From the 1870s through the early 1900s the Criffel range was alive with gold mining, with much of the activity related to getting essential water to the diggings in the dry alpine environment. 70 years later, efforts to secure water for farming would continue to be a big part of the property’s history.
Named after Criffel, a small Scottish town near the home of surveyor James McKerrow, the Criffel range was farmed under crown licenses from the 1860s. Early pastoralists Robert Wilkin and H.S. Thomson outlined and gained a license for a high country station incorporating the range in 1858.
In 1860, like all Upper Clutha stations, Criffel Station was acquired by Henry Campbell as part of the new Wanaka Station. Sheep musterers employed by early pastoralists enjoyed the stunning views in relative solitude while other parts of Otago where teeming with people in search of their fortune in gold.
By the 1870s, though, lonely musterers were joined in the high country by prospectors from the Cardrona Valley. John Halliday, who was both prospector and musterer, and most-likely employed as the latter on the sheep station, was among them.
1870 – 1900: A Forgotten Chapter in Otago Gold Mining History
It was Halliday and his cousin Alex Beattie that first found gold on the eastern summit slopes of the Criffel range in 1883. Over the next 20 years the gold rush reached its 1350 metre heights. Hardy men battled the extremes of climate and a challenging lack of water.
Mastering the Challenge – A Feat of Engineering
Halliday, not short of energy and determination, set about solving the water problem. He and his friends worked for two years building a water race to bring water from the Luggate creek to the diggings.
With water such a valuable commodity, Halliday refused a fellow miner’s request to purchase some water from the race. Rebuffed and equally as determined, the miner began to build another race beside Halliday’s.
By 1887 two water races – one 24km long, the other 16 – carried water across the hills of the Criffel Range to the highest gold diggings in Otago.
A Bit of Gold Mining Mystery
Halliday’s race cost as much 1500 pounds to build. Quite a lot for a musterer/prospector struggling to access gold in 1887. And, according to historian Andy Brock, a lot when Halliday and 60 other miners only officially produced 1200 ounces of gold in 1888.
Was much of the gold found on the Criffel range sold through a black market that might have financed the amazing water races? Official history may record only a fraction of the true value of gold found on the Criffel range.
Early 1900s: Farming Re-energised & Wanaka Station Broken Up
In the early 1900s a galvanized steel water race was put in with the focus shifting to providing irrigation for farming purposes.
Meanwhile, with the Upper Clutha plagued by rabbits, the huge Wanaka Station was broken up into smaller farms and Criffel Station was re-established.
In 1910 the property was bought by Dr. George Morris of Cromwell for his son George Jr. to farm sheep. In 1918 George Jr. returned from World War 1, drew the neighbouring Lake McKay Station in a ballot, and combined it into the family’s land on Criffel.
1960s: The Bells Take Over & Continue the Search for Water
Hector Bell and his family purchased Criffel Station in 1966 and began work on a dam from the Luggate Creek to provide irrigation and stock water. By 1967 Hector was leading a team of farmers establishing New Zealand’s then largest irrigation scheme providing water to Criffel Station and surrounding farms, irrigating 2,000 acres and costing approximately $16,000.
1990s: Deer Take Over & Criffel is No longer a High Country Sheep Station
Jerry and Mandy Bell purchased Criffel Station in 1993 and converted it into a commercial and stud breeding deer farm. In 1995 they purchased Frenchman’s Creek and combined it with the station. Over the next five years the property was deer fenced, pastures renewed and irrigation schemes updated and extended. Today the Station runs several thousand Eastern European hinds and produces venison and velvet.
There is a strong affinity for sustainability of the land and people for future generations.
The Criffel diggings were back in the hands of the odd musterer and his dog team by the turn of the twentieth century.
A visit to the diggings on top of the Criffel hills reveals holes in dry earth, piles of stones, remnants of hand dug water races and what Andy Brock describes as, “the ghostly remains of a small town of men living on the whisky and smoke”.