Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World
The Roads and Transport
The Roads and Transport
As south Taranaki entered the new century its roading problems seemed as intractable as ever. The more the dairying industry flourished the more its transport vehicles cut the roads to pieces. For years public life was dominated by endless debates as to what could and should be done, who should do it, and where the money was to come from. After meeting the demands of newly settled districts central government could offer only limited financial help to these older and obviously prospering districts. In recognition of Taranaki's special problems, due to its deep rich loam soils and its scarcity of stone and gravel, a branch railway was built from Waipuku to the mountain to bring down metal for local body roads as well as for railway ballast.44 But the main burden of developing strategies, deciding priorities and finding the money was left to local bodies. Their roading efforts for the years 1900–14 seem to fall into three periods: in the earlier years they were engrossed with the redrawing of county boundaries and did little more than hold their own; from 1907 to 1910, as the new counties took over, new possibilities in transport methods, road construction and the raising of finance were explored and several of them implemented; over the years 1911 to 1914 mastery of the problems at last began to be achieved, with the fortuitous coincidence of new roadmaking techniques and adequate funds to implement them. It was Kaponga's good fortune that these new developments were pioneered by Eltham County and applied early to the arterial route crucial to its prosperity, Eltham Road. We will first analyse the problems facing the new Eltham County in 1907 and then deal with the two periods 1907–10 and 1911–14. We conclude with a look at wayfaring on Eltham Road throughout the period.
A Star editorial of 2 November 1905 summarised the south Taranaki roading problem. It was suffering from the breakdown of the road loans page 226 scheme. The legislation had assumed that metalled roads would last about 24 years with a nominal cost for repairs, and so indeed they did in districts with ordinary agricultural traffic and good metal. But South Taranaki's dairy industry created a ‘heavy, continuous, intense’ traffic in a district without good metal. Long before loans were repaid, roads needed massive reconstruction for which no new loans could be raised. So the land was loaded with heavy rates. The 1912 Western Taranaki Railway Commission found that these often averaged from 4s to 6s an acre and remarked that ‘This high rate, which amounts to a considerable rent, is required solely for the maintenance of the roads.’ But though paying high rates the settlers did not enjoy good roads. How the situation looked to an outsider was described by the Star's Okaiawa ‘Our Own’ (13/8/06):
A gentleman hailing from South Canterbury paid a flying visit to this district last week. He expressed himself as very favourably impressed with the quality of our soil, ‘but’, he added, ‘were you to offer me the best farm in the district for nothing on condition that I lived upon it, I would not take it.’ ‘Why?’ was the query. ‘Well, look at your roads,’ was the answer. ‘Where I live I often put my horse in the gig and drive a distance of 42 miles and back home again the same day, and think nothing of it, but half that distance would be a big undertaking in these parts.’ And he was right.
From January 1907 Kaponga's roading fortunes largely depended on how wisely the new Eltham County Council administered its two western ridings of Kaponga and Mangatoki. It had grim experiences from the previous winter to spur it to some hard thinking. At two local body meetings in July 1906 the problems were highlighted. After a month of continuous wet weather, the Hawera County Council had been warned by its gifted engineer, Fred Basham, that had the rain continued for another week most of their roads would have been beyond repairing.45 Over these same weeks the Waimate Road Board had somehow kept its section of Eltham Road in working order, but only at the expense of neglecting other less vital roads. Its July meeting heard hard words about Opunake Road being ‘robbed’ but the majority agreed with the chairman that ‘it was better for them to have one good road than two bogs’.46 The realities facing the county were that even with constant care and vigilance it could expect its macadam roads repeatedly to teeter on the brink of collapse. In the Kaponga Riding the daily needs of the factory traffic required that the first priority go to Eltham Road and the second to its feeder roads. All other claims had to be relegated to third place.
With these unpromising prospects it is not surprising that minds began questing for alternatives to macadam roads. The first possibility to be given widespread attention was electric tramways. This perhaps owed something to the modern wonders seen by settlers who visited the 1906–07 Christchurch Exhibition. Over the winter of 1907 the idea of adapting this modern urban transport technology to Taranaki rural needs suddenly page 227 caught on. A Star editorial of 10 June 1907 described the excitement:
To say that general interest is taken in the projected electric tramways question would be rather an inadequate description of public feeling. It would be truer to say that parts of the district are ‘sizzling’ with excitement. Especially is this so in Eltham and along portion of the Eltham road. Hawera and Plains people say less, but they too are pretty keen.
Two schemes were actively discussed: Hawera to Manaia, and Eltham to Opunake. The latter included a general lighting and power scheme for Eltham and the country between it and Opunake. ‘Our Own’ (4/6/07) reported keen discussion around Kaponga, animated by the dreadful state of Eltham Road, which looked likely to become impassable. It is easy to see how attractive the tramway proposition must have seemed. Instead of the district's heavy rainfall being a transport negative, constantly undoing the macadam road surfaces, it would be turned into a positive as Egmont's rivers were harnessed for electric power. Just as tramlines had fitted into existing city streets they could fit into the existing Eltham Road, providing a transport surface impervious to the weather. The excitement and discussion continued for six months as the local bodies combined to commission a Wellington engineer to investigate. Engineer Black's report, made public in December 1907, outlined a scheme costing about £120,000, which he calculated would run at a profit.47 But his report's realism removed much of the glitter that had surrounded the proposal. Contrary to common opinion the Egmont rivers were not suitable for generating electricity because they could not be engineered to provide storage capacity, so the power would have to come from coal. It would be ‘financially impracticable’ to provide power to settlers along the route. Settlers also began to realise that the scheme would not solve all road problems, for the tramway could not service individual farms. It seemed too that Egmont County and Opunake would not support a scheme likely to undermine their case for a branch railway. After blazing for six months, the idea flickered on for a few more months and then died away.
But the problem remained. Fortunately Fred Basham, who had now become Eltham County's first engineer, continued the search for an alternative to the ineffectual macadam approach. In the spring of 1908 he teamed up with Mangatoki farmer Jacob Marx and Eltham storekeeper C. A. Wilkinson to form the Basham Concrete Block Highway Co Ltd, which under an agreement with the County Council laid down 30 chains of patent concrete block roadway on Eltham Road. There was much initial satisfaction with the new surface and considerable interest throughout Taranaki but the experiment cannot have had long-term success as it soon disappeared from the news columns.48 Basham's next attempt was a return to the tramway approach. On 13 August 1910 he put to the council a proposal for an Eltham-Auroa tramway using the ‘automotrice’, a vehicle in successful operation in Europe that generated its own electricity with a page 228 petrol motor. This scheme too failed to win acceptance as a cost-effective answer, but Basham continued his quest undeterred.
Meanwhile the County Council pressed on with the more humdrum matter of finding money to throw at the problem. In February 1908, to get through traffic to pay its share of the South Road's upkeep, the Hawera County Council had established tollgates at Inaha and Okaiawa. This diverted traffic to Eltham Road, so Eltham County followed suit, collecting tolls at a gate just east of Eltham and another at Riverlea, from 1 January 1909. Thenceforward for years Kaponga settlers tolerated this cumbersome, old-fashioned feature on their main access road, to ensure that through travellers contributed to the cost of the road. But still more money was needed so in 1910 the county moved to take advantage of more liberal government provisions for local body loans. On 2 August 1910 Basham, the council's engineer, outlined the loan proposals to Kaponga Riding ratepayers. After a good airing they were well supported by both town and rural ratepayers and a poll the following December produced a similar result.49
The issue now became not money but finding some way of spending it more effectively. Motorists, now becoming common, had their own particular complaints. During a drought in February 1911 a Star travelling reporter found that the good parts of the district's roads were outnumbered by the bad parts and that the latter were heartbreaking.50 He singled out a number, including Eltham Road, as being in a very bad state. Motorists could travel safely at no more than 10 miles an hour due to the terrible bugbear of loose metal, of which the roads seemed have almost enough to remetal them. Desperate to be ready for winter battles against the mud, the roadmakers had created a summer hazard. A more effective approach than merely piling on more metal had to be found. At last in 1912 Basham's search for a solution took him in the right direction and within a year or two his tarring experiments had provided the accepted answer.
In Britain, from the 1820s, there had been some use of tar, first on heavily trafficked footpaths and then on urban streets—with variable results. Some use of tar as a blinder on existing rural macadam roads then followed, and late in the century the term ‘tarmacadam’, later shortened to ‘tarmac’, came into use. In the summer of 1911–12 Basham made trials of the use of tar and oil on the roads, and reported results to the County Council meeting of 9 March. The oil, he decided, was useless except as a dust palliative. ‘The method of applying tar to roads which is known as “tar sealing”,’ he advised the council, ‘is too expensive to be considered.’ But he was very hopeful about his tar-spraying experiment. Using primitive methods, without any special equipment, he had treated four chains of road and reported:
… the tar has stood for two months of the most trying period of the year and still looks quite good. The road shows a good skin, and there is no dust page 229 and no loose stone. Before advising you further on this matter I should like an opportunity of inspecting a machine at work and seeing the nature of the work done. There is a machine working in Wellington and another in Palmerston.
What Basham was seeking was a cost-effective way of adapting techniques already in use in some New Zealand urban settings to the special needs of rural South Taranaki. His mind may have been turned in this direction by some earlier local urban use of asphalting and tarsealing. From 1902 some Kaponga businesses had arranged to have the footpaths in front of their premises asphalted, and the Victoria Park cricket pitch was asphalted in 1904.51 More importantly, C. A. Wilkinson had seen tarsealed streets when visiting the US in 1902 and had persuaded the Eltham Borough Council to become New Zealand pioneers of this practice in 1906. On 13 April 1912 Basham reported his ongoing investigations to the County Council, advising that experience in other countries suggested that tarring would pay on some local roads. He produced calculations showing that the Mangatoki section of Eltham Road, costing £727 10s yearly to maintain, could be given the tar-spraying treatment for £644 and thereafter would cost about £380 a year to maintain. The council boldly authorised their chairman and engineer to proceed with purchasing a tar-spraying machine. Basham introduced the new techniques with great care, collecting all the information he could from overseas and steadily building up a fund of local experience. By the end of 1912 the Star had decided that something historic was taking place and on 19 December it ran an editorial headed ‘Roading Problems Solution’.
County Councils in Taranaki have long been face to face with a grave and persistent difficulty in connection with the public roads, but it now looks as though Mr F. Basham, the Eltham County Engineer, were on the eve of solving the problem. At his instance, the County some time ago agreed to a method of treating the roads by means of specially tested and analysed tar and at Saturday's meeting of the Council Mr Basham reported that the sprayer, which has been bought for the purpose, was expected to reach Wellington at the end of the month, and would probably be at work before the end of January. It is expected to be able to give roads already made, and still smooth and unbroken on the surface, such a spraying with specially prepared tar, that the surface will become impervious to rain, with the result that roads which hitherto have lasted only a year or two will last three or four years perhaps longer. Mr Basham has thoroughly studied the subject, and he and his Council believe that the plan they have in hand will, with a surface that will carry off rainwater, protect the under-work of the roads, and thus add to their endurance and lessen the cost of their maintenance. The scheme is full of promise and all Taranaki, indeed the whole Dominion, will await the result with particular interest. But Mr Basham has carried his studies in the science of roadmaking still further. In connection with new formation he has, we understand, come to the conclusion that the lowest page 230 layer of metal should be of a given average size, and that when a section is finished it should be sprayed first from one side and then from the other, so as to ensure the thorough permeation of the layer, and its complete coagulation. Then the idea is to treat another layer of smaller sized metal in the same way, with the same ends in view, and so to have all the metal thoroughly compacted with the tar, and, with a surface that would have a certain yielding elasticity and yet be practically as waterproof as steel. Thus Mr Basham and the Eltham County Council have really a most important undertaking in hand. Given tar of the right quality, and an unyielding bottom and under-formation, Mr Basham's scheme should result in roads which will last practically for a lifetime, certainly so in comparison with roads as now made, for the bed and hearting would be immovable, and the surface would be such as to prevent water from entering and disintegrating the formation. It will be a great triumph for Taranaki and a gain for the whole Dominion if it succeeds, and, as we have said, it is full of the fairest promise. The prospect in this connection is made all the clearer by the fact that the scheme which Mr Basham has worked out independently has also been worked out in the same way by Mr Johnson, the Municipal Engineer at Point Grey, Vancouver, British Columbia.
On 13 March 1913 the council members inspected the results of 12 months of tar-spraying work and unanimously endorsed the programme. The tar was obtained from the Wanganui gasworks and carefully prepared by Basham. In April 1913 Basham gave a paper to the New Zealand local government engineers' annual conference, telling how he had surface-sprayed 10 miles of carefully prepared existing macadam road and had laid down half a mile of new formation with the tarseal method described in the Star editorial quoted above.52 The Rangitikei County Council had its engineer investigate the use of tar on roads and his report in December 1913 had high praise for Basham's achievements, describing Eltham Road as ‘the best rural main road in the Dominion’.53 In 1914 the Wanganui County Council sent a committee to investigate these Eltham County developments. On 3 July it reported to them that even Wanganui town did not have a street as good as these rural roads. Furthermore:
Mr Basham … gave the Committee some startling figures. The rate that had been levied in the past was as high as 3d, and the roads were villainous. Under the new system the rate was 1 ½d, and the ratepayers had first-class roads. This was no small achievement… in a country lying near Mount Egmont and subject to continual wet. The machinery used was not over-expensive. The committee estimated the cost of plant at something like £2000, including a road roller, motor lorry, tar sprinkler, crusher, and everything necessary.
Tollgate, Eltham-Kaponga road. Note the firm, even surface that tarsealing has given the