Waipori history

Gold! In December 1861 the cry went up, and the wild tussock country at Waipori in Otago was soon a magnet for gold diggers, shopkeepers, publicans and bullock drivers.

Miners flocking from Dunedin to the new diggings at nearby Lawrence fossicked about along their journey, and on 17 December 1861 gold was found in the upper Waipori Valley along Lammerlaw Creek, a tributary of the Waipori River.  The Waipori rush was on. 

The initial Waipori settlement was in a very poor site, and soon another township was formed on level ground a few kilometres down Lammerlaw Creek where it met the Waipori River.  First known as Waipori Junction, this later became Waipori town.

As the Waipori goldfield developed different means of prospecting were used and many mining techniques were pioneered here — quartz crushing, water-powered dredges, underground mining and paddock dredging.  The largest gold nugget then found in Otago — weighing 13 ounces or 400 grams — was found in the early days of the field. 

Waipori earned a reputation as a tough goldfield.  It had no natural food resources and little timber.  The harsh climate — high rainfall, hot summers and severe winters —drove many miners away.

Waipori’s population rose and fell with the fortunes of the goldfield.  It peaked in the mid-1860s at about 1,000, dropped in the late 1800s, but increased to 7,000 in 1901 during a gold dredge boom.

The year 1865 was the height of the gold rush.  It was famous for a darker event — the murder of innkeeper Richard Atkinson.  A book has been written about this ‘whodunnit’.

Waipori in the late 1800s

The dredging boom was short-lived and people drifted away from Waipori.  There’s little left of the town now, but at its peak Waipori was a bustling community. 

You can read much more about the rise and fall of the Waipori community in this part of our website.

Men from Waipori served in the wars overseas, and stories of how global wars affected this small and remote settlement are told here.

The gold rush ended for good when the town was submerged below Lake Mahinerangi from 1924, after the Waipori River was raised for hydroelectricity generation.

One part of Waipori escaped the floodwaters, thanks to the pioneers’ foresight in locating the cemetery on a hill above the town.