and later borrowed government money to invest 10,000 in a new venture, a mine at Roxburgh East.

He was convinced there would be a rich seam of gold and dug down 30m but there was no gold.

"He was an interesting old boy but made several bad errors of judgement," Mr McCraw said.

Shooting a Chinese miner who was stealing gold from him was one such error.

Ewing was sentenced to 18 months jail but appealed and was released early.

The Chinese miner survived the shooting and also served time in jail for the theft.

Mr McCraw worked in Alexandra from 1949 to 1963 as a soil scientist for the Department of Industrial and Scientific Research and that sparked his interest in the area's history.

"I'd be out working in the hills and find old dams or holes in the hillside left by miners and nobody could tell me much about them.

I felt that wasn't very satisfactory, so tried to find out more information and thought one day I'd write a book about the Otago goldfields."

He later decided that task would take a lifetime, but has instead written 11 books, including eight on different elements of Central Otago history.

Researching the books is a labour of love and he is grateful to his helpers, especially historian Joan Stevens, of Alexandra, and Central Stories director Brian Patrick.

Now aged 84 and living in Hamilton, Mr McCraw returns to Alexandra most years to give a public lecture at the museum on a person or incident from the district's past.

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