Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World
As this chapter has unfolded the reader with an ear for history will have caught a growing tramp of hooves and a rising grind of wheels over gravel. How were the roads coping as this battering escalated? We begin with a ‘Rip Van Winkle’ return to the 1892 Star files. These show the roads still right at the centre of public concern and illustrate the basic elements in the battle between the growing traffic and the efforts of roadmakers and menders. We will then examine the fortunes of several of the roads during the decade and conclude with some comments on the wayfarers who used the roads.
In the 20 February 1892 Star Mahoe settler David Astbury wrote of his concern at the state of Eltham Road between the Duthie and Palmer roads:
Yesterday, while driving to Kaponga, and going through a hole to all appearances safe, I was capsized, but, fortunately, escaped with a few bruises. There is no possible way of evading it, for on either side there is a dip caused by a creek. Who is responsible for leaving a hole which, even when driven through with caution, upsets a trap?
Why did this road still have such perils when so much money and effort had been expended on it in the 1880s? The Star editorial for 9 March, on ‘Our Roads’, gave some answers:
The practice has obtained of laying down water worn gravel or stone partially broken as road metal, and the result, both of late and in the past, has been really rough, bad roads, exactly as anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of macadamising must have foreseen. The first maxim of Macadam was that nothing but angular stones should be laid down, any round or half round stone being recognised by him as a source of weakness and ultimate injury to the road. The laying down of layers of angular stones without round surfaces, the lower layers being of larger and each succeeding layer of smaller angular stones, so that the top layer should not exceed one and a half inches in its largest measurement, was the fundamental rule of Macadam. Bury a large round stone at the bottom of 12 inches of metal, and in a year or two the round stone will work to the top. The roadmaking on the Plains, excepting in the places where machine-broken stone has been used, for the most part has been a so-called system of macadamising with the first principles of Macadam left out.
One could not ask for a clearer exposition of the basics of the page 115 extraordinary innovation that McAdam introduced into roadmaking in the early decades of the 19th century. The essential point of this thrifty method was the use of broken, angular pieces of stone, known as ‘road metal’, instead of boulders and gravel. The key to the success of the macadam surface was that the angular stones were much smaller than the width of the common iron tire wheels. As a recent historian of roadmaking has noted:
A McAdam pavement could carry about 18 kg per millimetre of tire width…. The strength and stiffness of the course of compacted angular stones came from the structural interlocking that developed between individual pieces of stone.26
But, according to the Star, it was not working out like this around Kaponga:
On the Eltham Road, east of Kaponga about three-quarters of a mile of hand-broken water-worn metal has lately been laid, in which a large proportion of the stone is half round and even on top runs from three to four inches in diameter, which can never make a smooth or good road. On the Manaia road, water-worn boulders from six inches to twelve inches in diameter are now being laid down, some of which are being broken into three or four great rough lumps, but many of the smaller boulders are being left unbroken. In this instance we have no hesitation in saying that the ratepayers' money is being wasted under a faulty system…. The practice has been to conceal the bad workmanship and make this class of bad metalling fairly passable for a few months by ‘blinding’* it with clay or gravel. Both the road and the ratepayers are conveniently blinded by the practice. After a few months most of the clay is blown away as dust, and the road remains a loose, rough mass of rolling stones … [*‘Blinding’ is the process of covering newly made road with fine material to fill interstices.]
The editorial then gave a local example of a correctly made macadam surface:
… the half mile of the Main South Road, on the Waihi hill, near Hawera, which stood satisfactorily an immense amount of traffic for nine years with barely six inches of carefully hand-broken metal, laid on a soft and muddy foundation, on the south or shady side of a narrow cutting.
The editor pointed to the successful roadmaking of north Taranaki, where finely broken machine stone had been used for years. He warned that ‘men take unkindly to … stone-napping, which has for years been the most common form of low class labor’. But it was to be years before south Taranaki felt it could afford stone-crushing machinery.
It was much easier for the Star's editor to expound true macadam techniques than for the County Council and Road Board, facing heavy demands with limited resources, to put them effectively into practice. Sometimes even their efforts to act responsibly made them look ridiculous.page 116
In the winter of 1892 the Opunake end of Eltham Road was given a costly macadam surface that was then largely destroyed by a County Council decision. This was to prohibit Robert Palmer from using Auroa Road as a kind of canal to get his mill's timber out to the Main South Road, thus forcing him to send his output by wagon to Opunake. In the Star of 11 August, under the heading ‘Eltham Road West’, a correspondent described the results:
The action of the County Council in stopping Messrs. Palmer and Co. navigation of [Auroa Road] has excited a good deal of adverse comment here. I have been told by those daily using the road that it was rather improved than otherwise by the timber traffic. The apparatus (a kind of a cross between a boat and a sledge) being flat bottomed, and closely boarded, helped to consolidate the otherwise liquid mud, and made it better for travelling over. There was only a few chains of river bed shingle on this part, and that would stand a lot of the solidifying process too, without injury, as it is naturally anything but cohesive. All the timber traffic now is diverted Opunake way, and the consequence is, that this part of the road having only 5 inches of newly laid broken stone, laid on a very soft bottom, is having a hundred times more damage done to it than could possibly be done at the other end. The Auroa road end cost only a few pounds as yet, while this cost about £700 for broken metal alone, yet our local bodies in their wisdom stop the traffic over the mud to divert it over the broken metal which is fast disappearing under the heavy timber traffic.
The Road Board's annual report, appearing in the Star of 6 May, showed the importance of loan money in its programme: land sale thirds had provided £1096 for the year and £1036 had come from rates, but there had been ‘an expenditure of about £3000 in contracts on county roads in the district’, principally from an Eltham Road special loan. The engineer's report showed that the board had another big struggle on its hands beside that of applying macadam principles:
An increasing item … is the cost of replacing a large number of the old culverts in the bush roads. The flooding of the creeks caused by the recent heavy rain falls has given a final death blow to several culverts that have been threatening to collapse … These culverts were put in by the Crown Land Board about 10 or 12 years ago, and, being built of green local timber and shrouded from sun and air for the greater part of the time by the heavy side scrub, it is not surprising that a number of them are thoroughly rotted and dangerous… Where old [culverts] collapse under heavy embankments or fillings, the work of taking out the old material and laying and fitting in the new is not only expensive but extremely dangerous to the men engaged on these jobs.
He recommended directing some of the board's carefully husbanded reserves to purchasing drainpipes and bringing in totara timber for this page 117 work. The following November the County Council decided to try another approach to this problem, a cheaper design for cement culverts, with only the load-bearing arch having the standard amount of cement.27
Since Eltham Road was the one most crucial to Kaponga's progress we will follow its fortunes through the 1890s. In 1890 the settlers between Palmer Road and the Taungatara Stream carried a poll to borrow £5000, which the county engineer estimated would be sufficient to form, bridge and metal this whole stretch of road.28 In due course they secured the required government loans, and in the Star of 25 January 1892 a ‘Travelling Correspondent’ reported that ‘the great Eltham road metalling contracts are forging ahead and in a little time the settlers will forget that they ever suffered from the effects of a bad road’. He was being far too sanguine, though on 21 April he ventured to tell ‘those who have not been on Eltham road west of Kaponga since it has been altered’ that they would be ‘astonished at the fine thoroughfare it has now become’. We have seen how that winter Palmer's timber wagons gave some of this new work a severe mauling. But the winter's worst complaints were about earlier construction between Eltham and Kaponga. A Star editorial of 3 September commented on a meeting called by concerned Eltham settlers:
… The fearful state of the unmetalled portion of the Opunake-Eltham road from the earliest setting in of wet weather has been beyond the belief of those who have not seen for themselves. The traffic is heavy, and is increasing on account of the numerous by-roads from newly-settled country, which branch off from this arterial road and help to swell the traffic. The distance required to be metalled is somewhere about five miles, starting at the Palmer road and connecting with the metalling so far as carried out from the Eltham end… As our casual and travelling representatives have both had experience of this road in its wintery aspect of slush and vehicle wreckage, they can fully appreciate … the anxiety of regular users of this road to get it metalled, as well for comfortable travelling as for the opportunity a good road would afford of carrying products to market, and placing them in readier touch with the coming dairying boom …
The following January ‘Our Own’ took up the theme. ‘We have not got one main road which we could call complete,’ he complained. ‘All appear to have fallen short of their destination.’
But things were to get worse before they got better. Over Easter 1893 the district was hit by heavy gales and its worst floods on record, with devastating effects for the roads. The mail-carrier could not get from Eltham to Kaponga; west of Kaponga damage was even worse, with culverts washed out and bridge approaches washed away.29 The blow affected roading finances for years, with long-term consequences for all the roads. The worst damage was in the open country, where it cost nearly £2000 to repair.30 Labour had to be diverted from the Eltham Road contracts, delaying completion beyond the next winter.page 118
By winter 1894 Eltham Road had been metalled throughout its length— whether on genuine macadam principles time was to test. One's suspicions are raised by discussion at a Kaponga ratepayers meeting on 5 May 1894. This ‘turned on the immediate necessity of blinding the metal on the Eltham road in order to preserve the work that had been done out of the loan’, and ‘it was strongly pointed out that the metal was disappearing rapidly, and that unless immediate action were taken the work done would be wasted’. This work was got under way the following month.31 In the August 1894 Farmer a reporter described travelling the road the previous June:
Beyond the Mangatoki the road to Kaponga ascended in grade and descended in quality; you had your choice of the purgatory of newlaid and unblinded metal in the middle or of the bottomless perdition of mud on either side. As is at times the case, the better the soil, the deeper the mire… The road between Kaponga and Opunake is said to be no worse than that between Kaponga and the Mangatoki, only there is more of it.
A Farmer report in February 1895, probably by the same reporter, had better things to say. The metal would now have settled down, and summer was the best time to be on these roads.
The road between Mangatoki and Kaponga is vastly better than it was, and is now really good… Now you can bowl along with spring trap and buggy to Opunake… There is every probability that the mails for Opunake will go along the road from Eltham there being, it has been said, a saving of from an hour and a half to two hours by so doing.
So the pressure on Eltham Road was now coming not only from the maturing of the bush settlements but also from the capture of South Road traffic.
Over the following years the settlers became increasingly aware of the road's deficiencies. Several reports indicated that its macadamising had been defective. In the 18 January 1897 Star a ‘Travelling Correspondent’ commented:
The Eltham road from Kaponga to Mangatoki, though well metalled, is not very pleasant to travel on, there being a large amount of loose stones strewn over the road, and something should be done to make them bind together.
The following June ‘Our Own’ commented that
… If the large boulders which are cropping up all along the Eltham Road were cracked it would be safer for travellers, and show generalship and economy on behalf of the Road Board or Council. As it is the money expended for metalling this portion of the road is simply going to waste.32
This shows some awareness of McAdam's principles, as also, about the same time, does the Waimate Road Board's foreman, who reported (Star, 12/6/97):page 119
Between the Palmer road and Awatuna is in fair order with the exception of about 60 chains which is getting in a rough state, large stones appearing above the surface. To put it in good order about 85 chains of the road requires picking up and a thin coating of metal spread over the 60 chains.
Eltham Road travellers had other problems besides those arising from defective macadamising. In 1899, for example, ‘Our Own’, prompted by continual requests from travellers, ran a campaign against a practice of the road maintenance contractors. To save themselves labour they were placing logs across the water tables and right up against the metal in the cuttings along the road. But with rapidly increasing traffic the road could not function effectively as a single-lane route, and travellers' limbs and lives were being put at risk as they were forced off the road onto these obstructions.33 Another type of risk and inconvenience was created by several unbridged streams, for the £5000 loan had not proved sufficient to provide bridges throughout. In the late 1890s the settlers began to pressure the government for funds to bridge the Mangawhero and Punehu streams.34 There was to be tragedy before their campaign succeeded. The foreman's report on the road at the November 1899 meeting did not bode well for the coming years:
The traffic has increased and is steadily increasing, especially traffic that used to go by way of Main South Road and is causing the road to cut through in several parts… I cannot see how we are going to cope with the requirements unless we overdraw into next year's rates.35
The same report showed Manaia Road to be in an even worse condition—‘for a great distance … in very bad repair’. For the past two years the rates had been spent ‘in trying to keep the road open to traffic, by doing the very worst parts’. Between Kapuni and Manaia the road menders continued to be bedevilled by the stretches of gley soils over iron pan. Only the most meticulous macadamising could have mastered these stretches, and this they certainly had not received. We will briefly survey the road's fortunes during the decade, looking first at the Kaponga-Manaia section then at the Kaponga-Egmont. Unless otherwise attributed, all information and comments are from ‘Our Own’, who took a constant interest in the road.
In the 14 October 1892 Star ‘Our Own’ used Manaia Road to illustrate the folly of using gravel instead of broken stone:
Parts of the Manaia road, which have been down six or seven years, are breaking up in all directions, and the cost of repairing will be simply enormous.
In 1894 and 1895 the atrocious state the road was repeatedly described.
… an absolute disgrace to those in charge of it. It is dangerous to strangers especially after dark. (Star, 19/6/94)page 120
… will be impassable to wheel traffic unless something is done to it soon. (Star, 15/5/95)
… frequent capsizes… now happen. (Star, 27/7/95)
… from Manaia to the Skeet road is a standing disgrace to both the County Council and the Waimate Road Board. (Star, 15/11/95)
An attack on these problems began at last in the autumn of 1896, apparently using loan money.36 In the Star of 26 March 1896 Eltham's ‘Our Own’ reported that
… Along the Manaia-Kaponga road metalling and repairing operations are in full swing, and by the look of things there is a possibility of the road being in fairly good order in the next 2 months.
But on 16 May a Star news item reported the road still in a wretched state in places, despite considerable repairs. On 21 August 1897 Kapuni's ‘Our Own’ made it clear that nothing had really changed and spelt out one of the major consequences:
The roads here are in a frightful state … There are holes the full width of the metal and in some places two feet deep … At one time Manaia tradesmen had the whole of the Kaponga trade, now it is a terrible journey from Kaponga to Manaia and so Manaia loses the trade.
So the board's inability to master Manaia Road problems was one element in a shift of Kaponga's focus from looking south to Manaia to looking east to Eltham and Stratford. On 8 August 1899 ‘Our Own’ described Kaponga as ‘fairly well off for outlets with the exception of the Manaia road … it is fast approaching its primitive state’.
Above Kaponga the Manaia Road had better fortunes in the 1890s. While the mountain traffic could avoid lower Manaia Road (for example by using Palmer or Duthie) it all had to converge on upper Manaia Road to reach Dawson Falls. The new Stratford County, formed in 1890, took over this upper stretch from about a mile above Kaponga township, and by the mid-1890s it was taking seriously the improvement of this route to Mt Egmont. When it completed forming and metalling in the autumn of 1895 the atrocious state of the Waimate Road Board's little section above Eltham Road was spotlighted. After two years of advocacy by ‘Our Own’ and a settler petition, the board at last tackled this job in April 1897.37
We will briefly summarise the fortunes of the other roads. Taking over its ‘Kaponga’ stretch of Opunake Road as little more that a pack track, the new Stratford County steadily bridged, culverted, formed and metalled to create a good cart road for mountain traffic and local settlers by the mid -1890s.38 With some settler self-help the Waimate Road Board succeeded in keeping Palmer Road in reasonable order.39 Rowan Road settlers were unable to agree on loan matters and it remained fairly primitive, as also did Mangawhero Road, where loan problems and a gap in the metal persisted into the next decade.40page 121
We have already made clear the nature of the rising flow of traffic over this network of roads. The biggest contributor was the growing dairy industry. In December 1894 the Farmer's Hawera correspondent told how on a recent run around Egmont's base he had been surprised to find that
… at every corner and lined along the roads were strings of springed traps, drays, hand-carts, and only one wheelbarrow, each wending their way heavily laden with milk to the nearest cheese and butter factory, drivers and horses alike looking fat and apparently content with their lot.
Besides Kaponga's daily traffic of milk cans to the creameries and of cream onwards to the Mangatoki factory, the industry's stock sales caused periodic flurries of droving, and pigs fattened on the skim milk had to be carted to market. We have also noted the heavy timber traffic and the summer tourist flow to the mountain.
The township's growth generated a rising traffic. Children straggled daily to school, on foot or horseback. Storekeepers and butchers made their (usually weekly) rounds. There was also commercial, service and recreational traffic, which our next two chapters will make apparent. There were strengthening links with the outside world, particularly along Eltham Road to the railway. By January 1893 there was a tri-weekly mail service to Eltham. By March 1896 this had become daily and also provided a daily delivery of the Star. From May 1899 a daily Eltham-Opunake coach service traversed the district. And mingling with these major and regular flows were a mix of occasional wayfarers such as grooms taking stallions on circuit, travelling newspaper reporters, local and parliamentary politicians drumming up support, pedlars travelling door to door and sometimes camping on the roadside.41
To end this section on a note of realism I will quote from a skit dated 20 June 1902 entitled ‘My first night in Taranaki’, written by Percy William Allen to describe his endeavours to find the township one spring night in 1900. Allen was a newly arrived 19-year-old immigrant from Suffolk. He had been landed on ‘one of your unmetalled roads’ ‘nicely paved with … good honest Taranaki mud, in places more than knee deep’. His ‘Gamp and Waterproof’ had proved no match to a Taranaki spring shower.
As the night was pitch Black I could no more see where I was going than the man in the moon without a lantern. And to make matters worse for a New Chum, there were about 150 dairies of cows (more or less) grazing on the road, and to my surprise [I] kept constantly colliding with one of these beautiful creatures, which almost frightened me back to the country I had just left.
At last, covered with mud to the waist, he discerned the faint outlines of a house in the first hint of morning light. He awakened the kind folk within and they gave him a bed.42