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Commonwealth Government Records about the Northern Territory

Early years of mining

In addition to pastoralism, mining was the other activity upon which the South Australian Government pinned its hopes for the development of the Territory.

Gold discoveries

The first mineral discovery was gold. It was found in small quantities in a number of locations in the 1860s, but in 1872 a much larger find was discovered at Pine Creek, about 250 kilometres south of Darwin. The discovery led to an influx of southern settlers, and more significantly, large numbers of Chinese immigrants. Carment and Harlow noted that Chinese miners ultimately outnumbered white miners by seven to one.10 South Australia's Chinese Restriction Act 1868 was primarily intended to limit the numbers of Chinese immigrants to the Territory.

In 1873 the South Australian Government established a Warden's Office to monitor activities on the Pine Creek goldfield. That same year the Mining Act 1873 provided for the allocation of mining leases and divided the Territory into a series of mining districts. The Pine Creek Warden's Office remained until 1921 when its functions were passed to the newly created Department of Lands and Mining. A rail link from Palmerston to Pine Creek was opened in 1889.

In 1897 gold was discovered at Arltunga, 110 kilometres east of Alice Springs. Again a Warden's Office was established to monitor activities on the goldfield. A battery and cyanide plant were established to process the ore. Crushing commenced in February 1898 and continued until 1912 when the works were closed.

Other mineral discoveries

Other minerals were discovered in the Territory during this period. Among them was copper, discovered at Pine Creek in 1872 and then at Daly River, south-west of Darwin in 1882. Mica was found at Harts Range, 215 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs, from 1892. Tin was located at Mount Wells, also near Pine Creek, in 1898, and wolfram was found at Hatches Creek, between Alice Springs and Tennant Creek, in 1892.

In 1902 the Government established smelting works just outside of Palmerston (Darwin), at a place known as 2.5 Mile. One year later the works were relocated to Daly River to assist with the mining of copper, but by 1908 they had closed down.

Despite the discoveries, and despite the Government's high hopes for the industry, there were few mining successes during the South Australian era. Conditions on the goldfields and in the mines were harsh. The distance from settlements, remoteness, the vagaries of the seasons, high prices for goods and services, and fluctuating metal prices all combined to limit the effectiveness of the mining industry. As with the pastoral industry, mining was also plagued by speculators. In his report for 1889 the Government Resident referred to the taking up of mineral licences as a 'mania',11 and other annual reports cite similar difficulties faced by the administration when dealing with persons who acquired licences but never used them, forcing the administration into a time-consuming practice of forfeiting those licences.

While the Government gave considerable encouragement to the industry with the construction of batteries and plants (Jones noted that by 1911 there were 14 batteries and six cyanide plants in the Territory), only two mines were producing anything of value – gold from Pine Creek and tin from Mount Wells. Most mines were worked by individuals rather than large companies. What was lacking was financial assistance to those miners. The Commonwealth was about to inherit what could only be described as an ailing mining industry with a very poor reputation in southern and overseas financial circles.12

Most records relating to mining at this time are held by the Northern Territory Archives Service in Darwin.

Selected Records Relating to Mining
State Records of South Australia
Correspondence and other papers regarding gold mining, 1876–1913 GRS/24
National Archives, Sydney
Contract drawings, Palmerston and Pine Creek railway line, 1885–88 (part of this series is held in Adelaide) D2280
Northern Territory Archives Service
Plans of Northern Territory gold claims, 1873–1920 F906
Plans of gold mining leases, 1874–1915 F907
Register of special surveys and applications for leases, 1881–1910 F897
Book of plans Northern Territory mineral claims, 1881–1918 F908
Book of plans Northern Territory mineral leases, 1881–1917 F909
Copies of gold mining leases, 1882–1938 F490
Register of applications for mineral leases, 1888–1904 NTRS3278
Office copies of mineral leases, 1899–1928 F489
Register of ore returns and statements of ore treated, 1899–1916 F745
Register of gold leases, 1889–1970 NTRS3279
Reports on Northern Territory goldfields, 1903–27 NTRS389
Register of mineral claims, 1904–15 NTRS493
Account sales of ore for Palmerston Government Smelting Works, 1905–08 NTRS400
Warden's registers, Alice Springs, 1906–40 F1086
Correspondence dockets, 1908–09 NTRS2700


Chapter notes | All notes

10 David Carment and Sue Harlow, 'A History of Mining in the Northern Territory', in Donovan and Associates, A Mining History of Australia, Part 1 (Blackwood, 1995), p. 116.

11 Government Resident's Report on the Northern Territory for the Year 1889, p. 7.

12 Timothy G Jones, Pegging the Northern Territory: The History of Mining in the Northern Territory of Australia, 1873–1946, p. 144.


Chapter 1
The Northern Territory of South Australia, 1863-1911