South of Tenterfield is the New England Tableland, where there are subtle changes in the landscape. The massive granite outcrop known as The Bluff dominates the New England Highway, but fewer granite boulders punctuate the farmland.
There are underground riches on the tableland and fossickers have been coming here for more than 150 years in search of gold, tin and sapphires. Emmaville, 78 km south of Tenterfield, is one small country town with a rich mining history. Tin was discovered in the area in 1872 and a flourishing settlement of 7000 grew around the minefields.
There’s little evidence today of the mining history of the town, except for the fascinating collection of rocks and minerals at the Emmaville Mining Museum. The precious collection once belonged to the local bakers Mr and Mrs Jack Curnow, who bequeathed it to the town with the request that a mining museum be created. Located in the old Foley’s Store building, the museum houses the Curnow collection along with more than 200 photographs recording the lives of the people who mined the tin.
It wasn’t only tin mined in the Emmaville district. The Ottery Mine, just out of town, first opened in 1882 when tin was discovered, but arsenic was mined here from 1920 to 1936.
Arsenic was used in the early 20th century to control prickly pear and then during World War 1 in the production of munitions. The men who worked in the mine adopted safety procedures including wearing silk underwear and wooden soled shoes in an attempt to avoid poisoning, although it was believed that a small amount of exposure was good for curing minor ailments. After the war, demand for arsenic decreased as other safer products came into use and eventually mining ceased. Since closing in 1957, the mine has been abandoned, but it has been made safe for visitors by the NSW Department of Mineral Resources. From the paths, the fenced off underground workings of the mine are visible.
Deposits of crystallised arsenic concentrates on the brickwork of the old refinery glitter in the sunshine, but don’t be tempted to take some home; it’s as toxic now as it was in 1936.