Searching for gold
During the gold rush era, prospectors were always looking for new sources of gold. Gold had been discovered at Kiandra, Nerrigundah, Araluen, and Mt Dromedary. Reef gold was found on the mountain in 1877 and prospectors were soon looking for signs of alluvial gold down the slopes. In 1880 a Canadian, Henry Williams, discovered alluvial gold in shingle on the beach seven kilometres north of Bermagui. The Montreal Gold Rush was on!
Henry Williams and his partner, L Minnewether, registered a claim at Wagonga on September 17, 1880. Soon, the news reached the Sydney newspapers. Miners flocked to the wharves to catch the steamboats heading south to Bermagui. Some came from Greymouth, New Zealand, the only other place in the Southern Hemisphere where gold has been found in beach shingle. Others travelled overland.
The Illawarra Steam Navigation Co. had cargo boats trading between Two Fold Bay (Eden) and Sydney. Their decks were now crammed with miners and their tools bound for the new discovery. They were offloaded into small boats in Horseshoe Bay, Bermagui. After landing, the miners were ferried across the river and then made their way north. When they arrived at Montreal, they registered a claim with the Mining Registrar and Warden, H M Keightley. Then they quickly got to work.
The Montreal Goldfield
As the miners began to work their claims they cut down trees for windlasses, buildings, and fuel for their fires. It is hard to imagine now but the whole area was laid bare with not a blade of grass or a tree left standing. There was a “moonscape” of close together mine shafts. There were mullock heaps and windlasses, as far as the eye could see, right through to the puddling machines working at the lake’s edge.
An Overnight Town
Within three weeks 2000 diggers were on the field. They camped in tents and worked feverishly on their claims. Life was difficult on the goldfield. The work was hard and the families of the miners had to live in rough, unsavoury conditions, endure all weather and help with the work. At first, tents were set up as stores to sell food and tools. These were soon replaced by wooden buildings as the trees were cut down.
By mid-October, there were bakers, butchers, stores, a chemist, blacksmith, undertaker, and police station. In fact, quite a settlement had sprung up and it was much bigger than Bermagui had ever been. Labourers everywhere downed tools and joined the rush. Even the seven families at Bermagui were reduced to two.
A newspaper, the Bermagui Times, was described as a ‘very creditable production, humorous and truthful’. Entertainment was provided by a visiting circus. Three hotels opened for business and, no doubt, many ‘grog’ shops as well. The three hotels were licenced – “The Diggers Retreat” to Peter Engstrom, “The Wallaga Lake Inn” to Alfred Pitfield, and “The Diggers Home” to Frederick Schafer. The last two added billiards to their attractions.
The Township of Montreal
The settlement became known as Montreal by common consent of the miners. It may have been the “nickname” of the discoverer, Williams, who came from Montreal in Canada. The layout for Montreal seems to have been set out, by Warden Keightley, along the ridge near the present day road.
There was a mail receiving office in a weather-board building with a tin roof. Outgoing mail, including gold, had to be sent out through Cobargo. Gold escorts were on hand because bush-rangers were about – Morgan, Clark and possibly Dan and Kate Kelly. Their brother Ned Kelly had already been caught.
The Montreal school
In 1881, applications were made by Inspector Dawson to the Department of Public Instruction, as it was then, for the establishment of a school. He felt that at least 34 children would attend but as it was a goldfield the population was not likely to be permanent. So he recommended that premises be rented instead of erecting a new school building. Deciding whose place to rent and where the school should be caused considerable delay. A school was not opened at Montreal until May 1882 with David Gilpin as the schoolmaster.
The Gold Rush Was Over
The first rush died down quite quickly and by mid-November 1880 the population had dwindled to about 700. The miners had left the beach and had found the main deposit on higher ground. By early 1881 the permanent population was still smaller at 160 and 47 children of school age. Even this was a far greater number than had ever lived at Bermagui. By August 1883 both the Post Office and the school had closed as the gold had petered out and many families had left to find work in the developing timber industry, small farms, and market gardens in Bermagui. Buildings, equipment, and everything removable were auctioned off and relics are still in existence in Bermagui and its surrounding areas.