Ross History

Ross was established in the 1860s, during the West Coast Gold Rush, where it became an important centre for miners. At its largest, the town had around 4,000 inhabitants, but the population declined after local goldfields were depleted in the early 1870s.

Quartz was occasionally mined on Mount Greenland, a nearby ridge, but little more gold was found until two miners discovered a large 3.1-kilogram nugget in 1909, which was later named the “Honourable Roddy Nugget”, after Roderick McKenzie, the Minister for Mines at the time.

A branch line railway known as the Ross Branch was extended from Ruatapu to Ross on 1 April 1909, serving as the southern terminus of the line owned by the New Zealand Railways Department. However, a lengthy privately owned bush tramway ran south from the railway station to serve logging interests near Lake Ianthe and a railway extension from Ross through the Haast Pass to connect with the Otago Central Railway was proposed in the early 20th century.

From the 1940s until 9 October 1962, a Vulcan railcar service operated directly from Christchurch to Ross twice a day. A lack of traffic and expensive maintenance costs meant the line was closed beyond Hokitika on 24 November 1980. Much of the old track bed between Ruatapu and Hokitika can be driven as it serves as an access road for local farmers, and a disused truss bridge still stands north of Ross.


Although there is no known history that Maori had ever settled within the Totara and Mikonui Rivers, it was recorded that the local Iwi’s were the ones who showed the European settlers of 1864, where the gold deposits were in the Totara River Valley.

In 1863, a young adventurer by the name of Richard Sherrin did see the remains of Maori Whares on the seaside of the Totara Lagoon, of which the Maori name is Paieri and means ‘to noose or snare’. The abundant wild fowl and fish of these brackish waters probably supplied food to Maori parties on their long journeys down the beaches between Mawhera Pa in the north and Okarito in the south. 


    In 1865 the European settlers arrived and set up diggings in Jones Creek. In a letter to the Provincial Secretary, dated August 21 in 1965, Commissioner Sale wrote of ‘the new field lately opened on a branch of the Totara called the Pokorua’. The same letter refers to the future town of Ross as ‘the Township on the Pokorua’, which then became Georgetown for a short time but was later on to become Rosstown, which was later shortened to ‘Ross’ around 1866.

    Gold was first discovered in the Totara River in 1864 and in Ross in 1865, which was then known as the Totara District. In just one month, the population of Ross went from nil to over 4000 miners. By January 1866, the shallow creek deposits of gold were dwindling and the Ross diggers found there were further gold bearing layers dep underground. The work was too much for individual miners, so companies were formed to sink shafts and to install pumping machinery to deal with water seepage. Mining continued right to the end of the 19th century in varying degrees.

    The Streets of Ross: One only needs to take a stroll around the township, to see the street names, which reflect some of the numerous nationalities of the formative settler of Ross.

      20TH CENTURY

      Gold mining continued in all forms. There were dredges on the Totara and Mikonui Rivers, and also on Donnelly’s Creek. Huge sluice nozzles were being used on the cliffs of the Mont d’or and the Quartz mining on Mount Greenland and Bayley’s Gully sites.

      In 1909, two miners discovered New Zealand’s largest Gold Nugget, ‘The Honourable Roddy’, on the east bank of Jones Creek. A replica is on display at the Ross Information Centre.

      Gold production continued until 1918, when it was recorded that there was a Nil Gold Return.

      The Timber industry was as old and established as the gold mining, consequently John Chapman and David Stuart built a sawmill at Bold Head (just south of Ross) with another mill which was built at Ross in 1922. The Ross mill regularly employed 50 % of the town’s male work force until its closure in the 1970‘s.

      Rail came to Ross in 1909, with timber being one of the dominant freight from Ross. Ross Railway Stations also served as the loading point for Cattle and Sheep from local farms along with stock that was also driven up from South Westland.

      Beef and Sheep farms were established in the Totara Valley, Mikonui and Ross, along with some dairying.

      Lime, from the West Coast Farmers Co-operative Lime Co, of Ross, was also railed out. The Lime Company is situated by Donnelly’s Creek and has produced Lime for the West coast Farming community since 1918. Vulcan Railcars visited Ross twice a day, ferrying visitors and locals and high school students. The Vulcan Railcar service ceased running in 1972 and eventually the Ross Line was closed in 1980. These days, The West Coast Wilderness Cycle Trail crosses the old Totara River Railway Bridge.

      In 1978, the Department of Conservation opened the restored De Bakker Cottage and the Ross Water Race Walkway. They then, in 1990 opened up Grimmond House (the old Bank of New South Wales) as the Ross Information Centre and Museum.

        21ST CENTURY

        Gold mining is today, still a dominant feature on the Ross landscape, with alluviual mining continuing at Donaghue’s and the north side of the Mikonui River.

        Spagnum moss industry also plays an important role in the town’s business entity.

        Sawmilling has scaled down to a small operation, but still supplying timber and firewood.

        Tourism plays a big part of the Ross economy, with visitor numbers growing every year. The opening of the West Coast Wilderness Cycle Trail in October 2016 has bolstered numbers visiting the town and surrounding areas. Along the Cycle Trail are a number of Interpretation Panels that have been placed on sites of Historic relevance to Ross, to give an insight into why and how our township grew.

        In recent years, Community Projects have been undertaken to highlight even more of the history of Ross.

        • A walk along Grimmond Memorial Avenue, past the Oak trees that were replanted in 2014 in acknowledgement of the community’s residents who laid down their lives during the Boer War, World War One and World War Two, including all those who gave service and returned. A War Memorial Tribute seat and plaque are lakeside, dedicated to Robert Hunt Currie of Ross, who was killed at Gallipoli. There is an Oak and plaque further along the Avenue on the left, dedicated to Samuel Mitchell VC of Ross, whose bravery was recognised during the Maori Wars in the North Island of 1864.
        • This leads to the Chinese Gold Miners Memorial Gardens that are currently being established, to acknowledge the Chinese pioneer gold miners who lived and worked in Ross, from 1872 to the early 1900’s.
        • Further along to the foothills of Grimmond Memorial Avenue, there are Heritage Tramping Tracks being created, to add further outdoor opportunities throughout historic mining areas.