Mining History

sa-map.jpg1840-1920: Copper
The first metal mine in Australia, Wheal Gawler at Glen Osmond, commenced operations within sight of Adelaide
in 1841.  However it was the mining of copper ores at
Kapunda (1844) and Burra (1845), which aroused widespread interest in metal mining in South Australia
and caused the first major decentralisation from Adelaide.  Cornish miners and their families poured into South Australia to take part in the great copper boom.
They brought with them their mining expertise to help
extract the rich ore that gave South Australia the title of
The Copper Kingdom by virtue of mines of world significance.

By 1850, South Australia was the third largest copper producer in the world and its mines had added financial stability to an almost bankrupt colony.  These mineral deposits had a profound effect on settlement in the new colony.  Land was surveyed for mineral tenements, mining townships and agricultural purposes. Basic road networks were established during this period to cart ore to Port Adelaide for shipment to Wales, and to deliver heavy machinery to the mines.

South Australia’s importance as a copper producer was maintained with further discoveries at Wallaroo in 1859 and Moonta in 1861.  These mines were on large, rich deposits and were worked continuously for more than 60 years.  During the 1860s and 1870s, many smaller mines producing copper, gold, lead and silver were established throughout the Mount Lofty and Flinders Ranges.

Burra Mine, 1857               Wallaroo Mine, c.1890               Iron Prince, 1940               Olympic Dam Mine, 2004

1920-1970: Iron
The second major phase of metal mining which occurred in SA was based on iron whose development coincided with the eclipse of copper.  The major mining development of that period was based on outcrops of iron ore in the Middleback Ranges and iron ore was the principal commodity mined in SA  from 1920-1977.  Mining operations coupled with the development of an integrated steelworks and shipbuilding yards (for a period) supported the industrial city of Whyalla.  Production to date has been from large open cut operations based on about a dozen principal deposits.

1970-Present: Copper, Uranium and Iron
Re-examination of old mining districts in the 1960s, led to the reopening of several old copper mines by the early 1970s, including Burra (1969), Kanmantoo (1970) and the Cattlegrid orebody at Mount Gunson in 1974.  These had all closed due to falling copper prices by 1980.  Uranium exploration was also revived based on the possibility of uranium accumulation in younger sedimentary basins.  This has led to the discovery of several new uranium deposits in palaeochannels which are mined by the in situ leaching method.

The discovery of mineral deposits to the 1960s are attributable to their exposure at the surface.  The likelihood of further major discoveries near the surface was regarded as remote and hence mineral exploration was directed to areas where potential host rocks are concealed by deep weathered profiles, surficial cover or barren blankets of younger sediments.  Such a potential province of potential host rocks is the Gawler Craton which underlies a vast area in the centre of South Australia. Today the State’s mining industry is dominated by the Olympic Dam Mine, which is based on the world’s largest known single concentration of combined copper, uranium, gold and silver mineralisation.  It was discovered by drilling in 1975 below 300m of barren cover rocks.  This single mine now accounts for more than 60% of the value of the South Australia’s mineral resource production which is comparable to the impact of the Moonta-Wallaroo mines on the State’s economy.

Bibliography of South Australian Mining History

The Bibliography of South Australian Mining History is taken from the Bibliography of Australian Mining History (published in 2002 and updated to 2010).

South Australian Mining History Websites

South Australian Mining History Groups