The tiny hamlet of St Bathans lies tucked in a hollow at the foot of the Dunstan and Hawkdun Ranges, beneath the looming hulk of Mt St Bathans. Since the gold miners moved on, their huge excavations have flooded to form a fantastic lake that daily varies in colour from dazzling blues to milky greens. Round the lake rise cliffs of many colours, heavily sluiced and adding further to the kaleidoscopic nature of the landscape.
Overlooking the scene is a string of Victorian buildings, among them the long, low Vulcan Hotel, sole survivor of 13, and proud that in the 1967 referendum on drinking hours not a single vote was cast in favour of six o’clock closing. All 22 votes were for later hours, a verdict that would have cheered the miners who lie buried in the hamlet’s two cemeteries.
The locality takes its name from the mountain, named by the surveyor John Turnbull Thomson for his mother’s home town of Abbey St Bathans.
The remarkable lake fills an enormous rift about 800 metres long and over 50 metres deep. The lake itself has a depth of over 20 metres. In summer months many come to swim and to water-ski in this unique setting.
Naturally a deep blue in colour, the lake can suddenly turn a milky green when surface waters drain into it. Thereafter it takes a considerable time to regain its former hue.
History: An Unfortunate Fortune
The immense crater that holds Blue Lake is where a 120-metre hill once stood, and which was created by decades of hydraulic elevating to win the golden riches of a very deep drift. The technique was introduced at Gabriels Gully in 1879 by the Thames engineer J.R. Perry, who sank a shaft to the rock bottom and then installed a nozzle that drove gold-bearing spoil to the surface where it was washed through sluice boxes. The method could raise spoil over 21.5 metres in a single lift, and well over 30 metres in a double lift.
John Ewing (1848-1922), a lifelong miner and self-taught engineer, improved on the system at his St Bathans claim, where he could elevate paydirt a full 33 metres in a single lift, and St Bathans was reputed to have the world’s deepest hydraulic elevating claim, of 69 metres in two lifts. In one fabulous year Ewing won no fewer than 3,000 ounces here, a bonanza that was to prove his undoing. Convinced that he had the Midas touch, he acquired a number of large mining properties, so overcommitting himself that when the Colonial Bank collapsed, he too became bankrupt. When another company then tried to jump his St Bathans claim, Ewing succeeded where his lawyers had failed. He appeared in person in the Court of Appeal, there to persuade three of the five judges to reverse the decision of the lower court, so preserving the claim for his creditors.
Work at St Bathans by the Kildare Consolidated Company (founded by Ewing) continued until it began to undermine the settlement’s main street. The Maniototo County Council – of which Ewing had once been chairman – served a writ on the company to stop its operations, and in 1934 mining ceased. The lead remains as rich as ever and awaits only a profitable method of working it. A photograph of the elevating machinery is in the hotel.