History of Lightning Ridge

Robert Moore, the manager of Muggarie Station, known now as Angledool, made the first record of, pretty coloured stones from Lightning Ridge in 1873. A former Ravenswood gold miner, He had picked up the stones on the Nebea Ridges and sent them to Sydney for evaluation, only to be informed they were of no commercial value.

Lightning Ridge main strip

The next reported find was in 1880 when Aboriginals brought topaz to the Parkers, the owners of Bangate Station. Mrs Parker, thinking they were diamonds, sent her brother, Ted Field, and a station hand named Hudson, to investigate the area around Lightning Ridge where she suspected the Aboriginals had found them. They discovered nothing as clear as the Aboriginals’ stones, but found a number of other attractive stones – however, the variety of the stone and its value were not followed up.

It wasn’t until 1887, when a piece of opal was discovered in a gravel pit which is now part of the famous Nine Mile field, that it came to the notice of the Mines Department.

Initial Interest

However, the first interest shown in this opal was when Jack Murray, a boundary rider on Dunumbral Station, found a floater late in 1900 on the eastern side of the ridges while setting a rabbit trap for dog food. It wasn’t until 1901 that he sank the first shaft on Lightning Ridge.

Lightning Ridge – to find a more appropriate name for the home of such a beautiful gem would be quite difficult, as the fields have no equal in the world.

The name, though unofficial, became well entrenched during the latter part of the 19th century, long before the discovery of opal.

Lightning Ridge town overlook

How it was named

It’s not known who originally called it Lightning Ridge, probably boundary riders from surrounding stations. It possibly came about after a terrifying electrical storm one night, when a shepherd, his dog and 600 sheep were killed by lightning whilst sheltering on one of the ridges. Since then the name of Lightning Ridge has flourished. Government departments used it for nearly 100 years before it was officially gazetted on 5 September 1963.

The main street of the present town is named after the now-famous opal ridges. Aboriginal folklore called them Moorillas, hence the name Morilla Street. Aboriginals explain the ridges supernaturally, saying that Byamee, their God and culture hero created them as a highway for his convenience during flood time.

Cut opal

The first building to use the name Lightning Ridge was a small inn, built-in 1884 by T. J. Merry, on the Walgett? Angledool road a few kilometres to the west of the present town. After changing hands several times, it lasted only six years before being pulled down in 1890 by George Kirkpatrick and incorporated into his Exchange Hotel at Angledool.

Current State

Today, after 100 years of mining, Lightning Ridge is a fast-growing town with a great future, producing large amounts of fine quality black opals. It is the only known place on earth where this world-famous type of black opal is found. Yet, in 1903 when Sydney’s gem merchants, shrewd as they were, saw the first black opals, they rejected them outright as a worthless form of matrix, thereby losing a fortune for themselves.

The true story of Lightning Ridge is one of faith, courage, struggle and luck, and of almost contemptuous disbelief and bitter feuds with the graziers of the day, who, in their own hypocritical way, formed the first mining syndicate. After its failure, they did all they could to drive the miners off the field by impounding their horses and poisoning their water. Only intervention by the Government brought about peace during those troublesome times.

Cut opal
Dark opal Rough

Initial Interest

Miners from White Cliffs played a major role in the opening up of Lightning Ridge. One such person was Charlie Nettleton, who was destined to stamp his name upon Australian opal history a former gold miner from Mount Brown. Nettleton had been trying his luck at White Cliffs when he heard of gold on the Queensland border north of Walgett. Following the Darling River, he walked to Walgett during the height of the great 1902 drought before heading north to investigate the gold. On his way through, He camped with the Ryan family, boundary riders at Lightning Ridge for Angledool Station, whose hut was two kilometres west of the present town. It was here that Nettleton saw his first black opal.

In a real sense, the history of Lightning Ridge begins with the Ryan and Murray families, who in their spare time had been mining. Some of the stones which Ryan showed Nettleton had been cut and polished. It is well known that Mrs Murray cut their opal on a large grindstone, then smoothed them down with sandpaper and finished them off with knife polish. These two families were the first miners at Lightning Ridge, and the women were the first to cut our famous black opal.

Murray’s interest in the gem ultimately cost him his job. The station manager believed he could use his spare time better than digging up the property. It was then that Murray took a deeper interest in mining and was first mentioned in the Mines Department’s annual report of 1902.

During this period, the Cantfell brothers, Mick, Tom and Jim, after finishing shearing in the district, joined Murray, who now had Natty Hennessy, Peter Ferguson, and Bob Buckley working beside him.

Lightning Ridges struggling start

In September 1902, Nettleton camped with the Ryans and was shown the strange but beautiful black opal. It is unknown if he met Murray on this occasion or changed his plans regarding the gold after reaching Joe Beckett’s Weetalibah Inn 30 kilometres north of Lightning Ridge. Beckett was the first to buy Lighting Ridge opal from the Murrays and recognize the possibilities of a new field. It wasn’t until he met with Nettleton, an experienced opal miner, that he organised a syndicate to test his theory.

Lightning Ridge Shack
Mine with two people walking

Nettleton started his first shaft for the syndicate on the high country now known as McDonald’s Six Mile on 15 October 1902. It was a duffer, and early in 1903, he moved across to the shallow Nobby, where Murray and the others were getting good stones.

Here, he produced a fine parcel of opal, which was sent by the syndicate to a well-known Sydney dealer, who was anything but impressed. In the words of Bob Bishop, “he said it was far too young, a worthless form of matrix, and offered them £10 for the lot.”
The syndicate, expecting a large cheque, was devastated and, as a result, dissolved. Leaving Nettleton without an income, just his share of the opal.

The syndicate consisted of seven local graziers and business people and included Nettleton and Beckett. The Manager was Ferris of Gerongern Station, now Bairnkine. Armitage, manager of Dunumbral, Mr Langloh Parker, owner of Bangate Station, and his bookkeeper, Frank Doucutt, a storekeeper from Collarenebri. Except for Nettleton, all contributed £25 to the capital of the syndicate, from which Nettleton was paid £5 per week. Up until this point, the small number of miners, though not encouraged, were tolerated.

Influence of Palaeochannels

Tertiary palaeochannels(ancient river channels) have been found on many opal fields, which are considered important factors in opal genesis. They are generally coarse-grained sand bodies with good porosity that could have acted as channels or conduits for water movement. Hence silica movement and opal deposition in adjacent areas. Similarly, faulting or fault zones are associated with opal formation and are therefore considered conduits for silica-rich groundwater.

The digital elevation model (DEM) of Lambina (Fig. 3 below) indicates the possibility of remnant channels trending east to west. Opal occurrences in the area extending from Lambina through to Todmorden Outstation and south to Eeavinna Hill and England Hill occur in ‘breakaway’ country of mesas and eroded plains that cut into the Early Cretaceous Bulldog Shale.

White opal Rough
White Opal Rough

As plotted on the DEM, many known opal occurrences are associated with these mesas (topographic highs, shown in red); the interpreted palaeochannels are shown in white (Fig. 3).

The palaeochannels are interpreted as having originally been topographic lows – stream channels that were later silicified during the Tertiary and now remain as highs caused by a reversal in topography resulting from erosion of the softer surrounding Tertiary and weathered Cretaceous sediments since late Tertiary times.

Lightning Ridge Mine field

Potential Future Sources of Opal

Lambina Exclusion zone map

Digital elevation model of Lambina and other Far North opal diggings. A number of east-west-trending mesas interpreted as remnant palaeochannels are outlined in white.

Opal in northern South Australia is so widespread — several hundred kilometres north of Coober Pedy. Areas such as WINTINNA, ABMINGA and through to Mintabie opal field on EVERARD. There appears to be much potential ranging from England Hill (Townsend and Scott, 1981) in the south. Lambina (Flint, 1980) to the north, Todmorden to the east and Mintabie to the west. This area of at least 10,000km2 includes sporadic occurrences of opal adjacent to mesas and, more importantly, contains remnants of palaeochannels.

Interpretation of remote sensing data will almost certainly assist in further discoveries of opal. As has been shown using DEM pseudocolour images of Coober Pedy, Andamooka, and now Lambina and its surrounds. At Mintabie, Andamooka and Coober Pedy, the DEM images were made after most of the diggings were already known. Still, there are only a sprinkling of known opal occurrences in northern South Australia over a vast area of ‘breakaway’ landscape. Closer-spaced airborne surveys to produce more detailed DEM images in selected areas should assist in this exploration.

Lightning Ridge Opals

Coober Pedy Opals

Boulder Opals

Fossil Opals

Opal Jewellery

Acknowledgements

References

The author thanks the PIRSA Division of Minerals and Energy for assistance with the photographs generated from the Coober Pedy office and the provision of map images from PIRSA Spatial Information Services and Publishing Services.
For further information, contact Jack Townsend (Ph: 08 8297 4799, Email: [email protected])

Barnes, L.C., Townsend, I.J., Robertson, R.S., and Scott, D.C.— 1992
Opal: South Australia’s Gemstone
South Australia Department of Mines and Energy.Handbook, 5.

Brown, G., Townsend, 1.J. and Endor, K.— 1993
Some Far Northern Opal Diggings in South Australia
Australian Gemmologist, 18(8):252-25.

Flint, D.J.— 1980
Lambina Opal Diggings.
South Australia Department of Mines and Energy. Report Book, 80/103.

Hiern, M.N.— 1967
Opal Deposits in Northern South Australia
Mining Review, Adelaide, 122:37-39.

Horton, D.— 2002
Australian Sedimentary Opal — Why Is Australia Unique?
Australian Gemmologist, 21(8):278-294.

Primary Industries and Resources South Australia— 1998
Lambina Native Title Agreement
MESA Journal, 11:28-29.

McCallum, W.S.— 1980
Vesuvius Opal Diggings
South Australia Department of Mines and Energy. Report Book, 80/38.

Townsend, 1.J. and Robertson, R.S.— 1980
Wallatinna Opal Diggings
South Australia Department of Mines and Energy. Report Book, 80/34.

Townsend, I.J. and Scott, D.C.— 1981
Sarda Bluff, Ouldburra Hill, and England Hill Opal Diggings
South Australia Department of Mines and Energy. Report Book, 81/17.

Townsend, I.J.— 1981
Discovery of Early Cretaceous Sediments at Mintabie Opal Field
South Australia Geological Survey. Quarterly Geological Notes, 77:8-15.

Townsend, I.J.— 1990
Mintabie Opal Field: Mining and Geology
South Australia Geological Survey. Quarterly Geological Notes, 117:8-15.