The story of the Yudanamutana mine has its origin many thousands of years ago. The existence of copper in the area had long been known by the local Aborigines of the Northern Flinders Ranges. They knew that these copper deposits had been created as far back as the Dreamtime. Aborigines were still occupying the area when George W. Goyder passed through it in 1857. During that trip he camped opposite some of the blacks' wurleys and 'heard the voices of blacks calling each other, as if in alarm'. They had good reason to be alarmed. However, Goyder did not notice any copper nor was he familiar with the dreamtime legends of the local Aborigines. The deposit could therefore lie undisturbed a little longer, waiting for a later, and different type of people, the white pastoralists, prospectors, investors and miners, to visit the area.
The smelters at the turn of the century.
Among some of the first to arrive in this northern locality were Alfred Frost and Hampton Caroll Gleeson who in 1859, discovered the copper deposit, which led eventually to the establishment of a large mining company. Everyone who visited the site spoke very highly of it. According to Gleeson there was 'an area of about eight square miles, surrounding the Yudanamutana, over which you cannot travel for a distance of one hundred yards without picking up stones of copper ore'.
Others said that there was an immense mass of copper lying on the surface, which could be as much as three hundred tons. Another group of people, which included Henry Alford and Alfred Frost, was also highly impressed with the potential mineralisation and took out many mineral applications, in both joint and individual names. On 21 September 1859 Gleeson, Frost and a few other hopefuls applied for a mineral lease at Yudanamutana. This was approved the next month, but forfeited by them because they had failed to supply a survey plan of the area. A month later they tried again. This time they made certain that a survey plan was included.
By this time though, many other prospectors had also become aware of the area's mineral potential. Coppermania had once more taken its hold and scores of mineral applications were lodged in Adelaide for eighty acre sections in the Northern Flinders Ranges.
On 23 August 1862 work at the Yudanamutana mine was officially started in the presence of several well known local mining identities. With the start of this mine and its early favourable prospects, a renewed and even more intense interest in the area followed. Prospectors, miners and many visitors became such a common sight in the Yudanamutana area that the local Aborigines asked them "going to look for copper?" and started to refer to the mine as "Big one old man Copper'. The whole area was described by them as 'Big one Copper sit down all about'. Prospects certainly looked good during 1862 and applications for mineral leases in that area kept coming in unabated.
During November 1863, Captain Thomas Anthony of the Wheal Blinman wrote to Samuel Higgs of Penzanne that the load was good. At a depth of fifteen fathoms it was six feet wide and contained 76% copper. He also stated that $20,000 worth of copper had been sent to England.
Regardless of its seemingly early success, the Yudanamutana had many problems, large and small. Right from the start it had to face difficulties which it was never really able to solve. Transport, or at times the lack of it, and its extremely high cost when it was available proved to be one of the biggest headaches. The nearest sea port to the mine, and its supply base, was about four hundred kilometres to the south at Port Augusta. The "Tyranny of Distance" certainly applied here.
In June 1863 Robert Archibald Fiveash and many other claim and leaseholders petitioned the Government for financial help to improve the roads north of Port Augusta and provide water for the bullock teams. In another attempt to cut its huge transport costs even further the Yudanamutana Company bought three steam traction engines and shipped them from England to Port Augusta. When the engines finally arrived at the port, they proved to be a miserable failure.
According to the correspondent for the Register of September 1863 it had been a very interesting experiment which had been watched by nearly all the people of the port. At about ten o'clock steam was got up, and the massive but by no means elegant-looking machine got into motion. Where the ground was hard and firm it seemed to answer very well and to travel at a very fair rate; but in some places, where the sand lay deep and loose, it proceeded with great difficulty and on several occasions came to a standstill to the intense delight of a large number of bullock-drivers who surrounded the engine and became quite enthusiastic when it met with any obstacles...
New Year's Day 1864 saw great festivities at the mine. About 120 people had assembled to witness sporting events, including several horse races, in which every Cousin Jack who had one rode. The race track had been set out on a flat piece of land between the mine and Umberatana Station. Captain Terrell officiated as Judge to the satisfaction of all concerned. After the break the company once more advertised in the Adelaide papers that they wanted immediately a number of drays to cart ore from Yudanamutana and Blinman to Port Augusta.
At Port Augusta the Yudanamutana company had also started building its own jetty for the loading and unloading of copper and supplies. As a previous attempt by the Great Northern Mining Company to build a tramway from Port Augusta to the Northern Flinders Ranges had been unsuccessful, the Yudanamutana Company now looked for the South Australian Government to undertake this task. Unfortunately for them, and many others, the Government was both unwilling and unable to start a project of that scale.
The best the Government could do, and did, was to sink wells along the major transport routes in the Northern Flinders Ranges. One of the results of sinking wells was that the Government planned townships near them. Consequently 1863 saw the surveying of Parachilna, Mern Merna, Mount Eyre, Edeowie, Yarrah and Hookina.
Another problem faced by the Yudanamutana company was that of underground water in their mine. What it badly needed was machinery to keep the Yudanamutana clear of water. This had so far been almost impossible "with the appliances at hand". Had this been available it would have been able to dispatch 2,000 tons per month "with the greatest ease in the world".
Still there were more problems. A major one experienced by the Yudanamutana mine, and all other mines in the Northern Flinders Ranges, was that of communication. Most of the mail, small parcels and newspapers for the people in the north came from Adelaide, more than seven hundred kilometres away, often via Melrose or Port Augusta. On 2 July 1862 tenders had been invited for a fortnightly mail.
As Captain Samuel Terrell had more than a hundred men working at the mine, a post office was also badly needed. This was eventually opened in 1863. The postmaster, at this lonely and at that time the most northerly government office, was R.G. Lawrance who had to pay a $200 personal security.
A minor, but annoying problem was the lack of quick law enforcement at the mine when it was needed most. When work had first started, in 1862, the nearest police station, manned by one Corporal and three Constables had been at Mount Serle. The much closer Mount Freeling police station was not opened until 1866. Law enforcement, which included controlling Aborigines, who had killed shepherds and cattle during the 1860s, had been both very expensive and difficult, mainly due to the severe drought experienced at that time.