Black Opal mining is not an easy game and it isn’t easy to to find. It takes hard work and sometimes many many years to ‘strike it rich’. As the industry progressed and developed so did the Opal mining machinery. Even within Australia the need and design of different types of machinery developed specifically for the area and terrain that the Opal miners were mining in.
When prospecting leases became available the miners would sub contract a driller who would come and test drill the area to try find Opal bearing dirt. These claims were normally 50 x 50 meters and opal miners were allowed to have two claims in their name. Once an area was found the rig would place a one meter hole down (shaft) to 20-30 meters as the entrance to the Opal mine.
From here the miner would dig a tunnel called a ‘drive’ which would be at right angles to the shaft. This would allow the miner to search for the Opal. Tools such as a jack hammer or digger would be used to remove the ‘Opal dirt’ so it could be taken to the surface and sorted. A hoist or blower is used to do this and the Opal dirt is loaded into a truck on the surface. The dry blower saved having to hoist the opal bearing dirt to surface and some could actually blow the dirt up to 30 meters.
The trucks are then unloaded into a machine called a dry agitator. Here the Opal bearing dirt is tumbled and washed for several hours. At the end of the process the remaining ‘tailings’ are sorted through in hope of finding the allusive Opal. In the early days the agitators were dry but when mining became more sophisticated the miners association operated dams and these ponds would be feed by artesian water and this also increased Opal production.
So many of today’s Opal mining methods were introduced in the early years and are still in use today.
Specifically in Lightning Ridge the majority of mines are underground and there is only one large open cut mine which is no longer in use. Opal mining at Lightning Ridge is still the domain of the individual miner, or miners working in small partnerships rather than large companies.
Below are some historic images of the Lighting Ridge Opal Fields in late 1970’s. The pictures show everyday life in the Opal fields in Summer with their mining equipment. Many Opal miners built their own mining equipment as they could not be purchased in those days.
Engineering firms opened across the Australia Opal fields in the early mining days making rigs, opal blowers and also undertaking repairs as it would take weeks to get some spare parts sent from other towns or overseas. Even today engineering firms make many spare parts as they have tooling equipment and it’s cheaper and quicker to make their own opal mining equipment locally.
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