Mintaro’s historic character was shaped by two important mining industries in nineteenth century South Australia. In the 1840s and 1850s it became an early staging point for transporting copper from the Burra mines to Port Wakefield, and from the 1860s onwards, it was South Australia’s leading producer of high quality slate.
Copper was discovered at Burra in 1845 and by the end of the decade the Burra Burra Mine was one of the richest copper mines in the world. From the end of 1848, bullock teams carted copper ore from Burra to Port Wakefield and coal, shipped from Wales, on the return journey to the Patent Copper Company’s smelter near the mine. This route, for many years little more than a track between watering holes, was a private road owned by the Company. It became known as the Gulf Road.
Between 1848 and 1851 several villages were established along the Gulf Road to take advantage of the trade generated by the bullock traffic. Among the first of these was the Village of Mintaro which was subdivided into 80 allotments, sections 187 and 316, in about 1849 by Joseph Gilbert, a pioneer pastoralist in the district.
These sections were originally purchased by Henry Gilbert in 1849. They straddled the Patent Copper Company road and were conveniently situated at a stopping place for bullock teams travelling between Burra and Port Wakefield. Burra Street, which was part of the Gulf Road, cut diagonally through section 187. The blocks of land and streets skewed 45° from the regular north-south pattern of the surveyed sections and government roads.
This can be seen in the random pattern of buildings, many of which were built between 1850-1860. The remaining stone buildings, many of them now in ruins, indicate a prosperous period in Mintaro’s history.
By 1852 the Gulf Road was nearly deserted. There was an exodus of Burra mine workers as well as bullock drivers and carriers to the more lucrative Eastern colonies following the discovery of gold in Victoria and New South Wales in 1851. The management of the Burra smelting works imported several shiploads of mules and handlers from Chile and Argentina to overcome the transport problem.
There were also practical considerations as mules could cart the ore in both wet and dry seasons. Between 1853 and 1857 mule teams driven by Spanish-speaking muleteers were a common sight on the Gulf Road.
In 1857 Mintaro experienced a decline when the copper teams were rerouted through Riverton to the new railway terminus at Gawler. This was only relieved with the growth of the slate quarries and closer agricultural settlement by the 1860s.
Mintaro railway station (renamed Merildin in 1918) was built in 1870 when the northern railway line was extended from Roseworthy to Burra. It is situated about 7 kilometres east of the township. Mintaro was well placed to continue as an agricultural service centre despite the closure of the Burra mines in 1877.
The surrounding farming districts of the fertile Gilbert Valley were able to reap the rewards of excellent wheat and wool prices during South Australia’s rural boom of the 1870s and early 1880s.
This wealth was reflected in two large pastoral properties near Mintaro. Both Martindale Hall, built in 1879-80 by Edmund Bowman, and Kadlunga homestead, purchased in 1881 by Sir Samuel Way, the Chief Justice, reflected a way of life akin to that of the English gentry. Mintaro, like rural village counterparts in England, provided these properties with a ready source of local labour.
Mintaro is probably best known as a producer of slate – the highest quality in Australia and of outstanding strength and durability. Mintaro’s slate quarry was first opened in 1854 by Peter Brady. In 1856 he leased it to Thompson Priest, a stone mason, who worked the quarry very successfully, sending to England for Cornish miners. By the early 1880s there were about 50 men employed at the quarries, which have continued to be a major source of employment. The Mintaro quarry is one of the oldest continuously producing quarries in Australia.
As you stroll around the town, you can see slate buildings, chimneys, tanks, wash troughs and paving. They show how widely slate has been used as a construction material and give a special character to Mintaro.