Lightning Ridge – 'Home of Black Opal', the most highly prized variety in the trinity. The ‘Ridge’ is unrivalled, nearly all of the world’s Black Opal and the finest come from here. Over the last few decades this Opal producing region has been the largest producer by value and per area.
Originally known as the 'Wallangulla' Opal fields; Legend has it that the fitting title "Lightning Ridge" was derived after a shepherd, his dog, and six hundred sheep were killed during a fierce electrical storm, while sheltering on a low ridge in the area.
Opal was first discovered at Lightning Ridge in the late 1880s, possibly around 1887, though its commercial value was not initially recognised. The first shaft was put down around 1901 or 1902 by Jack Murray, a boundary rider who lived on a nearby property. He was soon joined by six members of a shearing party on their way to Angledool, a large property to the North West.
Sometime later, possibly a few months, a miner from Bathurst named Charlie Nettleton arrived and commenced sinking shafts. Nettleton soon teamed up with Murray and in 1903 they walked to White Cliffs. There they sold the first parcel of gems from the field to E.F.Murphy for £30, not even a 50th of the price that could have been obtained only five years later. The dark nodular Opal was very different to the light Opal seams Murphy was buying for his principal Tully Wollaston of Adelaide. To their credit 'Dark Opal', as this new type was known, would soon take in Manhattan.
The first opal rush occurred in 1905 on the long ridge near 'Wallangulla' Tank. By 1908 a second settlement, Nettleton Flat, had developed three miles to the west of Wallangulla and until World War I, there were two communities of at least 2000 people, mostly men. The Imperial Hotel later known as the Diggers Rest was built in 1909.
Lightning Ridge suffered a decline after WWI, although the ‘New Town’ field continued to develop through the 1920’s. During the depression a government scheme paid miners one shilling per foot to sink shafts.
The 1940s and 50s were fairly quiet. Then a syndicate of graziers sank an artesian bore in the 1960’s and miners began to wash their opal dirt. As productivity increased, the population began to grow again and the 'Ridge' was officially named in 1963.
The population of Lightning Ridge has proven nigh impossible to estimate at times. With production at its peak in the early 1990’s, there were more than 7,000 people in the town. Currently estimates run at 3000 permanent residents, not including numerous transient inhabitants and camp dwellers, however only 1,109 people voted in the local government elections in 2004.
Lightning Ridge receives over 80,000 visitors per year, with numerous good quality motels and several caravan parks to choose from, most people usually stay a couple a days at least. For early risers or night owls the hot mineral spa baths from an artesian bore are fantastic for soothing travel weary bones. There are numerous shops selling opals and souvenirs as well as an art gallery, Amigo’s Castle and the Walkin Mine to discover. The Ridge boasts a huge RSL club, an olympic pool complex, a golf course, pistol club and archery club. Annual events include the Great Goat Race at Easter, the Opal and Gem Expo held in July and the Opal Festival is held in the September-October NSW school holidays.
It is a common misconception that Lightning Ridge is a barren place, but unlike opal fields elsewhere in Australia, the visitor will find trees and shrubs over all the ridges and even in the areas where intensive mining is taking place. The ridges themselves have a layer of ironstone gravel on them permitting miners to travel to their claims in all types of weather.
Mining around the Ridge
There are more than 200 Opal fields in the greater Lightning Ridge region. Opal mining occurs in several seperate areas totalling 2300 square kilometres in which there are about 6000 active claims. Of these 500 to 800 claims are mined regularly and 2000 casually, the other 3000 are residential.
The main Opal field groups are along defined low ridgelines where the opal levels begin to surface. The original Lightning Ridge 'Town' fields are within a 10 km radius of the Post Office. Wyoming, Jag Hill and Mehi lie north, 10, 20, 40 km beyond the township; and Coocoran is 30 km to the West.
The Opal on these fields is typically found as ‘nobbies’ or nodules, their dark appearance is due to carbon (organic matter) and iron oxide trace elements.
The Grawin/Carters and Glengarry/Sheepyards fields 80 km to the SW of Lightning Ridge township produce ‘seam’ Opal similar to the range of light to dark or semi-black Opal found at Mintabie in South Australia.
Across the greater Lightning Ridge region Opal is generally found between 3 to 25m below ground level, in the deeply weathered Early Cretaceous claystone which forms a distinct layer below the overlying sandstone and conglomerate of Tertiary age. The Opal bearing ground is a soft greyish claystone often referred to as 'opal dirt'.
Opal is generally found by underground mining and a typical mining operation involves sinking a vertical shaft and making horizontal drives on the 'levels', to remove prospective opal dirt.
In 'nobby country', opal dirt is brought to the surface by hoist or blower, where it is transported by truck to a puddling site for processing. Methods for processing the opal dirt typically include wet (or sometimes dry) puddling techniques usually by mechanical means. This puddling breaks up the claystone, the fine portion of which is then discarded, leaving rock fragments, opal potch and colour. This is scrutinized, removing further fines and hand sorting to identify coloured nobbies.
Whereas, in 'seam country' (Grawin/Carters and Glengarry/Sheepyards) the Opal is usually recovered at the working face of the mine and can be gouged out of the wall where it is more distinctly visible than most nobbies.
Some open cut mining is also undertaken around Lightning Ridge, however it is restricted to areas where there are significant underground workings, or where subsidence has occurred. Large financial bonds are required of the operators and once complete, open cut mines must be backfilled and revegetated.
Lightning Ridge Street Directory
Agate is a pretty semiprecious stone with coloured bands running through it. It is found in geodes in siliceous volcanic rocks.
Black Prince Drive
After a named stone found with the 'Flamingo' ' Pride of Australia' and 'Cardinal' and the Butterfly in the same claim at the Phone Line field. Edward the Black Prince (1330–1376) was only 16 when he commanded a troop at the battle of Cressy. His shiny black armour was soon splattered with blood (red on black?)
Bill O'Brien's Way
Bill O'Brien was a grazier who was the first representative of the people of Lightning Ridge on the Walgett Shire council.
It is the brilliance of colour that determines a true gem. A dull stone with magnificent pattern cannot compete with an average stone that literally glows!
Named after a stone found at the Phone Line field. Also known as Red Admiral, internationally revered at the time, this amazing gem has a reputation as being the most beautiful stone on earth. The Butterfly was found around 1920 by Jack's son Jimmy Murray, Bill Ethridge, Canada Bill and two other partners. The stones discovery established the new diggings as an extension of the Shallow Nobbies field.
A named stone found by John Molyneux and one of the Sand boys on the Phone Line Field. Cardinal refers to the highest order of authority in the Catholic church - The College of Cardinals - from where the Pope is elected. Cardinals wear rich red robes.
Crystal Opal is transparent with no potch backing. They do not attract the absolute top prices per carat that Black stones may. Smaller, thinner pieces are used for doublets, triplets and inlay work.
The 'Empress of Australia' Opal was found in 1915 at the Phone Line field in Lightning Ridge by Ted Brown and Tom Urwin, in a patch which produced several named stones. First known as 'Kaleidoscope Queen', then 'Tartan Queen', it measured 3 x 2 3/4 x 2 1/4 inches in the rough. The Empress of Australia Opal was cut into a 110 carat flag patterned gem revealing the most colourful of red patches. Later on down at the pub the most colourful black opal from the claim slipped through the fingers of a local admirer, it fell to the floor, breaking into two pieces. Two almost matching stones were cut out of the first piece, each measuring 2 inches long and weighing 20 carats. Ernie Sherman's daughter Bertha designed and wore a beautiful pendant made with one of these stones. The third resultant stone cut from the ‘Empress', measured 3/4 x 1 1/2 inches and weighed 50-60 carats, it was mounted in a gleaming necklet of brilliants.
A 2 carat stone named by Greg Sherman who was astonished at its beauty. Named because it was like a fantastic ball of fire. Found at the shallow 9 Mile c.1968 by Bob Ward.
A big round stone found at the top of the 3 Mile on Lunatic Hill. It was a light crystal with exploding red fire.
Named stone from Phone Line field. The colour of a flamingo's feathers, ranging from bright red to pale pink, contrasted with a black wing, feather and beak.
Fred Reece Way
Fred was the last of the elders of his tribe in this area. A tall, striking man, born in 1889 on 'Bangate' Station and educated by famous writer, Langlo Parker. A skilled carpenter and a real gentleman.
A gem is a perfectly formed stone, free from obvious impurities or inclusions, both rare and beautiful.
Halley's Comet Street
When first found at Lunatic Hill on 3 Mile, this huge nobby looked like a baby's skull. There was a temptation to call it this, but as Halley's Comet was about to appear, it was decided to name it after the comet.
This is the most valuable and rare pattern in precious Opal. It refers to patches of colour in a patten reminiscent of a clown's costume or a checkerboard.
Kaolin is pure white clay formed from decomposed feldspar and used in high grade pottery. The word comes from Chinese meaning "high hill".
Kopi is a form of calcium sometimes found in Opal and in the Opal level.
A magnificent Opal found by a miner named Kalle who came from Lapland.
A type of soft potch, nicknamed matrix by the miners at Lightning Ridge.
Local Aboriginal term for the ridges in this area. These were created by Bhiamie as highways during flood. The word Moorilla, was apparently shortened in the 1940's.
Charlie Nettleton first mined for Opal with Jack Murray at Nobbies in 1902. They found about 4kg of top nobbies and then walked to White Cliffs to try to sell them. The buyers wouldn't touch this new material, so they walked back to the Ridge!
Nobbies are unique in Opal mining. They are individual stones in hard Opal dirt, scattered throughout the mine like currants in a cake. Once you get South and South-West beyond the Coocoran,the opal is found in seams. However in comparison the nobbies have a superior electric kick of Colour.
Onyx is a lack and white banded Agate. It can also refer to a single Colour Agate. Besides precious Opal there are many semi-precious stones found in this area.
Originally proposed as 'Pandora Parade' it was named when a road was graded to the Bore Baths to eliminate the twisted old track to Collarenebri. Named after the 709 carat 'Pandora' stone found at Mehi near Angeldool by Jock McNichol in 1928 and cut from an opalised shoulder blade of a pleisiosaur. In Greek mythology Pandora was the first woman, created as punishment for men(?). She was made most alluring and attractive to men.
Named after the (common) pattern in Opal where tiny spots of colour cover the stone like colourful stars.
Potch is the term for common Opal - Opal without colour.
So named because Precious Opal displays all the colours of the Rainbow. Sunlight is spread out into its spectrum of colours (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet) and diverted to the eye of the observer by water droplets.
Red Admiral Place
Named stone, also known as the Butterfly. Both the shape of the stone and its fine harlequin pattern resemble the spread wings of this distinct species of butterfly. (see Butterfly Avenue).
Red Robin Street
A named stone found by Neville Bell in 1972 at the Shearers Six Mile. The mine became one of the richest mines at the time. Neville bottomed on the Red Robin, but even better stones were found later. it was so named because Neville decided to peg an after seeing Red Robins in 3 or 4 Box trees on the site, during a stroll from McDonald's Six Mile.
Shincracker is solidified Opal dirt. Named by early pioneers after using their heavy sinking picks and causing chips to fly off and strike their shins - often drawing blood.
Hydrated Silica is what makes Opal.
Colour deep within the stone which comes to life in sunlight.
Three Mile Road
The road to the most extensively worked and by far the most productive field in Lightning Ridge. At one time 1000 miners worked there.
Named after the early method of removing dirt from the mine - one person down below loading the bucket, one person above winding it up and tipping it out.
Sources & Image Credits:
BEAUTIFUL OPALS - AUSTRALIAS NATIONAL GEM - SPECIAL 2000 COMMEMORATIVE EDITION, Len Cram, 1999.
Opaline, Photo collection (Agitator)
ridgelightning.com, photo titled "Caravans, Rain and Lightning" by Russell Gawthorpe, 2008.
P.R. Evans Collection & photography ( Red on Black cabochon)
The Lightning Ridge Prospector & Len Cram (Lightning Ridge Street Directory)
The World of Opals, Allan W. Eckert, 1997.
Opal Mining at Lightning Ridge, John McCabe, 1979.