THE hue and cry will die down over the mothballing of the Napier-Gisborne line, so it is timely to look at some of Wairoa’s old rail memories and history.
A reporter for the district’s first newspaper and compiler of the book “Old Wairoa”, Thomas Lambert was probably the first to lobby the political forces for a rail line from Napier to Wairoa as far back as 1896.
Lambert stated that travel to the district was difficult and the future of the town was at stake. The Wairoa bar could be closed for months at a time and the district suffered from isolation.
The first railway line to be built, however, was the Wairoa to Waikokopu line. The first train to travel over it was on July 17, 1923.
The first train with a shipment from the freezing works, of frozen meat for export, was in August 1924. The meat was loaded from the wagons on to lighters at the wharf and ferried out to “home boats”, for shipment on to Great Britain.
From 1929 into the 1930s, the heavy equipment for the Waikaremoana power projects were landed at the Waikokopu wharves and railed into Wairoa, then trucked up to the power schemes.
The cost to build the first line was £353,000 — or in today’s money about $29 million.
The next line to follow was the Napier-Wairoa route which had its share of misfortunes during construction.
The original line was started at Westshore, Napier in 1912. Very little early headway was made on the line because of the advent of WW1.
Rail finally reached Putorino late in 1930 but the great 1931 earthquake damaged the line extensively; the Depression of the 1930s was another blow to progress. 1936 saw the line moving steadily towards Wairoa, and the mighty Mohaka Viaduct rising above the river.
The viaduct’s specifications are staggering. Twelve months were allowed to build it but it was completed in 11. Its height above the river is 97 metres, overall length 270m; 1900 tonnes of steel was used, and at the time of construction it was the fourth highest in the world. Workers were generally paid 2/4pence an hour and rather than strike they approached the Minister of Railways, Hon D.G. Sullivan, directly over height money. He agreed to increase the hourly rate to 2/6pence.
One Wairoa identity, the late Rowley Davis, worked on the project and was later to become a Building Inspector for the County Council.
Contrary to some opinion (and according to NZ Railways Magazine, February 1, 1940), no one was killed or suffered any major injury while working on the massive Mohaka project — which was a remarkable feat.
Rail finally reached Wairoa in 1937 but was somewhat short-lived, as disastrous floods which swept the East Coast wiped out much of the rail’s infrastructure. Late 1938 saw the line fully repaired.
The cost to build the Napier/Wairoa rail line was £2,595,000 — or in today’s money about $250 million.
The official opening of the line on July 1, 1939 was attended by the Minister of Railways, the Minister of Public Works, General Manager of NZ Rail, Wairoa’s Mayor Mr H.L. Harker and many other dignitaries. The function was held at Oslers Tearooms.
Sadly this district no longer has the big, powerful engines rolling through. The familiar clikety-clack of the railcars went long ago. The same fate with the tearooms, goods shed and rail station.
One thing is for certain, Wairoa pays the price for “progress”.
Some 73 years after the opening of the Napier-Wairoa rail line, a civic leader is now reminding us of “our isolated community on the coast”. Identical words were uttered by the late Thomas Lambert some 116 years ago, long before the rail line was completed.