02 Jan Lightning Ridge – Discovery of Opal
Lightning Ridge is located in New South Wales, north of the township of Walgett and south of the Queensland border. It is renowned as the largest known deposit of black opal in the world. Black opal is found in much smaller amounts at a number of other localities such as Andamooka and Mintabie, but it is acknowledged that the quantity and quality of the Lightning Ridge black opal is unsurpassed.
Lightning Ridge is a much more agreeable place to live and mine than any of the other opal fields in Australia. It has reasonable rainfall and there are plenty of trees and adequate water. It does, of course, get very hot in summer but is quite bearable at other times of the year. The area was named Lightning Ridge because, in the 1870’s a large flock of sheep coming from Angledool, was struck by lightning with many hundreds being killed. It is not known why this happened but the area is known for ironstone and this may have attracted the lightning.
In the 1870’s opal had been found in Queensland and toward 1889 opal had also been discovered at White Cliffs in New South Wales. This field gathered some momentum in the 1890’s and had attracted buyers such as Tullie Wollaston and E F Murphy as well as others who saw the chance to market the beautiful opal being found there.
It is most likely that opal had been found in the Lightning Ridge area as early as 1887 but no-one realised its value. There is also some dispute about who formally found the first opal at Lightning Ridge. Some say it was Charlie Nettleton and E F Murphy in his book “They Struck Opal” reports that in 1903 Charlie Nettleton came to him at White Cliffs with a parcel of very dark opal with good colour, that he had mined at Lightning Ridge. This opal was considered by buyers in Sydney as too dark to be of commercial value so he had headed off to White Cliffs to see E F Murphy, who was the main opal buyer for Tullie Wollaston, to see if this assessment was true. In 1906 this would have been a slow and arduous journey but he obviously thought the opal did have value. E F Murphy sent samples to Tullie Wollaston who agreed it was valuable and he agreed to buy as much as Charlie Nettleton could find. The Department of Mines confirms that Charlie Nettleton was the first to mine at “The Ridge”.
Frank Leechman, in his book “The Opal Book” advises that the annual reports of the Department of Mines actually state that opal was first reported officially in 1902 and that the first digging was carried out by Jack Murray in 1901, with some small amounts found over the next two years. Apparently a Mrs Ryan showed Charlie Nettleton some stones her children had found and he recognized them as opal floaters. They were not the white stones as found at White Cliffs but were a darker base with some even black but with very nice colour. Charlie then went back to the Ryans place to look for the opal. Jack Murray was already there and had sunk a number of holes in his spare time as he worked as a fencer most of the time.
Apparently , when word got out that Tullie Wollaston was buying any of the black opal found at Lightning Ridge, at least a hundred miners left White Cliffs. They left because of the news of a new field and because things were deteriorating at White Cliffs. They had to travel over 400 miles (640 km) by foot over dry desert-like country, living off the land as they went.This took several weeks and they were lured on by the chance of finding opal. When they arrived they found they were not wanted by the station owners. There were disputes over water and the cutting down of trees on the station property. It is easy to see why the station owners did not welcome the miners. They desecrated extensive areas of a station, digging holes everywhere and never filling them in. They chopped down trees, burnt fires, took the precious water that was to be used for the station stock and I am sure, on more than one occasion stole and slaughtered station animals for food. At this time also the area had not been declared a mining area and the miners did not have any legal rights to disturb the ground. This state of affairs continued for a short time but the area was soon declared a mining area and a more formalised camp was set up.
By 1903 there were over 200 men at Lightning Ridge and this had expanded to 1500 by 1906. They lived in all sorts of shacks and shanties at the foot of Sim’s Hill. The place was called ‘Old Town” They did not stay for long there as in 1907 most moved to the Three Mile Field, discovered by Charlie Nettleton and from there they spread out to neighbouring areas with names such as New Nobby’s, The Four Mile, Angledool, Potts Point, The Pony Fence, The Butterfly and others as opal was found in these areas.
Some years later opal was found about 30 miles from Lightning Ridge at a place called Grawin.