Face-lift for Diggings Site Museum in Pilgrim’s Rest

Frieda Paton

Renovations and new additions have recently been made to the Diggings Site Museum, one of the fascinating historical attractions in Pilgrim’s Rest.

Last month signboards were erected across the site, mainly with quotations from historical sources dating from the heyday of the Goldfields.  The information on these signs really bring the static exhibits to life by drawing in the actual people who came to seek their fortunes on the Goldfields – some 1 500 of them from all over the world.

“Saturday afternoon all hands came down the creek to provision or hear the news, and later on in the day the canteen keepers do a good trade’” wrote EV Corrie in “The promised land” published in 1884. “…some of the grave, sober-looking fellows I had admired the appearance of in the morning make a wonderful merry time of it on Saturday nights.”  One ponders if and how they made it back to their tents up in the hills.

And then riches to make one gasp even at in today’s world. “There are about half a dozen Americans who are doing well,” wrote Jerome Babe, an American digger, in 1875. “One of them Mr. Cameron has been the most fortunate miner in the district, having taken out $30 000 in coarse gold in a few months, one nugget weighing five pounds.”  That’s around R420 000 at today’s exchange rate!

The Diggings Site Museum is just outside the main Pilgrim’s Rest village next to the main road on the way to Graskop. It is an open-air museum illustrating how the alluvial gold diggers of the 1870s to 1880’s lived and how they extracted the gold from the soil.

Further recent work at the Diggings Site Museum includes replacement of the canvas tents, reconstruction of one of the buildings and general maintenance to the site.  More signage; reopening of the watercourse so that the water wheel can work again; reconstruction of a temporary pole and corrugated iron structure; as well as upgrading all the walkways, steps, bridges and handrails; are in the pipeline for the future.

Much what the diggers used was temporary and made from materials that erode rapidly – their homes were canvas tents and much of the furniture and equipment was made from wood and iron. This presents a real challenge for maintaining this open-air museum.  The responsibility falls on Pilgrim’s Rest Museum Services which is part of the Mpumalanga Department of Sports, Culture and Recreation. Friends of Pilgrim’s Rest Museum also contribute and it was this organisation that paid for the new signage.

“Basic maintenance to the site is done in house by the Pilgrim’s Rest Museum, but diminishing resources (human and financial) make this increasingly more challenging,” explained Judith Mason, Principal Museum Human Scientist. “The fact that all the displays are continually exposed to the elements contributes to this challenging scenario.”

Tickets for the guided tour at the Diggings Site Museum, which includes a gold panning demonstration, are available at the Information Centre.  The tours are offered five times a day and tickets cost R30 for adults and R15 for children.

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