The death of a mine... the birth of a village

Thursday, 2 May, 2013 - 17:22

As you may have noticed we have become slightly obsessed with AP Cartwright's epic book Valley of Gold of late. The passages below tell the fascinating story of the end of Pilgrm's Rest as a mining town and the beginning of its life as an historic village and a tourist hotspot...

“So the end came in June, 1971, when there were only two years to go to Pilgrim’s Rest’s centenary. Everybody on the mine knew the worst had happened long before they were told the news officially. Nevertheless the man who was then chairman of Rand Mines, Mr P.H. Anderson, and a number of directors, made the journey to Pilgrim’s Rest to offer such consolation as they could and to make presentations to some of the veterans.

Virtually every adult member of the community was in the mine recreation hall that evening. It ought to have been a wake and it began that way, but before the night was out it turned into a surprisingly cheerful gathering at which old friends shook hands and men who had worked together for years, slapped one another on the back and said: “I wonder when we’ll meet again?” Essentially it was a party for the elderly and the middle-aged, most of whom had spent part of their lives there.

Mr Anderson said that the function marked the end of mining operations. “But it is not the end of Pilgrim’s Rest – just another milestone in its history,” he added. “In saying farewell to the past we can welcome the future. There may be a bit of a hiatus before the village achieves the bustling activity and prosperity associated with a major tourist centre but that is what is planned.”

Mr ‘Buster’ Fowler, the consulting engineer of the Rand Mines Group who had once been general manager of the mine and lived in Pilgrim’s Rest for twelve years, struck a chord in many hearts when he said that ‘something happened’ to everyone who came over Pilgrim’s Hill and lived in the district for any length of time. The place had a fascination that could not be denied. Everybody loved the district and went on loving it all their lives and that was the only way in which he could account for the fantastic efforts that had been made to keep the mine going.

It was a speech that was cheered until the rafters rang. Virtually everyone present was a Pilgrimite. But in the weeks that followed the last rites began – the dismantling of the plant, the closing down of the mill and the selling off of such battle-scarred material as could be sold for scrap.

Waiting in the wings while all this was going on was Rand Mines Property Limited, the company that now owned the village. Planners from the company soon found out that everyone who had ever been there – mining engineers, accountants, irrigation experts and nature conservationists – had ideas about what should be done with Pilgrim’s Rest. At first their task was to listen patiently. Then thy went to work themselves, lived in the old hotel and looked about them. Soon the magic of the valley gripped them and, tentatively, they began to plan the future of the village, of the old buildings, of the winding roads and of the Pilgrim’s Creek from which the diggers’ gold had come.

At that point in the sotry – the date was June 25th, 1971 – there was a dramatic change in the affairs of Rand Mines and all the companies it controlled. A take-over bid by Thomas Barlow and Sons, one of the industrial giants of South Africa, was successful and, once the necessary formalities had been completed, the two groups were merged to become Barlow Rand Limited. Rand Mines, the oldest mining house in the country, became a subsidiary of the new group for whom it continued to administer the various mining interests.

There were many changes in structure of the large conglomerate of companies that Barlow Rand now controlled. Among those that underwent reorganization was Rand Mines Properties which at the same time had many half-completed plans on its drawing board. Among these, of course, was the plan for Pilgrim's Rest. The new management took a hard look at the overall scheme for the future development of this area and the preservation of the village. There followed a long silence while the planners waited to hear the fate of this particular plan. Finally it was announced to all concerned that, with some modifications, the plan would stand – another reprieve, this time for the village.

The top brass of Barlows had visited Pilgrim’s Rest and studied this acquisition of theirs. It is not every day that a large business finds itself in loco parentis to a country village. But apparently the magic was still in the air that day. They came, they saw and they were conquered. So once again the village has wagged its tail like a friendly dog and won new friends and influenced people. As a result the best brains in regional planning have been at work to assure the future of this lovely countryside. Let us, therefore try to picture Pilgrim’s Rest as it will be in 1980 when all today’ plans may have come to fruition.

The village will still be there, the upper portion of it exactly as it is today except their will have been some refurbishing of the exteriors of the houses with white paint and flower boxes. Further down the main street there will be new houses but they will conform externally to the old-world pattern. The result will be a much bigger, brighter village with perhaps twice as many houses as there are today, but it will still be a village that looks as though it had come into being when Paul Kruger ruled the old Republic and every foot of timber and iron was hauled to the site in wagons.

On the hillside there will be holiday houses, some big, some small. Near the present golf course, which will be extended, there will be a hostelry outwardly conforming to the tradition of the coaching days, inwardly a modern hotel. There will also be a motel to cater for the caravan trade.

Some sections of the old Beta mine will be preserved so that visitors can form an idea of how the gold was won from surrounding hills. There will also be an exhibition of the equipment of the early diggers and you will be able to try your hand at panning river gravel – with a sporting chance of finding a trace of gold. A section of the electric tramway that once carried ore to the central mill will come to life again and there will be tram rides into the hills were guides will point out some of the old workings.

Just off the main street of the village there will be a magnificent swimming bath – the old concrete pool in which generations of Pilgrimites have swum in somewhat more modern dress. Round this will flourish a botanical garden in which there will be many picnic spots.

And then all the other attractions of an unspoiled country place – bridle paths for horsemen, the best trout fishing, mountain climbing, forest walks…”

*  *  *

‘These facts [see this article] had not been widely known but once Rand Mines drew attention to them mining men began raising their hats to the miners of Pilgrim’s Rest. In any other country, particularly had it been in the United States, the village would at once have become a place of great historical importance and attracted thousands of visitors to see the birthplace of the industry that had kept the world supplied with gold. But South Africans are not yet as historically minded. The fact that our mines produce three quarters of the Western World’s gold stocks, and that South Africans have built the largest mining city in the world and sunk the deepest shafts, gets less mention in our history books than Simon van der Stel’s journey to inspect a copper prospect in Namaqualand.

Nevertheless Pilgrim’s Rest is where it all began and the district is now officially recognized as the birthplace of South African gold mining. By the time these words are printed [early 1970s] the central section of the village will have been declared a National Monument. This status means that the little whitewashed houses and the winding road will be preserved in perpetuity and the charm of the village will remain. The Old Royal Hotel has also been declared a National Monument so that too, will survive exactly as it is today.”



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