Have you ever wondered about the red cross on the hill above Gorge Creek on the highway between Alexandra and Roxburgh?
Those who travel the route regularly may know about the big storm of 1863.
In the Gorge Creek picnic area, there is an obelisk-shaped monument that was erected in 1928 in memory of the pioneer gold miners who perished in the great snow.
Central Otago was in the midst of the gold rush when the disaster hit.
From July to August 1863, the gold fields suffered a floods and snow storms that caused heavy loss of life among the gold miners.
At least 40 died during the July rains and more than 11 in the August snows. One of them was John Stewart.
Above the creek the simple schist slab that has been painted white with a red cross marks his grave.
Deaths on the Old Man Range 1862-1900 by EJ Dwyer describes how in August 1863, Mr Stewart, the former proprietor of a bull-hide ferry on the Clutha River, decided to try his luck goldmining in the Old Man Range.
In the company of his mates, he was getting timber for props from the Waikaia Bush when they were all overtaken by atrocious weather.
Mr Stewart became separated from his party and lost.
His remains were discovered in the Pomahaka Creek during the spring thaw in October.
The recovery operation took 18 people and a police constable, who nearly lost his own life
through exposure, to transport the body and coffin back to Gorge Creek.
He was laid to rest on the hillside of Gorge Creek. Early maps show the nearby graves of at
least four others caught in the great snow.
The weather up to mid-June had been reasonably mild, but by late June the winter snows had arrived, although it is recorded that the snow building up in the high country was less than usual.
Alexandra poet, the late Tod Symons, wrote about the big storms in The Tents of Chamounix (a book of poetry printed and published by Central Otago News in June 1966).
Gorge Creek used to be known as Chamounix Creek. It was the centre of mining in the area, with stores, hotels and grog shanties.
The miners sunk poles in the ground to make a snow-pole track so they could find their way back from the Campbell’s Creek diggings to safety.
‘Twas a long steep tramp from the packers’ camp,
That was known as Chamounix,
But a heavy pack and a bended back
Were nothing new to me…
Heavy rain hit on July 4 and continued for six days, and on July 7 the temperature rose and caused a rapid snow melt.
It affected all the rivers in the area including the Clutha, rising 6 metres (20 feet) in one night.
Typically, gold miners camped near the river banks and with the sudden change in river flows, many were caught unawares and swept to their deaths.
Well, we stayed too late and we met the fate,
Of the greedy who hunger for gold.
But while men are men it will happen again
As it did in those days of old.
Then in mid-July, the snow returned with heavy falls in the high country.
Roads were blocked and areas isolated.
The rain had returned by late July, causing more flooding and loss of life from drowning or exposure.
Blizzards raged from August 13 to 15 and heavy snows swept through inland Otago from the Taieri Plains to the lakes catching the miners unaware.
As they say, the rest is history
[…] And nature was paid for the wealth they made;
Those miners of Campbell’s Creek.
And there’s never a change blows over the range,
But that cry rings back to me,
We’ll have to head back by the Snowpole Track
For the tents of Chamounix!