The first registered opal miner was Jack Murray, a boundary rider, in 1901. Charlie Nettleton, a miner from White Cliffs, saw the potential in the unusual nobbies or nuggets of opal that had dark body tones – black opal. He and Murray walked to White Cliffs to sell the first parcel of stones in 1903. Many of his mates followed them back to the Ridge.
In the 1890s, there were Germans at White Cliffs, who bought opal and sent it home to Idar Oberstein, gem-cutting capital of the world. Gradually they settled in Australia and shared their expertise in cutting and polishing.
Aboriginal people knew of opals from Dreamtime stories, but they did not mine it. Aboriginal people settled permanently in Lightning Ridge in the 1930s, after closure of the Angledool Mission on the Narran River to the north. Others, who had worked on properties in the surrounding area, moved to Lightning Ridge for the opportunity to search for opal. In 2009 many Aboriginal people are second and third generation opal miners.
The topography of the area is ancient. Geologists believe the river beds are now the pebbly ironstone ridges known as ‘morrillas’ in an unwritten Aboriginal dialect. Morilla Street, the main street in Lightning Ridge, was gazetted in 1908. The ironstones that litter the area attract lightning. In the 1870s, on a break in the ridge, a shepherd, the sheep and his dog were struck dead by lightning in a terrible storm.
By 1908 there were two settlements on the diggings when the village of Wallangulla was surveyed equi-distant between them. The name meant ‘hidden fire stick’ (probably a lightning bolt) in a local Aboriginal dialect, had various spellings and no one could pronounce it. ‘Lightning Ridge’ was used by locals as well as government and officially changed in 1963.
The first school, called ‘Opale’ School, opened in 1907 in the Old Town settlement and the second school in 1911 at Nettleton. Indian hawkers set up a shop on the diggings as did a Chinese green grocer, supplied by market gardens on the Narran River at Angledool.
In the new town of Lightning Ridge, the Imperial Hotel opened late 1909 but not even that lured many into the village. Two Punjabis, an uncle and nephew, were the first shopkeepers. Then the rush at the 3-Mile slowed in 1913 and the shearers, the farm workers who mined between seasons, and the prospectors moved on.
From 1910 to the 1960s mining was done by hand-windlasses using ox hide buckets, one man up and one man underground. Some lived primitively and everything was transportable, makeshift and ephemeral. Miners came from everywhere, people hoping to strike it rich. Some did and lost it, others invested wisely and prospered. More often than not, miners just managed to make a living. Independence, fresh air, digging and the thrill of the chase prevailed.
n 1913 – 1914 the State Government called for consolidation of settlements into Lightning Ridge and a new post office, a school and the bush nurse were established.
The community was multicultural from the start. Gold seekers followed rushes around the world and the lure of opal was a common denominator. All comers endured the hard life and shared the promise of great wealth. Prospectors are adventurers and independent but, as with all get-rich-quick dreams, disappointment and hardship are great equalisers. One in a thousand finds good opal.