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History

Early Gold
'MacMac' Diggings
Alec "Wheelbarrow" Patterson
Pilgrim's Rest Proclaimed

Digging Deeper
ZAR Veldponde
Last Gold
Pilgrim's at Rest
 

The first site in the history of South African archaeology where gold objects were excavated, was Mapungubwe in Limpopo province, dating to 1,000 - 1,300 AD.  Together with Great Zimbabwe and Thulamela, Mapungubwe formed part of a complex trading culture through which the gold of Africa reached Arabia, India and Phoenicia.

The history of the Pilgrim's Rest gold fields dates back to ancient times when unknown miners worked the quartz reefs for gold.  Evidence of their diggings can still be found throughout northern and eastern South Africa and Zimbabwe.
 

A number of insignificant gold deposits were discovered in the northern parts of South Africa between 1840 and 1870.  But the first gold rush in South Africa took place in 1873 when payable gold was discovered on the farm Geelhoutboom near the town of Sabie (5km from Pilgrim's Rest - as the crow flies).  President Burgers, who visited the site, officially named the area the New Caledonian Gold Fields, but he jokingly referred to it as "MacMac" and the name stuck.  Everyone referred to it as the MacMac Diggings.
 

One of the diggers, Alec "Wheelbarrow" Patterson, left the crowded MacMac diggings and went off on his own to explore new territory.  Alec earned the nickname "Wheelbarrow" when he arrived at the MacMac diggings, pushing a wheelbarrow with all his belongings in it.  He got rid of his donkey after it kicked him and he then decided that pushing a wheelbarrow was a less painful and a more technologically advanced mode of transport. He pushed his wheelbarrow all the way from the Cape - a distance of some 1,600 km.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Golden Rules

A claim was 150 x 150 Cape feet (47 x 47 metres) and the boundaries - as defined by the corner pegs - were religiously observed by neighbouring claim owners.

On a proclaimed gold field, no digging was permitted between sunset and sunrise or on Sundays.

 
"Wheelbarrow" Patterson struck it rich in a small stream, later named Pilgrim's Creek.  Alec was a solitary man and did not share his new find with anybody - he quietly kept on panning.  But not for long - another digger, William Trafford, also found gold in the same stream and registered his claim with the Gold Commissioner at MacMac.

The news sparked off the biggest gold rush of the time and on 22 September 1873 Pilgrim's Rest was officially proclaimed a gold field.  In January 1874 the Gold Commissioner, Major MacDonald, moved his office from MacMac to Pilgrim's Rest as some 1,500 diggers were working about 4,000 claims in and around Pilgrim's Creek.  By 1876 most of the tents were replaced with more permanent structures (usually of timber and corrugated iron) and various businessmen were beginning to trade, supplying the diggers with necessary equipment and provisions.

The gold that the early diggers found was alluvial gold - mostly gold dust recovered by washing the gravel from the beds and banks of streams.  But there were nuggets too - lumps of solid gold occasionally found under or wedged against the boulders in the streams. The largest recorded nugget from the Pilgrim's Rest area was the "Breda" nugget, weighing in at 214 ozs. (more than 6kg), but legends of nuggets as large as 25 lbs. (11kg) were told around the campfires.
 

By the 1880's alluvial gold started to dwindle and many diggers moved along to newly discovered gold deposits in Barberton.  With more capital and larger equipment the mining companies started to dig deeper for gold-bearing ore.  By 1895 several small mining companies amalgamated to form the Transvaal Gold Mining Estates (T.G.M.E.).


Electric Tramway transporting ore to the Reduction Works

Copyright Howard Timmins Publishers. From 'Valley of Gold' by AP Cartwright

The ore was transported to the Reduction Works (build in 1897).  As the demand grew for crushing ever-increasing volumes of gold ore, the mine engineers soon realised that what they needed was electricity.

This was generated in small hydro-electric plants until the Belvedere hydro-electric power plant in the Blyde River Canyon was completed in 1911.  This 2,000 Kw power station was, at its time, the largest hydro-electric power station in the Southern hemisphere and Pilgrim's Rest was the second town in South Africa (after Kimberly) to be electrified. 
  

 

 

 

 
 

Pilgrim's Rest and the surrounding district were in the hands of the Boer forces throughout the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).  The mines were shut down and the white T.G.M.E. employees were order to leave.  During the latter, guerilla year of the war the Boer commandos were living largely on such supplies they could buy from the local ethnic tribes, but the tribesmen wanted real money (coins) not gold ingots  - and the Boer's were in desperate need of coins.

The Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) decided to set up a small mint in Pilgrim's Rest and formed a Mint Commission with Mr. Andries Gustav Erlank Pienaar appointed as Head of the Mint. One of the technical team members was Philippus Johannes Kloppers (a schoolmaster) who hand-chiseled the blanks. The team produced between 600 and 986 Veldponde (Field Pounds) in 1902.

PJ Kloppers, an employee of TGME, WG Reid, AGE Pienaar and Dick Graham. Absent: MJ Cooney (Photo: A Marshall)
 

Webmaster's Note

This authentic, but obviously posed  photograph, is rather misleading.  Although the Mint was referred to as the Staatsmunt te Velde (State Mint in the Field), minting was never done outside in the open, but in the abandoned workshops of T.G.M.E. in Pilgrim's Rest.
The Full Story ....

Today the Veldpond is an extremely rare and valuable coin, treasured by collector's throughout the world.  At least half of them were minted from Pilgrim's Rest gold, and they represent T.G.M.E.'s involuntary contribution to the ZAR's campaign funds.
 


Mining continued after the Anglo-Boer War.  The record years of the Pilgrim's Rest mines were 1913 and 1914.  Crushing more than 14,000 tons of ore per month at a grade of between 12 and 13 pennyweights of gold to the ton, the mines produced more than 112,000 ounces of gold per year and profits soared to well over R550,000 per annum.  These figures may seem insignificant today, but 90 years ago they presented a triumph of mining achievement under very difficult conditions.

Gold production declined steadily after 1914 and in 1972 the last operational mine (Beta Mine) had to be closed.  Pilgrim's Rest was on the brink of becoming a ghost town.

But Pilgrim's Rest has always been full of surprises ... Everyone thought that the last gold had been mined, but in 1999 the gold mine re-opened and, having been granted the rights to mine new sites, large development projects were announced in 2005.

There are still gold in them hills ...
 

 

 

 

Most of the land in and around Pilgrim's Rest belonged to T.G.M.E. who was later taken over by Rand Mines.  In 1971 Rand Mines and Thomas Barlow & Sons merged to form a new company, Barlow Rand.  The new company had no use for land without any minerals or property development potential and in 1974 they, auspiciously, sold the village of Pilgrim's Rest to the Transvaal Provincial Administration (now Mpumalanga Provincial Government) to be preserved as a National historic asset.

In 1986 the entire village of Pilgrim's Rest was declared a National Monument, as a living memory of the early gold rush days in South Africa during the late 1800s / early 1900s.

Since then a dedicated team of historians, architects, curators and special interest groups closely monitor all developments and refurbishments in the village to maintain its historic appearance.
 

 

 
Acknowledgements and Further Reading
 

  Valley of Gold by A.P. Cartwright.  Published by Howard Timmins Publishers.  Fourth Edition, 1980. ISBN 0 86978 043 3
 
  Lost Trails of the Transvaal by T.V. Bulpin. Published by Stephan Phillips (Pty) Ltd., 2002. ISBN 0 958 42475 6
 
  Jock of the Bushveld by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick.  Published by  Maskew Miller Longman (Pty) Ltd., 2002. ISBN 0 636 01116X
 
  Golden Memories of Barberton by W.D. Curror - revised and enlarged by Hans Bornman.  Published by African Pioneer Mining (Pty) Ltd., 2002.  ISBN 0-620-29937-1
 
  Various brochures published by the Friends of the Pilgrim's Rest Museum.
 
  Various brochures published by the Mpumalanga Department of Culture, Sport and Recreation.
 
"You are never too late for the Gold Rush!"

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