Historic Ottery Arsenic Mine

Although Glen Innes is famous for its fine blue sapphires, there is a long history of mining for other resources in the area. At nearby Emmaville, there were many tin mines operating last century. Traces of this mining activity are still to be found throughout the district. One particularly interesting historic site is the old Ottery Arsenic Mine which has been made safe for visitors with information boards describing the history and workings of the mine.

The Ottery tin mine was opened in 1882 when a huge tin lode was found by Alexander Ottery. It closed in 1906 but reopened in 1920 when arsenous oxide was produced. Arsenic was refined on site using a furnace, series of condensation chambers and a large flue – remains of which can be seen today (see photo below). This mine was one of the first underground mines in the area – the main shaft extends to a depth of almost 80 metres. While arsenic production ceased in 1936, tin was produced from the mine until 1957. Total production from this mine was 2002 tonnes of white arsenic and 2737 tonnes of tin concentrate.

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The family in front of the brick condensation chambers with the tall brick flue in the far background. There are still arsenic compounds to be seen coating the surface of the brickwork. (Photo: L.Lane 2005). Arsenic was used for a variety of purposes at the time – large quantities were used for the control of prickly pear and it was an important ingredient in many animal health products (sheep dip, drench). Demand for arsenic increased greatly during the First World War and all available production was required for use in the production of munitions, poison gas and germicides. Arsenic is used in much lower quantities now as safer alternatives have been found and Australia imports all of its current requirement. The prickly pear cactus is now successfully controlled by a biological agent and more effective chemicals which are safer and less damaging to the environment are now used to control internal and external parasites in livestock.

Working at the mine involved handling dangerous arsenic compounds and the men took all sorts of precautions to protect themselves – these included rubbing soap onto their body, wearing silk underwear, wearing wooden soled shoes, etc. On the other hand, it was said at the time, that working for a short while at the mine would cure various ailments – contributing to this belief was the fact that arsenic was used in low concentrations in some “tonics”. Artefacts from this time can now be seen at the Emmaville Mining Museum and remains of the processing chambers at the mine can still be seen just a short distance from the village of Emmaville.

After the mine closed, the area was left in a very damaged state with waste dumps polluting surrounding areas, dangerous open mine shafts and high concentrations of arsenic left on the site. Rehabilitation work was carried out by the Department of Mineral Resources (now the NSW DPI) to correct much of the environmental damage and make the site safe for visitors. The remaining workings of the mine have been left as a historic site but are fenced off to prevent visitors accessing areas which are still covered in toxic arsenic.

See the NSW DPI Minfact No.22 Arsenic for more information on arsenic mining in NSW.

If you are in the Glen Innes/Emmaville area, a visit to the historic Ottery Mine is well worth it. Take Tour Drive 11 and do the circuit to Emmaville and back again. You will pass by our mine (visible from the road) about 12km from Glen Innes on the way to Emmaville so keep your eyes open.

Cheers for now from Aussie Sapphire

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