Home' Greymouth Star : March 4th 2017 Contents Saturday AAfternoon
By the mid-1950s uranium was in hot demand to fuel the
developing nuclear weapons and energy programmes in the
United States and the United Kingdom. There was even a booklet
telling people how to make their own Geiger counter, as the rock
looks no different than others to the naked eye.
In the far off Buller Gorge, prospectors Frederick Cassin of
Wellington and Charles Jacobsen of Picton discovered uranium in a
most unscientific way.
It was November 1955, and they had spent a year prospecting
for uranium. The men, both in their 70s, had finished their day with
a few drinks in the Berlins Hotel and, on the drive home, stopped
to relieve themselves at the side of the road next to Batty Creek.
Jacobsen put the Geiger counter on the rock face — and the needle
went off the scale. And so it began.
News of their find made front pages all over New Zealand,
so other prospectors had clues on where to look. Shop windows
attracted customers with displays of uranium-bearing rock; and the
Berlins Hotel reportedly had its busiest afternoon's trade since the
goldrush 90 years earlier.
By November 14 there were two new uranium finds, both close
to Reefton — and a new air of hope and prosperity in Buller.
The men registered for a claim just 25 minutes after someone
filed for an area surrounding theirs. In recognition of their
discovery, in 1956 Cassin and Jacobsen were each awarded £100
under the Atomic Energy Act 1945. In 1958 a further £400 each
was awarded to Charles Jacobsen and the estate of the late Frederick
Cassin in acknowledgement of the first discovery of uranium in
New Zealand, according to the history website Te Ara.
As news broke of this new find, work was about to start
on the big new cement plant at Cape Foulwind, which was
to provide steady employment in Westport for the next half
Yet it was uranium that filled the newspaper columns of
the 1950s. The Greymouth Star broke the news on November
19. Soon, it was reported, the Buller Gorge echoed to the tick of
Two days later news broke of a find in Haast by a Mr P
R Corcoran. This was long before New Zealand’s nuclear-
free days, when the country wanted to be part of the nuclear
On November 24 an editorial denied there was 'uranium
fever', but just one day later the paper announced an aerial
search, and two days later ran a large question and answer story
with everything its readers needed to know about uranium.
Greymouth man Owen Norton was at the Snowflake
ice-cream factory that summer. But his story starts with the
Jaycees, who were having a conference in Hanmer Springs. In
each motel room was a rock of Westport uranium, with a note
that it was compliments of the Westport Jaycees.
They got it from a slip at the roadside. Jokingly, they
told people to hold it up to their left ear and hear it tick. Just
coincidentally, most people wore their watches on their left
Owen returned home to work, and came up with the idea
of uranium ice-cream. It was a browny colour and had hokey-
pokey through it.
For a while, backed by advertising, sales went well.
"It took off for a while," he said. But in time people fell back
on the old favourites — vanilla and hokey-pokey.
Westport retailer Phil Wood has always been interested in
geology and remembers part of that summer of '55.
"I remember visiting some sites, the discovery was quite
Phil did not have his own Geiger counter, but he did have
access to one.
He says he always thought the site of the first discovery
should have been marked with a plaque.
These days, one of his specimens of uranium is on display
at the Canterbury Museum, along with a Geiger counter.
Business was booming in Westport, the Christchurch Press
reported, and there were more cars in the main street than
there had been for years.
The government stumped up hard cash to finance the
hunt. But soon uranium fever turned to real fever. Prospectors
caught measles, influenza and even blood poisoning, Rebecca
Priestly reports in her book Mad on Radium.
The good summer of 1955 faded and the rain arrived. By
the early 1960s, there was already a glut of uranium on the
In May 1956 prospectors employed by Buller Uranium,
a subsidiary of the Nelson-based Lime and Marble, reported
three finds of radioactive boulders and outcrops in the lower
Uranium Valley, a Westport company, found uranium at
the Fox River mouth and inland from Punakaiki in the Paparoa
Range, Te Ara reports.
Buller Uranium cut tracks in the steep Buller Gorge bush,
made clearings for helicopter airdrops and set up to supply four
By 1980 uranium was no longer considered important
for New Zealand. A substantial natural gasfield had been
discovered offshore from Taranaki, and nuclear power stations
had been deleted from the New Zealand power plan in favour
of gas turbines. It was that gas supply which also led to a
substantial slump in coal exports from the West Coast.
After 25 years, no economic deposits of uranium were ever
"It was in scattered places," Phil Wood says. "It wasn't
economic to mine. Not like in Australia."
A new breed of prospectors arrived on the West Coast with great
promise in the 1950s. These prospectors brought Geiger counters
with them and spent weekends tramping inhospitable terrain in Buller.
They were searching for uranium, in a space age era. LAURA MILLS
discovered how a man relieving himself in the bush, kicked off uranium
fever, briefly, on the West Coast.
PICTURE: Blacks Point Museum
Snow and Mrs Clarke, proprietors of the Berlins Hotel during the uranium rush of 1955.
The Pororari River, top and below, 1956-57.
PICTURES: Graham Schaef
The hut the prospectors stayed in up the Pororari River.
The uranium seam is the dark band about 30cm thick on a slope at the high end on the left.
Women gather outside the Berlins Hotel to see Charles Jacobsen demonstrate the effect of his radioactive rock on the Geiger counter.
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