In search of the Quicksilver Mine

Side view of Cinnabar Hut

Anson Cameron

Posted September 04, 2017

On the banks of one of Victoria’s wild rivers, we seek the Quicksilver Mine and the wilder folk who worked it.

The Jamieson River flows west out of the Victorian Alps. Fast, clear water over a tan and amber mosaic of rounded stones that slows at every bend into deep black pools. No one lives along its banks for most of its length and no road runs alongside it. It is one of our few wild rivers, running unseen in a sinuous mountain valley the way rivers once did.

Up near its headwaters, after one of the country’s wildest drives, is one of its best walks; a section of Mitchell’s Bridle Trail once known as the Quicksilver Track. You drive up out of the village of Jamieson along the Licola Road towards Mount Skene. The road is closed by snow in winter and I was once trapped on it by fallen trees after a summer storm, until a toothless butcher emerged from a 1960s Land Rover with a chainsaw, took the top off a stubby, and happily cut me free, telling me: “Mate, never go nowhere without a saw and a sixpack.”

Red bark on a tree

Mitchell Bridle Trail. Photo: Anne Morley

After about 15 minutes from Jamieson the road begins to wind and climb viciously and you look out through the gums over blue pools of distance caught between endless ridges and ranges. If you glance back over your shoulder you can see the rolling chequerboard plains of central Victoria. It’s a glorious view but you have to trust your driver to be able to enjoy it because the shoulder of the gravel road falls to an abyss.

Forty-five minutes of climbing and the forest becomes taller, straighter and darker as it turns to alpine ash. Here you turn left off the Licola Road down the Axe Track, which drops five kilometres to the Jamieson River. Near the bottom is a hairpin bend where you can park your car and from here a walking track leads upriver to the abandoned Quicksilver Mine.

It is an old bridle track that runs about 100 metres above the river, sometimes with a sheer drop to its water. Walking along it, you can reach out and touch thin air and gravity. In summer it is so hot here, life seems unlikely. Except the river, down there, sparkles and murmurs affirmation that life is not only likely but true. This river is just about the sweetest thing that can be done with water.

At one point the track reaches a sharp bend, copying the river below, and you can sit and watch the stream run beside itself in opposite directions. This corner above the bend in the river has a clandestine air as though, never seen by anyone else, it exists for you alone. Time itself is less present in such places.

After an hour’s walk you reach the abandoned mine on Quicksilver Creek, just above the river. Hidden in the tea-tree is Cinnabar Hut, a ramshackle, earth-floored room of corrugated iron with a stone fireplace, its innards covered in charcoal graffiti.    

On the right-hand flank of the gully behind the hut, a horizontal shaft leads into the mountain and you can walk its length bent, musing at the pick-marks made by long-dead men. You wonder about them. What could have made them journey this far from home? To come this far, a man must have had nothing to keep him there.

Bridge reflecting off the water

The Jamieson River. Photo: Anne Morley

Or something to make him leave. I worked in a mine and was part of an expat community where virtually everyone was a scoundrel; on the run from national service or the law or a spouse or a motorbike gang or child-support or a whole home town. And I wonder about the handful of hard-bitten, long-bearded men who worked this remote claim. Perhaps they were wretches and scoundrels, like us. But then, maybe not. Life was bitterly tough for those of no means in 1893 in a place like London or Munich or Melbourne. Why not break rock on the moon?

It was 1893 when Richard O’Brien, a farmer of the Jamieson River, discovered a slaty reef here that contained the valuable chemical element mercury and its sulphide form, cinnabar. It’s commonly known as quicksilver, and thus the Jamieson Quicksilver Mining Co. was formed. But the venture developed slowly because of the extreme inaccessibility of the site. They sank a shaft and set up a waterwheel.

Despite geologists’ advice that the mine would never pay, in 1901 they sold the idea of it to a syndicate in London said to contain a number of Rothschilds willing to pay 100,000 pounds. The owners of The Jamieson Quicksilver Mining Co. were about to become very rich. But the delegate of the mining company, Paddy Perkins, one-time brewer and Queensland parliamentarian, had a seizure and died on the way to the solicitor’s office and the deal fell through. 

The directors of the mine resumed operations, installing a German foreman, one Andrew Kershman, who gave them to understand he’d had experience of quicksilver mines in Europe. Perhaps, listening with his broken English, Kershman mistakenly thought the directors had asked if he had experience of debauchery in the beer halls of Munich. If so, he was right to answer in the affirmative.

He was veteran. A big man frequently derailed by drink, he once came fully rigged out in Prussian uniform, topped with a spiked helmet, to The Junction Hotel in Jamieson and rode his horse through the bar. The hoof marks remained in the linoleum until fire destroyed the pub in 1961.

Flowers on the trail

Flowers on the Mitchell Bridle Trail. Photo: Anne Morley

The mine never made money, although it was nearly sold for profit a number of times. And maybe this is all it ever was; not a viable dig so much as a scam to pull money from Rothschilds and other mythically gilded fellows. A bauble to flash at English investors.

A confidence trick promising everything and delivering nothing. Like a Mayan temple, now lost in the wilderness, its vine-covered artefacts a mystery to contemporary explorers. A crusher to break up the ore. A furnace to roast it and condense the mercury. A dream from the start.

It is a fine place to visit. To sit and listen to the trees nuzzled by soft airs, the Quicksilver Creek with its tinkling water and the Jamieson River with its profounder notes, and the black cockatoos calling. These were sounds known and needed by a thousand generations of Aboriginals and a few generations of whites. And I hope Kershman, this far from drink, when the crusher was shut down at the end of the day, sat listening, knowing peace. Be­cause when you close your eyes in a place like this, you can’t help but be pleased we failed here, and are gone.

A hidden gem

  • The Axe Track drops steeply to the Jamieson River and can be accessed by 4WD vehicles only. The track closes for winter.
  • From the base of Axe Track, Cinnabar Hut is a moderate two-kilometre walk along Mitchell’s Bridle Trail.
  • The mouth of the Quicksilver Mine can be difficult to find. It is about 70 metres from Cinnabar Hut, on the right-hand flank of the gully behind the hut.
  • For details, ask at Mansfield Visitor Information Centre.