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Lisa J Truttman (Originally published in NZ Legacy, Vol 20 No. 2, 2008) “It is all very well to laugh at the riders of hobby-horses. They seldom start off on an excursion but they succeed in discovering some pleasant resting place for more sober equestrians; and in so far they are entitled to the present thanks of the community. The dreamer of To-day, too, often proves the forerunner, if not the instigator, of the practical man of To-morrow; and so entitles himself to the thanks of “Posterity” – thanks, alas, as rarely bestowed as they are earnestly besought.” Editorial, New Zealander, 24 November 1858 After fifty years of legislation, importation of material and human resources, plans both staid and imaginative, and a considerable outlay of funds – by May 1908 the railheads of the Main Trunk Line from Auckland to Wellington lay only ten miles apart. The last gap was between Makatote and Ohakune, finally closed when the plate-layers on the north and south railheads met near Horopito on 30 July 1908. This was just in time for a great event in New Zealand history that year, the completion of the Main Trunk Line, to coincide with another grand event: the visit of America’s Great White Fleet.
Back in 1858, however, it began with coal. Twenty-two miles south of Auckland, coal was discovered just east of Drury and Opaheke, and the Auckland Provincial Council was faced with the logistics of bringing the coal from the seams to the wharves of Auckland town. Private enterprise urged that a system of “tramways” be instigated, rail lines from Drury to Auckland, possibly incorporating water transport. One councillor, Joseph Middlemas from Papakura, suggested a plan where the first company formed for making a permanent railway from Auckland to the Waikato River would receive a subsidy, but this idea was later withdrawn.
Instead, the Provincial Council petitioned the General Assembly in 1863, after calling for experts to suggest the best route out of Auckland to link with Drury, and received funding under the Auckland and Drury Railway Act of that year. High hopes and great expectations didn’t carry the Provincial Council very far at all, however. Sections at Parnell, Newmarket and Westfield were
never completed, including the initial Parnell Tunnel. The first locomotive engine to arrive for service in Auckland in 1865 was assembled at Newmarket after the parts were paraded up Queen Street in the wake of a paid trumpeter for the occasion, but could only run backwards and forwards on a short length of rails before being put back into storage, alongside another which arrived in 1866. They stayed there until 1871, when Engine No. 1 was sold to the Bay of Islands Coal Company. Engine No. 2 was used during later rail construction work in the early 1870s, until it, too, was sold in June 1874. A correspondent in the Southern Cross newspaper was scathing by September 1867 of the whole concept of a rail project out of Auckland: “… My proposal is that two or three thousand [pounds] should be voted to put the railway out of sight -- shovel in the cuttings, take away the fencing, and have done with the whole affair. If we could manage to bury the commissioners, the engineers, and contractors in some cutting, so much the better.” The idea to build a railway southward wasn’t quite dead. The Papakura Agricultural Association tried an unsuccessful petition to the Auckland Provincial Council to resurrect the project in 1870. But, while the Council was reluctant to singe their fingers again on what seemed an impossible project, things were changing in Wellington. The Fox Ministry had assumed office in 1869, and that ministry’s treasurer was one Julius Vogel.
The Vogel plan
With Vogel and his plan to borrow millions of pounds to finance a breathtaking schedule of road and rail development, came the Railways Act of 1870 which authorised the construction of a line from Auckland to Tuakau. The act standardised the maximum gauge for the railway, and was linked with the Immigration and Public Works Act passed by Parliament a day earlier, so a workforce was almost guaranteed. By the end of that year, Messrs John Brogden & Sons entered into contract negotiations with Vogel for the project. Surveys were carried out by Henry Wrigg, confirming that the original 1860s proposal through Parnell to Newmarket via the Parnell Tunnel couldn’t be improved upon (and so the tunnel was completed in 1872, but replaced by another alongside the original in 1915). A hold-up came when J Runiciman of Mangere disputed whether the planned terminus at Tuakau would be of as much use to nearby settlers as Mercer would be; so Wrigg was instructed to check out this alternate route as well as the one already determined in 1864. Wrigg found that while a terminus at Mercer
was preferred, Runiciman’s suggested route was abandoned in favour of one passing through Pukekohe, Tuakau and Pokeno. By April 1873, the new railway had reached from Newmarket to Mount Smart, and on 24 October an experimental journey was made from Auckland Station through to Onehunga, taking 24 minutes. The line through to Onehunga officially opened 20 December 1873. By March 1874, the rails had reached Otahuhu, when H. Knox of Camp Farm in Otahuhu became the first farmer in his district to send produce to Auckland by rail, consisting of twelve tons of potatoes, costing 3/- 6d per ton. The line reached Mercer by May 1875. Section 12 of the Railways Act 1873 authorised construction of the line southward from Mercer to Ngaruawahia. This work began with the turning of the first sod by the provincial superintendent at Ngaruawahia in January 1874, and was completed with the arrival of the first passenger train from Auckland on 13 August 1877. From this point on, however, progress of the rail line southward was complicated by questions of access to the King Country. Local Maori argued against a line to Te Awamutu (via Hamilton) for example as they felt one to Alexandra would be of more benefit to them for business purposes. However, track-laying on the route to Hamilton began in October 1877, with Frankton reached by December that year.
Access through the King Country and central plateau
By August 1879, the rail line was within two miles of the King Country boundary. This was territory closed to non-Maori, and seemed to many at the time to be an almost insurmountable barrier to a continuous rail link between Auckland and Wellington. The Railway Construction Act of 1878 authorised a preferred line from Te Awamutu to New Plymouth, an attempt to bypass the King Country almost entirely. In 1882 however, Wahanui assumed control of the King Country from Tawhiao, and advised the Native Minister at the time, John Bryce, that he would not oppose preliminary exploration through his territory. Earlier surveys had suggested central routes via the Waikato Valley and Lake Taupo to the southern end of the central plateau; by 1883, three routes were under consideration, including one from Te Awamutu to Marton or Fielding, without either a Hastings or New Plymouth detour. The central route was determined by surveyor John Rochfort (1832-1893) who left Marton in June 1883 and reported completion of his survey
in January 1884, but not without obstruction, including on one occasion having rifles fired over the heads of his team. The decision to construct the line via the central route was made on 9 October 1884, after assurances from Rewi Maniapoto to John Ballance, the new Native Minister, that Maori would not oppose construction of the railway. Te Kuiti was reached by December 1887, and Mokau (Puketutu) by May 1889. The Waiteti Viaduct meant that a foundry was built in Te Kuiti for the steel used in the bridge’s construction, possibly giving Te Kuiti settlement the boost it needed at the time to exist (it was, apparently, simply two stores and a boarding house at the time). The viaduct was completed by the end of 1888.
The line is stalled
The next challenge the rail builders and surveyors faced was the steep descent from the central plateau. Work on the line stalled for over 11 years as Parliamentary commissions considered proposed alternative routes to cope with the gradients, and also appointed blame for cost overruns in the gloomy atmosphere of the Long Depression. Rochfort was discredited in 1892 by one such commission for seriously under-estimating the cost of constructing bridges along the line. He died, alone, at the Star Hotel in Kihikihi, while engaged on a land survey at Mokau, and lies buried at Kihikihi Cemetery, memorialised by a white tablet inscribed in metal letters:
In memory of JOHN ROCHFORT who in 1884 explored for and laid out the Main Trunk Railway between Marton and Te Awamutu. Died 8 March 1893.
Once again, agitation grew for the rail line to be diverted to Taranaki and Stratford. A mass meeting held in Auckland in August 1898 organised by the Trades and Labour Council called for construction of the Taranaki line from the Poorootarao Tunnel. In October that year, however, another mass meeting, this time in Marton, came out firmly in favour of the central route, and it seemed from then on to be a split in opinion between those from the Wellington end who favoured Rochfort’s central line, as opposed to those in Auckland who wanted the Taranaki line (and easier trade with that province). A banner was paraded through the streets at Marton: “The
central route is of colonial importance; the Stratford route is of local importance only.”
The line from the south
The rail line from the south heading north had begun in 1871, with a contract to connect Wellington with Lower Hutt. As with Auckland, there had been no initial desire to link the two largest cities on the North Island behind these initial moves toward local railway construction. The Wellington line was extended to Upper Hutt by February 1876. Chief Engineer to the Government John Carruthers (1836-1914) suggested in 1874 that a line to Wanganui via the Manawatu Gorge may in future connect with a line to Auckland via the western end of that gorge. Carruthers would later be responsible for finding a solution to the problems of a rail line over the Rimutaka Ranges: the Fell Engine system. A line of wooden tramway was laid from Foxton to Palmerston North from 1871, and was converted to railway in 1876. By 1878, the rail line had extended to Marton. In 1877 a select committee was appointed to investigate the suitability of railway construction linking the Wellington-Upper Hutt route with the Foxton-Marton route, and after further discussion and debate, the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company was formed, entering into an agreement with the government in March 1882 to connect the two rail lines. This was done within the following five years, and the company continued to operate the line until the government exercised its option to take over the line in December 1908.
The Raurimu solution, and completion
In 1900, another select committee finally approved the central northern line, after surveys conducted by engineer Robert West Holmes (1856-1936) determined that the best way to continue down a height of 714 feet between stations would be via construction of a complete circle, three horseshoe curves, and two short tunnels: this solution became known as the Raurimu Spiral. (Interestingly, Holmes was one of the surveyors along the earlier alternative western route from Te Awamutu to Taranaki back in the early 1880s.) The line reached Ongarue by August 1901, and Taumarunui by December 1903. By the end of 1906, rails had been laid from the north to Raurimu, and from the south to Tuangarere. The gap between railheads was now only around 52 miles. By 1 May 1908 as has been said, this gap had narrowed to only 10 miles, and was only 3½ miles by the middle of July that year. Bad weather and snow set in, and it seemed that the deadline of the end of July might not be met. But, despite the ballast engine being completed snowed in at Erua on 18 July, work did proceed, and the
platelayers from the north and the south met on 30 July 1908. The Manganui-o-te-Aro viaduct was completed 3 August, and the first train to travel from Wellington to Auckland made its way on 5 August with empty trucks destined for use in Auckland during the fleet week. On 7 August 1908, the Parliamentary Special left Wellington to travel to Auckland and a meeting with the American Great White Fleet due in Auckland’s harbour on 10 August, semi-officially inaugurating the North Island Main Trunk Line (the official opening was 6 November that year.) There have been changes over the years. The only regular passenger train along the line is the Overlander, and this has remained only after considerable public outcry when its demise was threatened this century. But the line, with the story of its construction, and all the events and memories since, remains.
Sources: R. S. Fletcher, Single Track: The Construction of the Main Trunk Railway, 1978 Southern Cross, Evening Post More at: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/main-trunk-line/north-island-main-trunk-line
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