Sludge posed biggest threat

By Benalla Ensign

By mid-1895 the shareholders finally believed that the McEvoy Company gold mine in Eldorado was on the point of success.

It had been difficult getting to this stage.

The mine had been pushed through earlier alluvial diggings.

As a result, the mine’s horizontal tunnels or drives were prone to sludge inflows from these diggings.

Twenty years before, a miner called Ellis had been drowned by sludge flowing into a drive.

It had taken 11 weeks to find his body. The sludge had carried it 60 metres.

A mining investor inspected the mine in early July. He found the mine safe and well-timbered.

The mine manager, John Stewart, was highly experienced.

In his time as manager, several sludge flows had occurred. They had not been serious.

The mine’s old north-eastern drive collapsed on July 17, 1895. Afterwards, Stewart had arranged for miners to clear the sludge and barricade the collapsed workface.

He had even insisted on a centre prop being installed to reinforce that drive’s roof.

Despite instructions to dig the prop’s foot 45cm into the drive’s floor, James Thompson dug its foot only 10cm into the floor.

On Saturday, July 20, 19 miners were at work in the new north-eastern drive. The shallowest of the mine’s three drives.

At 4am the timbers of the drive’s wall gave way, shattering them and hurling the pieces metres down the drive. A flood of sludge poured in.

Although safe, Joseph Ferguson returned for his workmates. Neck deep in rising sludge, Ferguson led them safely out of the drive.

He was later given the Royal Humane Society’s highest award for bravery in extreme personal danger.

However, the sludge trapped six other miners 367 metres from the nearest shaft.

An inspection immediately showed that no rescue was possible. The six were trapped 61 metres below ground.

One of the men trapped was James Thompson.

Five bodies were recovered and buried in a mass grave at Eldorado cemetery. The funeral was the largest held in the township.

Mourners included 150 other miners.

In 1961, a granite memorial to the six miners was erected in Eldorado cemetery.

At an inquest in late August 1895, a coroner’s jury found that Thompson and his five companions had died of suffocation.

Although the mine manager and mine owners were not at fault, the jury found that there had been a ‘‘great want of judgment used in the working of the mine’’.

The mines inspector recommended that the main drive be extended beyond old alluvial workings and a parallel drive be dug, both of which should connect to an escape shaft.

A week after the inquest, the afternoon shift was in the mine when there was an explosion. All the lights went out. The miners feared another sludge flow.

This time a pocket of methane (firedamp) had exploded, seriously injuring two miners at the workface and burning two others.

The mine and its deep mining ceased operations in 1901.

— John Barry, Coo-ee