New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s
Case study—the roads and tracks of 1885 Taranaki
Case study—the roads and tracks of 1885 Taranaki
For a case study we turn to Taranaki, the province most heavily dependent on horses and roads. Figure 14.3 gives an overview of the place of roads in the province's economy. Taranaki's exports were largely coastal. Most went north through the ports of Waitara and New Plymouth, some south through Patea. Although the railway linked these three ports, much export cargo was moved by road. Much settled country lay well away from the railway and was linked to it by coaches and carriers' wagons and drays. The bush frontier was serviced by pack horses moving along bush tracks. By the 1880s the roads in the original New Plymouth settlement along the province's north coast had been developed to a level high enough to draw favourable comments from visitors. J.D. Wickham, visiting Taranaki as a travelling correspondent for the Auckland Weekly News, described the North Taranaki roads thus:
There is a metalled road to every farmer's front gate, and such roads! The Taranakis are Roman in their ideas of roads. Their steam stonebreakers are constantly at work. In some parts the roads are made with a gravelly cement that sets and binds as hard as concrete, and becomes as smooth as though it had been rolled with a steam roller.17
Frank Lawrie, another travelling correspondent for the Auckland Weekly News, arrived by coastal steamer off Waitara at 10 a.m. on 3 April 1883, in circumstances which were to give him a taste of the fine quality of the North Taranaki roads.
Only on a good quality road could Grimley have thus driven Lawrie the 14 miles in 50 minutes.
But there were few good roads in Taranaki outside the old New Plymouth settlement. The Mountain Road leading south through Inglewood and Stratford to Hawera had a bad name down through the years. Thus the Hawera Star of 10 July 1885 reported that
Great complaints are made as to the state of the mountain road, which between Ketemarae and Eltham and Ngaire and Stratford is well-nigh impassable. Far as the eye can reach there is nothing but one sea of slush and mud, some of it so bad that a horse can hardly get through it, and in parts the road is even dangerous.
Why, when the railway ran beside it to take the heavy loads, was the Mountain Road in such a bad state? Partly it was because, as with roads in all bush districts, trees were sheltering long stretches from the drying effects of wind and sun. But the Mountain Road was also being cut to pieces by the trampling of the pounding hooves of a constant flow of cattle moving from the grazing districts of South Taranaki to Waitara for shipment to the Auckland market. South Taranaki had some of the finest grazing country in the colony and its rural economy was still largely devoted to raising cattle, sheep and horses for the Auckland market. But it cost these settlers £2 10s a head to get their cattle to Auckland where they competed against Waikato cattle brought there at a cost of only 10s a head.19 With marginal profits, the South Taranaki farmers found the railway charges uneconomic and resorted to droving. One settler with 1,100 fat sheep to send away in 1885 found that it would cost £32 17s to rail them from Normanby to Waitara. So he had them driven through at a cost of £7 17s (drover £2 2s; hotel expenses £4 5s; horse and trap £1 10s).20 In July 1885 a deputation of settlers took the matter up with the railway management. They found from Cameron, the Waitara harbour master, that in the 30 months from January 1883 to June 1885 12,195 cattle, 77,514 sheep and 1,738 horses had been exported from the port. They produced the following figures for the period 1 April to 17 July 1885 to show the amount of business the railway was losing:21
|Railed to Waitara||9,659||334||31|
|Shipped from Waitara||17,699||1,973||108|
They estimated that over this period a further 500 cattle and 2,000 sheep had passed through the Waitara works and been exported as dressed meat, and most of these would have been driven to Waitara.
The roads south from Hawera were also taking a drubbing from the driven hooves. A small flow of livestock through the port of Patea was being augmented as Wellington's Gear Meat Company began buying in the district.22 More important was a flow of cattle south out of the province. Thus the Hawera Star of 9 August 1885 reported that ‘no less than 800 head of store cattle were driven from this district to the east coast last week’. Meanwhile store sheep were being imported from the east coast into South Taranaki. The July 1885 settler deputation told the railway management that since the last shearing (say from November 1884) from 30,000 to 40,000 store sheep had been brought in from Hawke's Bay.23 They were driven through the Manawatu Gorge to Feilding, and brought by train from there. From the South Taranaki railway stations they would then have joined the continuous flow of stock pounding the local roads.
Besides driven stock these local roads had plenty of other traffic. There was a steady flow of settlers on foot and horseback, going about their everyday affairs. There were carriers with their drays and wagons, linking the farms and villages with the towns, railway stations and ports.24 There were the coaches maintaining their scheduled runs along the more important routes not served by the railway. There were the wagons distributing the timber from the local sawmills. There were various outsiders, such as commercial travellers, itinerant door-to-door salesmen,25 swaggers in search of work. For all of them the state of the roads was a matter of everyday concern.
The roads were at their most primitive out on the bush frontiers. In the Hawera Star of 19 February 1886 the Kaupokonui correspondent described some of the road hazards.
Along the bush roads there are at present numerous rata trees which were burnt down some time ago, and there has been made no attempt to remove them. Settlers who use these roads cut a make-shift track around, and so the matter rests—and so do the trees. Strangers and even residents find it rather awkward, coming along in the dark, to be brought to a standstill by a forest giant.
Whilst on the subject of blocked roads, I would also like to draw your attention to a common but dangerous practice in this district. Along almost every road numbers of horses are kept tethered, and some with ropes long enough to stretch three or four times across the 16 ft track. Persons riding or driving in the day time find it a difficult matter to get past, but what must it be after dark. A rider comes along, and the first intimation he gets of a horse being on the road is a head over heels tumble.page 219
On the far fringes of settlement roads gave way to bush tracks, and drays and sledges gave way to pack horses. An idea of what this would have meant to Taranaki's outlying bush settlers is given by a visitor to Kimbolton in the Rangitikei (then known as Birmingham) in March 1890. He was trying out the coach service which Sam Daw had just begun to this three-year-old bush settlement.
That there is no dray traffic beyond Birmingham is very evident as soon as one gets there. It is the junction of the pack horse and coach stages of development. You may see here the settlers bringing in their grass seed and other produce on pack horses from twenty miles distant and taking back supplies by the same primitive means entailing enormous cost of transit.26
It is easy for the modern reader to be bored by the ‘roads and bridges’ fixation of so much of our 19th-century local, regional and national politics. In settler New Zealand few subjects were more vehemently discussed than roads and bridges. And with good reason.