A Revolution in Opal Mining

Over a 30-year period from the 1960s to the 1990s, the methods used for mining opal at Lightning Ridge changed dramatically. At every stage of mining, from prospecting to processing, machines were developed to do tasks previously done by hand. Some of these machines were invented by miners, others were made elsewhere then modified to meet the unique challenges presented by opal mining at Lightning Ridge. Today we can look back and appreciate the creativity and resourcefulness of the local miners and fabricators who played a part in this revolution.

Mining by Hand

In the first decades of mining at Lightning Ridge, the methods and machinery changed very little. Miners, working in small teams, sank shafts through the sandstone overburden with pick and shovel, using a windlass and bucket to hoist rock to the surface. At the opal level, they would excavate drives (tunnels) out from the bottom of the shaft, looking for traces of common opal (called potch) and with luck, precious opal with play of colour.

The first year at the mine [1961] I worked with a pick and shovel and candles, and I moved approx. 2000 yards of dirt by hand during that time. It was very hard work.

Sandy Randell, 2000

Impacts of New Mining Technologies

As mining operations became mechanised, beginning in the 1960s, more mining fields and mines were established, more opal dirt was mined and processed, and more precious opal was found. This coincided with a period of growing demand and rising prices paid for black opal in Japan and other countries. Hundreds of people moved to the mining fields around Lightning Ridge to try their luck. Many of these new miners had skills needed in making and maintaining machinery, and some were willing to invest time and money into developing new machines to make mining easier and more efficient.

When I first came to Lightning Ridge in 1940, it was virtually a ghost town. The population was around 100: there were no graded streets, reticulated water, or state electricity grids. In dry years water was rationed to four gallons per person per day, and there was very little mining activity. The character of the town changed very little until around 1958, when the event of mechanical means to treat the old tailings and the introductions of hoists, trucks, and air compressors to underground mining initiated the present boom…. The Lightning Ridge we now see exists as a direct result of the introduction of machinery into a worn out mining industry.

John Molyneux, 1986