Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World
Roads were a major concern in all new districts and especially so in the bush, where roadmaking faced particular difficulties. In terrain, climate, soils, land use and availability of roadmaking materials, south Taranaki faced special challenges. We have seen how the process of settlement scattered the Kaponga clearings particularly widely across the district, exacerbating the roaiding problem. So throughout our study we will find the roads at the page 41 centre of local politics, a subject of perennial debate, of recurrent tension, and of some innovative suggestion and experimentation.
The very features underlying the Kaponga District's future prosperity— its high rainfall, multiplicity of streams and fertile volcanic soils—were banes for the roadmakers. The District also shared south Taranaki's general lack of good road metal. So the making and maintaining of the roads presented a tough series of challenges. First there was the clearing of the road lines, then the mastering of the streams. Having overcome these, there still remained what long seemed an unwinnable battle: the creation of a load bearing surface that would not disappear in the winter mud. We will first examine these practical and technical problems in more detail and then probe the social and political context in which they were attacked. This context of course included the initial series of heartbreaking wet seasons and the deepening gloom of hard times, which limited the resources available for all public projects.
The surveyors did the first primitive clearing of road lines, to gain access for their work and make the land accessible enough to be marketed. In the south Taranaki bush almost all road clearing was one chain wide.20 Sheltered by the surrounding bush from sun and winds, this felling did not dry out readily and seldom resulted in a good burn. To discourage bush regrowth and aid future settlers, these fellings were seeded with grass each autumn. In many cases no more was done, so the pioneer settler wended his way to his section through logs and stumps, with the occasional diversion around the trunk of an unfelled giant rata. He often led in a house cow, which he could graze on the road-line grass, but initially there was seldom enough feed for the more voracious appetite of a riding horse. The way forward to improve on this miserable access was not clear either to the settler or to the public bodies involved. Did one manhandle the logs to the side of the clearing and begin laboriously to stump a smooth pathway down the middle, following the numerous roots down into the depths of the earth?21 This was costly work, and though it could give a good cart track in a dry summer it was likely in winter to degenerate into what one settler described as ‘a model canal’ as the lowered track in the centre drained the debris thrown to the sides.22
‘The trunk of an unfelled giant rata’. For many years these trunks were a prominent landscape feature, contributing significantly to the spread of bush fires. This c. 1907 photo is probably of the rata trunk reputed to be the district's largest. It appears on the Department of Lands & Survey One Inch to One Mile Map Series, 1944–64 (Grid ref. N119 753490, 2nd edn, May 1957). William Swadling and his daughter Doris mounted, Fred Swadling standing
Along the bush roads there are at present numerous lata trees which were burnt down some time ago, and there has been no attempt made to remove them. Settlers who use these roads cut a make-shift track round, 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 barring the way.
… 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 and driving in the daytime page 43 find it a difficult matter to get past, but what must it be after dark. A rider comes along, and the first intimation that he gets of a horse being on the road is a heels-over-head tumble.
Along with their struggle with the forest debris, the roadmakers laboured to master the watercourses. Few motorists cruising these roads today are conscious of the sturdy culverts carrying the numerous streams flowing beneath them. The pioneer settlers were often only too aware of their primitive culverts. With drainpipes an unaffordable luxury, wood was used. Within a few years much of the timber was rotting and collapsing and had to be excavated from the packed earth with which it had been covered.24 It was probably to lighten this task, and with the prospect of early replacement with drainpipes, that by 1886 the builders were laying them -selves open to criticism for a more flimsy approach. In the Star of 30 September 1886 the ‘Kaupokonui’ ‘Our Own’ complained of the primitive nature of some new culverts on Eltham Road:
The wooden cross pieces of the culverts are not nailed, but merely placed on the top of the two side slabs. A few inches of earth on top and the culvert looks all serene, but after the earth is beaten down a horse is liable to shift one of the top slabs, and put a foot through. Result—broken leg …
Larger streams had to be forded until there were funds for bridges and not many of these were undertaken in the 1880s. So the hazardous fording of flooded rivers was another of the trials of the pioneers.
The roadmakers' long-term aim was to create a durable macadam surface equal in all seasons to the demands of the settlers' steadily increasing traffic. This required costly clearance of the forest debris, followed by costly grading to give a cambered and elevated roadway to ensure good surface drainage. What happened in the absence of these essential prerequisites for good macadam surfaces was demonstrated on the most used bush roads of the early years of the decade. In the Star of 17 May 1882 the Normanby ‘Our Own’ reported:
The road to the Plains, that from Waingongoro to Manaia, and from Okaiawa to the bush called Ahipaipa Road, are in a frightful state of mud, and frequent stickings up in the well-puddled clay are experienced by teamsters, thus early in the winter. Carters with horse teams have had to turn out their animals and purchase bullocks; and settlers with spring carts have had to discard them temporally [sic] and return to the primitive method of packing their necessary supplies.
The Kaponga pioneers who travelled these roads to get to their sections were not to know that the standard macadam programme was to prove heartbreakingly difficult to apply in their district. A couple of decades later the road linking their township to Manaia was being described as ‘a roadless roadway’25 and what a trip to their nearest railway station was like may be page 44 deduced from this account by ‘Rambler’ in the Star of 14 December 1901:
Anyone wishing to experience a lively ride should just take a drive in a light trap from Eltham to Opunake. The game of shuttlecock will be reenacted, only the difference of playthings will be painfully apparent to the experimenter. Life is full of ups and downs we all admit, but the job on the Eltham-Opunake road when driving is to know whether life with such uncertainties is worth living.
But we must return to the 1880s to see how the roading challenge was tackled within the social and political context of the times. An illustration will help highlight some of the issues. In August 1887 Captain Anderson, a recently arrived DP settler on upper Palmer Road, waited on the Waimate Road Board to point out
… that in order to get to his section he has to go up the Duthie and then come down the Palmer road, but that the Duthie road is obstructed by trees, and the Palmer by a large amount of undergrowth. The Kapuni crossed the Palmer below his section, and it could not be got over. (Star, 2/9/87)
The board's engineer thought that a ford could be made over the Kapuni for about £15, so to solve Anderson's problem the board resolved ‘that the Land Board be requested to place the sum of £15, out of the £22 now available for this road, to the credit of the board for this crossing’. Such piecemeal decisionmaking to meet an individual's problems is frequently evident in the board's minutes. Our account will need to make clear why this was so, and explain the tangled interplay between Road Board, Land Board and individual settler. We will also need to clarify why, if settlers had first come to these northern reaches of the Kaponga District on the assumption that they would be serviced from Stratford, Anderson was so clearly seeking an outlet to the south, where the nearest centre is about five miles further away from his section than was Stratford. The best way to explain these matters will be to look first at the changing fortunes of the east-west routes in south Taranaki's cross-hatch roading pattern.
These east-west routes were first mapped out by surveyors in response to the government's instructions on its military strategy requirements and settlement intentions. The diverse requirements led to their sketching in a surfeit of these roads—five of which were to be developed, with vestiges of a sixth—when practical realities would suggest that there should have been a disciplined concentration on perhaps three in the first decade. For the first three or four years the government supplied the bulk of the money and called the tune. Thereafter the funding fell mainly on the settlers and the decisionmaking on the local bodies. We will examine the fortunes of these roads during the decade, beginning from the south.
As we have seen, the existing South Road was rapidly upgraded to service the first rush of settlers onto the open country. The Armed Constabulary made a significant contribution to this work and also helped page 45 considerably with Normanby Road, which ran partly through bush, partly through open country, linking their older stronghold at Waihi with their new redoubt at Manaia. Their involvement highlights the strategic element in the early concentration on these two roads. Not much was left to be done to them when, under the Roads and Bridges Construction Act 1882, they were declared main roads for which the government would meet three-quarters of the cost of approved construction work. By this time on Normanby Road all clearing, culverting and road formation had been completed and two substantial bridges built. When its main-road status was removed in 1883 it was described as ‘a loop-line to the main coach-road from Hawera to Manaia’—in other words its development had been in excess of basic settlement requirements. However, in their early years the ‘Kaupokonui’ bush settlers came to know it well, the most used access route to their sections being by Normanby Road to Okaiawa and then up Ahipaipa Road.26 When, as in the winter of 1885, they found Ahipaipa Road to be ‘a model canal’ and ‘a capital site for a brick works’27 they must have wished that some of the early investment lavished on the South and Normanby roads had been spread a little more fairly further into the bush. Certainly the next east-west route, Skeet Road, could have done with some of it. For years its main streams remained unbridged and the clearing of logs and stumps westward of Ahipaipa Road did not begin till July 1888.28
We now move to the three northern east-west roads, dealing first, briefly, with the vestigial Neill Road and then treating Opunake and Eltham roads more fully. Neill Road was on the Opunake branch railway reserve which left the main line just south of Eltham. The branch line did not ultimately follow this route, but as they laid it out it assumed a place of considerable importance in the surveyors' minds. They made it a survey block boundary along its entire length and over 1881–82 had it felled from the Waingongoro to Manaia Road.29 It appears as Neill Road for a short distance near Eltham and between Manaia and Palmer roads, where it created administrative problems for the Road Board, not being legally a road and so not entitled to DP thirds, yet being the only access to some sections. Elsewhere it provided cleared back-boundary strips for some fortunate settlers on the south side of Eltham Road, to whom it was leased. Funds spent on this line were in reality largely wasted in view of the desperate needs elsewhere.
Opunake Road enjoyed an early prominence, followed by a convincin downgrading. It probably assumed an undue significance in the minds of the surveyors both from its strategic importance up to the time of the Parihaka showdown in 1881, and also as the direct link between the Waimate Plains bush and Stratford, which they would see had a secure destiny as Taranaki's main inland town. It was also the most obvious route to their own work in the bush from their homes in New Plymouth. Conversely, in laying out Eltham Road they may have somewhat underestimated its long-term prospects, especially as its planned base on the page 46 railway, the Eltham village settlement, was a much less ambitious concept than the already established town of Stratford. The surveyors had been instructed to select village sites ‘every three or four miles along the main road-lines at convenient spots in the Waimate Plains',30 and some ambivalence in their estimates of the relative ‘main’ status of these two roads is suggested by their giving each a village site (Makaka and Kaponga) and placing a third (Punehu) at their junction.31 Opunake Road received a strong boost following the passing of the Roads and Bridges Construction Act 1882. Claiming that when Stratford was first put on the market the government had promised to make Opunake Road, the Stratford settlers mounted a strong campaign over the winter of 1882, and with local member Harry Atkinson's assistance succeeded in getting it put on the first list of main roads.32 However, it received only one relatively small sum under the act before being removed from the schedule in 1883.33 Felling, culverting and road formation by the Survey Department continued for another year or two.34 Once government expenditure ceased the local bodies had so little money for the road's upkeep that some reaches virtually disappeared. In April 1889 the Hawera County Council resolved to instruct its foreman to have a pack track made on the stretch between the Manaia and Auroa Roads, and in August 1890 a Taranaki county ratepayer complained that the stretch from the Mountain Road to the county boundary was ‘quite unsafe for traffic’ and ‘fit for cattle traffic only’.35
Commenting on roads removed from the main-roads schedule, the Surveyor-General explained that Opunake Road had been opened up ‘for strategical purposes in connection with the Native difficulty’ and that ‘the further opening-up of the country has made known a better line of connection between Opunake and the railway-line’.36 This, of course, was Eltham Road, also on the first main-roads schedule. That it was ‘a better line’ should have been evident from the start. It crossed the heart of the bush country being opened up whereas Opunake Road was in poorer country near its northern periphery. It provided reasonably level access from the railway whereas Opunake Road had a long hard climb of some 330 feet in the first five miles from Stratford. Reading between the lines, it seems that by 1881, before Stratford began championing the Opunake Road, there had been a quiet plumping for Eltham Road by the Survey Department. Its report on Taranaki for the year to 30 June 1882 showed all bush roads being felled one chain wide except for Eltham Road, which was two chains. Also, in this and the next two years more was spent on Eltham Road than on any other Taranaki road.
By the time government spending faded away in the mid-1880s Eltham Road was generally accepted as the ‘main’ road through these bush districts. But an immense amount of work remained for the Road Board before it deserved to be called a road. Although felling and most culverting of the smaller streams had been done, stumping and forming had barely begun, and almost all the rivers were unbridged. So the impoverished Waimate page 47 Road Board began a long struggle first to make, and thereafter to maintain, the road at a standard befitting its ‘main’ status. The ‘Kaupokonui’ ‘Our Own’ followed this slow progress. On 29 July 1885 he noted that a substantial bridge was almost completed over the Kapuni River. But the road had yet to reach this bridge, for on 15 March 1886 he reported stumping and forming nearly completed from Eltham township to Duthie Road—still over a mile short of the Kapuni. This roading was still ungravelled, so not surprisingly when winter set in he reported it
… in a horrible state just now, several cuttings being almost impassable… it is the most important road in the district, and if a good main road were made through the district, it would benefit settlers more than having a lot of roads only half done. I suppose the half improved condition of roads is brought about by the board trying to please everyone—by spending driblets in all directions …(Star, 30/9/86)
But the regime under which road boards operated made it difficult to work in any other way. The Waimate board's boundaries stretched from the sea to the mountain and from the Waingongoro to the Taungatara Stream, near Opunake. In its early years this district provided only a limited income from settlers' rates. Rather the board depended largely on the Land Act's provision of one-third of the proceeds of DP sections for ‘the construction of roads within, or to open up the block for the benefit of settlers’. In bush districts the expenditure of their thirds was expected to be a major source of DP settlers' income in their early years. They counted on winning a fair share of the roadwork tenders handy to their sections. The act provided that ‘the plans of proposed roads shall in all cases receive the sanction of the Waste Land Boards of the district’. Under scrutiny from the settlers on one side and the Waste Land Board on the other, the Road Board kept a separate account for each road, and related expenditure on it to its DP thirds and rates income. Of course funds had to be diverted to meet the greater usage of arterial roads, but the road by road accounting allowed everyone to see what was going on. The whole setup encouraged a ‘dribs and drabs’ approach. We will now concentrate on how, within this context, the Road Board dealt with the particular needs of the Kaponga District. This will add the north-south Palmer, Manaia and Rowan roads to the picture.
In its early days the Road Board delayed spending on the bush roads, having found that, without consulting it, the government was spending generously on some of them. It decided that ‘it would have been foolish for the board to step in and prevent them from continuing such expenditure’.37 Manaia Road was on the initial main-roads schedule but the government had not got far with developing it before it withdrew from active involvement. This road was a headache for the Road Board as here and there it caught the eastern edge of difficult ground, sticky clays overlying ‘iron-stone’ that inhibited drainage. Later geological knowledge showed that shifting parts of the line just a little to the east would have avoided the page 48 problem. The Road Board inherited a different problem with Palmer Road. By mistake government money intended for its clearing was spent elsewhere, and work by the board left it ‘in debt’ for years, thereby at a disadvantage in the lobbying between roads.38. These problems on Manaia and Palmer roads concentrated traffic to the upper parts of the district on Duthie Road, which continually deteriorated under the pressure. Meanwhile as settlement flowed westwards the needs of Rowan Road became pressing. A glance at a sample of the arrangements made for this road will give some idea of the intricate interplay of local roading politics.
In the 1883–84 year, before it withdrew from the game, the government made a moderate beginning with the felling of Rowan Road. In the spring of 1886 the Road Board demonstrated its growing political sophistication by authorising several of the settlers to fell and burn the roadway adjoining their sections provided they felled at least two chains into their adjoining lands. Over the next year or two a flow of settler requests, petitions and deputations pressured the board to push on with the road and with its links with the outside world. Complicating negotiations were divergences of interest between settlers on the upper and lower sections of the road, and the fact that they included two men of some ‘weight’, local politician Felix McGuire, and Walter Stoddart, a substantial landholder on both Rowan and Manaia roads who served for a time on the Road Board. In 1887 some upper Rowan Road settlers persuaded the board to spend the money in credit to the road on their stretch of the road and on Eltham Road. It had already been generally accepted that the board should take money from the ‘side’ roads for Manaia Road, the ‘main’ road linking them with the outside world. These adjustments led lower Rowan Road settlers McGuire, Gallagher and King to feel that their interests were being neglected. In November 1887 they waited on the board. Gallagher stated that his roading thirds amounted to £80 yet only £15 had been spent on the road. Felix McGuire claimed he had spent £1400 to get his land all in grass but could not get a single head of cattle to it. He offered to pay for the work in the meantime and wait for the board to repay him. The board agreed to spend £20 to start stumping and ditching from Eltham Road southward. In November 1888 King was back to see the board, accompanied by former board member Walter Stoddart. Stoddart pointed out that over a mile of felled timber had yet to be cleared from their section of the road and claimed that there had been more than enough money to do this. The chairman reminded him that he had been one of the board members who had agreed to money being taken for Manaia Road, and another board member pointed out that Manaia Road had proved a very expensive road to make but that doing so had benefited all the district's settlers.39
This brief Rowan Road survey illustrates the intricacies of the board's affairs as it responded to a stream of pleading letters and received a succession of mud-spattered delegations trekking down from the bush with their hard-luck stories. Palmer Road, for example, where in 1887 Captain page 49 Anderson had had such problems getting to his section, still in 1888 had stumping and culverting in progress along much of its length, and even some felling.40 While juggling with incessant demands for improved north-south access routes through the bush, the Board staggered under its inherited excess of east-west arterial routes. Its failure to find funds to bridge the Kaupokonui at Kaponga limited the benefits from years of heavy expenditure on Eltham Road. The bulk of the growing traffic from the bush was thus forced onto the already burdened South Road, which deteriorated under the pressure while also facing the decay of some of its older bridges. The Hawera County Council accordingly took a poll in 1889 for a £2000 loan to renew bridges and remetal, but this was voted down,41 partly through a persistent bush ratepayer wariness of being taken advantage of by the more affluent open-country settlers. This undercurrent in local politics deserves our brief attention.
In discussing Waimate Plain bush road problems the Yeoman of 1 June 1883 remarked that bush settlers were poorly represented on the Road Board because few of them had the time to go to Manaia to vote. Fortunately for Kaponga its storekeeper, Henry Davy,* represented it on the board from 1885 to 1887. On his resignation through pressure of work involved, the returning officer arranged a Kaponga polling place for local convenience. The board's next meeting ruled this out of order, insisting that Manaia be the sole polling place.42 In the Star of 8 May 1888 J.W. Kenah, a public-spirited and knowledgeable Mangatoki bush settler, pointed out that board meetings were advertised only in the Star's daily issues, while many bush settlers took the weekly edition. With the majority of the board's members living on the plains he saw nothing to prevent them grabbing the bush rates to spend in the open.