The following is a summary of an article in the the newspaper “The Worker” of 1901 relating to the state of the opal industry in that year.
The Opal Industry
In 1901,an employee of “The Worker” newspaper carried out an interview with a Mr K L Lindsay of Windorah regarding the opal industry at that time in Western Queensland.
The opal belt starts around White Cliffs and extends westerly through Duck Creek, Toompine, Eromanga, Kyabra, Jundah, Opalton, and Fermoy over an area of about 200 miles.
It was estimated that in 1901 there were about 1,000 men employed in the opal industry. There are fewer men working the mines in good times , but in drier times, when station work is hard to get, men return to opal mining. In these times they have to work under extreme conditions with little water and food.
“A man starts out with say 6 months tucker, among the hills , looking for opal. He has to combat not only with hostile nature, but also with hostile squatters. A squatter would just as soon see a bank inspector on his run as an opal miner.”
Quite often the miner will set up camp at a likely spot and commence looking for opal only to find, in a couple of days, that his horses have disappeared. He will then have to trek about 60 miles or so to the Council Pound as the squatter has run them in.. The Squatters have also fenced off water holes, refusing to let the miners have access to water and have even refused to sell them meat . Such is the hatred of the squatters to the miners. This is apparently exactly what happened at Duck Creek in 1901.
In the area the opal is found, around the water-less hills, the miners have to dig to about 50 foot depth.
A peculiar geological formation called “band-stone” denotes when the bottom is struck. The dip is oblique and undulatory. In the hollows the best opal is found. The prospector may be finds a bit of opal on the ground and sets off to look for the band. The indicators are surface opal which is weather-worn opal that has broken away at the surface and been weathered by the sun and wind. The miner then digs his shaft until he strikes the sandstone band which can contain opal.
Pure opal can be found encased in sandstone and this is the best. This is often found in “pipes”. A matrix opal is also found where the opal is interspersed with the sandstone or other stone.
Boulder Opal is also found here. It is found as thin layers of varying width in boulders of a form of ironstone. It is often only a thin band but can be very firey and of great value if the ironstone backing is hard but is less valuable if the backing is soft.
“The bushmen often jokingly refer to the origin of opal as ” a lump of lava chucked out in a thunderstorm and struck by lightning”.
The opal prospectors are a special breed of men. They get no support from the Government but have to strive in all sorts of extreme conditions, yet they do this willingly rather than work for a boss.”
The newspaper “The Worker”, obviously run by the unions, and was, in 1901 calling on the Government to introduce the same conditions for opal miners as was given to the gold miners, evidently with little success. The gold industry was worked by bigger companies whereas opal mining was mainly an individual based industry with little relevance to the Government.
Another problem facing the opal miner is getting a true valuation on his opal.
If gold or silver is found there is a reliable value put on it. With opal it is very hard to value it as there are so many variables. Only an expert buyer can do this and often the miner is exploited by the buyers who notoriously undervalue the gem and then make a killing later. These buyers know the miner is desperate to sell as he needs the money to stake his stay out in the bush. That is he has to buy stores etc for another 3 months or so to continue prospecting.
The buyers use all sorts of tricks to ensure low estimates of value. For example if a miner trims the opal pipes to show they are not sand ridden, the buyer offers a lower value. If the miner shows the pipes encased in sand the buyer argues they may be sand infected and offers a lower price. As there are only a relatively few buyers there is little that the miner can do and if one buyer offers a price there is no way any other buyer will offer a better one.
The Worker newspaper suggests the Government should assist the miners by establishing pricing controls for opals in the same manner as they have for other products such as butter fruit and wool.
End of article.
Duck Creek 1903
” The Duck Creek Opal Field is in the Paroo mineral district, and lies about 40 miles north of Yowah. It is most accessible from Eulo by road, a distance of about 76 miles. It is situated on a low ridge, separating those waters which drain into Yowah Creek and thence in to the Paroo River
Some extensive mining for opal has been done in this area and the prominent features consist of the “New Field” and the “Old Field”. There are in addition a number of surrounding camps and localities where mining is carried out for which the main camp of Duck Creek forms a centre. The New Field is not extensively worked.
The shafts have an average depth of 14 feet and pass through soft pink sandstone into hard white or grey clay. The hard ferruginous band or casing at the junction varies from a turn up to several inches in thickness and the underlying clay has become hard in many places by partial or complete opalisations in its mass it being then known by the miners as “flint band”.
Precious opal is found in small clean, pencil like pieces or pipes near the base of the sandstone, in the band or casing or in the clay. The junction of the sandstone and clay is not regular, but frequently takes dips or bends as though the overlying portion was laid on an uneven surface.
Colourless or common forms of opal form the largest proportion obtained, and with this, although the mode of occurrence is the same, the forms are usually much larger and more massive.
The methods of mining are similar to those previously described only the opal bearing portion of the formation is left on the roof instead of the floor and broken down for further examination.
After the shafts are sunk, miners put in drives or chambers by removing the clay for a sufficient depth to enable them to work in a crouching position, an operation known as “keyouting”. The band on the roof is later broken out for examination.
It is the oldest portion of the field whence a large quantity and some of the finest opal was obtained. Though little workable ground is left, splendid opal is found here, and a good deal is found here by turning over and searching what is locally called noodling (mullock).
A number of men are now making a good living at this occupation, which is indulged in by children and women of the opal camps, who wash and class and dispatch to well known Adelaide buyers.
Goodmans Flat is located about two and a half miles north west of Duck Creek. A number of shafts have been sunk here through a layer of sandstone beneath which is a white sinter like material, probably a sandy clay, hardened by partial opalisation. The precious opal was partly obtained from boulders at the base of the sandstone and partly from the underlying rock (cement), but the total production has been limited to a few stones.
One mile workings, east of Duck Creek old field, consists of several shafts from 15 to 40 feet deep, from which about 200 pounds worth of opal is said to have been obtained.
The field which is receiving most attention from the miners is Sheep Station Creek. These workings are at the head of Sheep Station Creek four miles from the south west of Duck Creek. The credit of discovering opal in this locality is given to a civilised black named Peter Dixon, who has been prospecting in this district for a considerable time.
At that portion of the workings where operations are in progress the shafts passed through 8 feet of pink sandstone. There was then a bed of clay 3 feet in thickness, another layer of sandstone 4 feet in thickness and beneath it another clay bed. Opal was found in the band at the base of the upper layer of sandstone, in the clay and in the second bed of sandstone. Boulders occur in both beds of sandstone and when in the lower one are called “floaters”. They can be seen weathering out on the surface.
The workings in which most of the valuable gems are being procured are 190 yards to the south west, and the value I would say amongst the men is 2,000 pounds. Some are of fine quality and await buyers who usually come from Melbourne and Adelaide. As the miners are doing well, more are coming daily, but it is useless in coming to the field unless you have a few pounds.”