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Dry region mining techniques

A Model T Ford became the latest addition to the evolution of the dry blower when the ingenious James Doughty attached a dry blower to his car in 1922. He created a conveyor belt that took dirt up to the motorized dry blower, which separated the gold and took the excess dirt away on the opposite side.

Across the Victorian and New South Wales gold fields, abundant supplies of water meant digging gold from the earth was an arduous, but simple, process. However, in more arid regions of Australia, such as Queensland, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, water was not readily available. During the later gold rushes of the 1880s, alternative techniques to digging and panning for gold had to be found to alleviate this often-crippling shortage.

Water, worth its weight in gold

In some regions, like the newly-opened Western Australia, water was itself sold as a commodity, and was more valuably employed battling disease and dehydration than in mining. Water was expensive as well, and as a result the Royal Gold Commissioners set a reward for the best gold saving device. These two factors proved to be the impetus for many new techniques and machines, the most notable being the dry blower employed in the Western deserts.

Mounted on a wheelbarrow-like stand, the dry blower box used a manually operated blast of air to separate the dry earth from precious pieces of gold. Placed just above hand-operated bellows, a riffle board caught the gold. Set on a framework above the riffle board was a classifier screen, feeding a hopper. The hopper box directed classified fines onto the riffle section. They were cumbersome and heavy contraptions, but could be found in many dry areas of Australia.

A tractor pours dirt into a modern day dry blower.

The dry blower became popular for its ability to not only extract much finer particles of gold, but also for its ability to separate gold from the quartz rock which was characteristic of the Western Australian gold fields. As well, this new machine was able to turn over several tons of dirt in one day, which far outstripped the efficiency of methods which involved dragging newly-dug dirt to the nearest well.

Also used in the many dry gold fields of the west was 'the shaker'. The dry blower is believed to have been an improvement on the shaker, but it still remained in use for some time in the dry conditions. A box similar to the dry blower, the Shaker was built with flexible steel supports which allowed for the dirt to placed in the box and shaken to free the gold.

The shaker was a large mounted box consisting of a number of screens, with a hopper above. Dirt placed in the hopper was shaken out over the screens and classified. A set of riffles was placed below which caught and trapped the gold.

Manual dry digging techniques

Before the advent of these machines however, diggers were forced to try out new manual techniques to battle droughts and dry conditions. In the Palmer diggings in Queensland, meticulous Chinese diggers found a successful method of finding gold during dry conditions. Chinese diggers would dig up the entire bed of some creeks, stacking the dirt up in large piles, waiting for the wet season’s rain to wash out the gold. This method, although seasonal and painstaking, was able to yield large amounts of gold.

In more arid and isolated regions of Australia, such as the Northern Territory, large machinery was required to crush the quartz rock to find the gold beneath. However, due to the isolation of the Territory, many prospectors did not have the capital to undertake such a venture. Lack of water and population meant that some of those who did attempt to find gold in the vast desert of the north perished in the endeavour.

In Teetulpa, South Australia, gold was discovered in the summer of 1884. Men were digging the gold from the surface of dry, drought stricken creek beds using small knives, picking close to the ground, prying their fortunes loose from hard rock. A more efficient method was certainly necessary. It is believed the dry blower was first tested in Teetulpa, before the west had been opened up to settlers and prospectors alike.


By Ben Hoban


Thomas Mark (ed), Prospecting, Tips and Techniques, Express Publication, 1990

Hector Holthouse, River of Gold: The Story of the Palmer River Gold Rush, Angus and Robertson, 1988


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