The town was born during the gold rush period in what was then the Transvaal province during the 1870’s. Payable gold was first discovered at a site 5 km away from where the town was to be located. Alec ‘wheelbarrow’ Patterson decided to leave the crowded diggings site, so he set off with his old wheelbarrow and went in search of alluvial gold in the surrounding hills.
He was in luck as he struck it rich in a small stream now called Pilgrims Creek. He kept the find a secret and worked the site for as long as he could before a man named William Trafford found gold nearby – and the rest is history! Soon people from all over the world flocked to the site and in 1873 the site was officially proclaimed a gold field. About 1500 diggers were working 4000 claims in and around the creek and soon more permanent structures were erected and the town was open for business.
Several large nuggets were found in Pilgrims Rest, such as the Breda nugget which weighed at more than 6 kg. The alluvial gold deposits began to dwindle from 1880 and most diggers moved to other sites in the region making way for mining companies who used machinery to go deeper in search of gold. They soon realised that electricity was needed to handle the workload of crushing the ever-increasing gold ore and a plan was put in place to construct a hydro plant in the Blyde River Canyon. Power was turned on in 1911 and Pilgrims Rest was the second town in South Africa to be provided with electricity at the time.
As time went on, the gold deposits steadily declined, and the gold mining companies began to pull out. The town was fast becoming a ghost town as the mining companies had no use for the land. Finally, it was sold to the local government where it would eventually be declared a national Monument in 1986.
Today the town looks very much the same as it did back in the early days. The old buildings are still up, the Royal Hotel still welcomes guests from all over the world, and the old Church Pub still serves fine South African beer. While the dusty roads and horse-drawn highwaymen of the past are gone, the old charm and the legend of Pilgrims Rest lives on.