The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Otago & Southland Provincial Districts]
Oamaru , the chief town and port of North Otago, is prettily situated at the foot and on the gently rising side of a low ridge, which forms almost a semicircle, that terminates seaward in Cape Wanbrow, and branches out land ward into terraces of rich agricultural land, now divided into thriving and well kept farms. The town is scattered over the flat and along the amphitheatre formed by the curving ridge, and has an attractive appearance when viewed from a steamer's deck as it approaches the harbour, which is well protected from the south and south-west winds, or seas, by Cape Wanbrow and the range of low hills. Art has assisted in making the harbour secure by a magnificent breakwater, 36 feet wide and 1850 feet in length, built with large concrete blocks, which, with a rubble mole at right angles, 1616 feet long, encloses an area of nearly sixty acres of water. The harbour is usually as smooth and secure as a dock, the entrance being 600 feet wide, with a depth of 18 feet at low tide, and 25 feet at high spring tides. Ample wharfage is provided, with steam cranes for loading or discharging, and a branch railway is connected with the main line. There are lights at night on the breakwater and on the hill to the south of it. The port is forty-three miles north-northeast from Tainroa Head, but as the configuration of the country would not admit of a railway being constructed in a straight line, curves increase the distance of Oamaru from Dunedin by rail to seventy-eight miles. From Christchurch, Oamaru is 152 miles distant.
Up to 1853 Oamaru-for these particulars, concerning early Oamaru the Editor is indebted to an interesting article contributed by Mr. W. H. S. Roberts, to the “Canterbury Times” of the 29th of April, 1897—was in a state page 499 of primeval wilderness, where brown tussock, flax, spear grass and tumatakuru reigned supreme. The Maoris had deserted it; Cook, though he sailed past in February, 1770, does not even mention it. Bishop Selwyn, who travelled from Otakau to the north in 1844, remarks that he “camped one night on the beach at Oamaru.” In 1853, however, Europeans began to see that the vast extent of grass country would make good sheep runs, and Mr. Hugh Robison applied for, and obtained, a licence to occupy the land in the Oamaru district for grazing sheep. He and his brother Harry built themselves a small whare of cabage trees, raupo and flax on the north bank of the creek, near where the railway line now crosses. His neighbours were far away; Mr. W. G. Filleul, with his brother Richard, on the north, and Mr. C. E. Suisted, on the south, held large areas of only partially stocked country, as they were waiting for the natural increase of their flocks. The great want in the district was timber for firing and building, as all the country was treeless, the nearest bush being over fifteen miles distant at Otepopo, to which there was no formed road, and several unbridged creeks and rivers had to be crossed on the way. Wheeled vehicles could not safely travel over such roads as these, and it occupied three days to reach Dunedin on horseback, although the distance was not much over eighty miles. Supplies were, therefore, sent from Dunedin by sea, and the easygoing, never-in-a-hurry schooner “Star” usually visited the roadstead once a month, wind and weather permitting. She was only forty tons burden, but, in those days of small things, was large enough for existing requirements. As there was sometimes considerable surf on the shore, especially with easterly winds, goods were frequently damaged in landing. The Provincial Government consequently sent up bout for the purpose of landing goods. It was in charge of Mr. H. C. Hertslet, who had a Maori crew, whose whares formed the nucleus of the present town.
The original sheep run, which included the site of Oamaru, changed owners three times before the town was surveyed. Mr. W. H. Valpy bought it in 1855, and sold it to Messrs Filleul Brothers in 1857. They in turn parted with it, in 1859, to Mr. James Lloyd Hasell, who was ousted by the Provincial Government proclaiming the locality a “hundred” on the 30th of November, 1860. The surveyors had laid off three blocks of the township in 1859, and the first sale of town sections was held on the 26th of May, of that year, when seventeen sections were sold at an average price of £17 2s 4d per quarter acre, the highest price realised for a section being £27 10s. Business enterprise had not waited for proclamations and surveyors, for during 1858 a store had been built for Mr. Charles Traill. This energetic pioneer, who was born in Orkney in the year 1826. arrived in Oamaru in 1856, and resided for a while with Mr. Filleul, at Papakaio. He then erected a small hut of cabbage trees and mud on what is now Tees Street, close to the Australian Mutual Provident Insurance office, and started the store, which, in 1859, became a large mercantile concern under the style of Traill, Roxby and Co. Mr. Traill sold out of the business in November, 1866, and went to live at Ulva, on Stewart Island, where he died on the 26th of November, 1891. At the time of his death a writer in one of the Southland papers wrote about Mr. Traill's stern sense of duty and pluck, mentioning that once he went to Timaru for a boat, and not being able to get anyone to face the task with him, brought the boat to Oamaru by himself with only a blue blanket for a sail. His partner, Eustace Wriothesley Roxby, was an English gentleman. He came to Oamaru in 1859, and put his money into Mr. Traill's venture, and the new firm was thus enabled to import its merchandise direct from the Old Country to Dunedin. In 1864 they arranged for a cargo to come direct to Oamaru, and it arrived safely in the “Gazehound.” Having discharged cargo, she took in loading for London, and had stowed 638 bales of wool on board, when a severe gale which lasted many days, and was accompanied by tempestuous seas, caused her to part her cables on the 13th of March, 1865, and drove her on shore, where she became a total wreck. Mr. Roxby was one of the first municipal councillors elected in 1866; he was appointed Town Clerk on the 1st of October, 1870, and retained the office till the 7th of November, 1887, when he retired. He died on the 17th of December, 1891, in his fifty-eighth year. The opening of Mr. Traill's store was a great boon to the district, and encouraged people to settle in the embryo town.
It soon became necessary to have more rapid communication with Dunedin than could be obtained by means of the “Star.” This was represented to Mr. John Jones, the pioneer merchant of Dunedin, and in 1859 he purchased the little paddle steamer “Geelong,” of forty-five horse-power and 108 tons register, and obtained a subsidy of £1950 a year from the Provincial Government on condition that his vessel called once a month at Oamaru and all ports between there and Invercargill. From that date Omaru rushed ahead by “leaps and bounds,” and developed during the period of financial inflation till it became over built. The only check it received was in July, 1861, consequent on the news of the great gold find at Tuapeka by Gabriel Read, and the rush which supervened for a while nearly depopulated the young town.
One of the first steps towards civilisation was taken in 1857, when an overland mail was instituted by the Otago Provincial Government. Oamaru was of so little importance then that the terminus was at Papakaio (Mr. Filleul's station being about ten miles further on), and until the end of 1859 there was not even a post office at Oamaru. Then Mr. Henry France, having opened a store, was appointed postmaster. There was no Justice of the Peace in North Otago till 1857, when Mr. H. C. Hertslet was appointed. The first shipment of stock direct to Oamaru consisted of 708 sheep for Messrs Filleul Brothers. They arrived on the 28th of April, 1859, in the brigantine “Comet,” and were all safely landed in boats, in the absence of harbour facilities, and nowithtstanding the surf on the beach, through which they rushed in good follow-the-leader style, as scon as the boats grounded. On the 12th of October, 1860. a small schooner, the “Oamaru Lass,” was driven on shore but was floated off without much injury; and Captain Dwight, thinking the name unlucky, re-christened her “Norah.” The town then comprised thirty-six buildings, of all descriptions.
In 1861, the population had increased and the number of buildings had been augmented till they constituted a fairsized page 500 village; and as there was no local authority, a Vigilance Committee of seventeen members was elected to look after the general good and the requirements of the town. Through its instrumentality a Town Board Ordinance was passed in December, 1862. The nine members constituting the Board were elected in February, 1863, and at once set to work to make some of the streets passable, although the Board had no money or rating power, but was dependent on the Provincial Council for funds. The area of the town was 1111½ acres, with nearly thirty miles of streets, of which over two miles were two chains wide, while many of them passed over steep and uneven ground and crossed spurs and gullies, as well as the large brook that ran through the town, which required two good sized bridges; the one in Thames Street had to be two chains.
In 1866 the Board gave way to the Municipal Council, for Oamaru was declared a borough on the 3rd of April of that year. The first Mayor, Mr. John Campbell Gilchrist, was elected on the 21st of July, 1866. He was one of the very early settlers.
In July, 1867, another early colonist, Mr. Samuel Gibbs, was elected the second Mayor of Oamaru, and was reelected in 1868–1869–1879, and 1880. Mr. James Udall, a merchant, was elected in 1870 and 1871; Dr. J. S. Wait in 1872 and 1873. Mr. Samuel Edward Shrimski in 1874, and Mr. George Sumpter in 1875. Mr. Sumpter was also one of the members of the Harbour Board from its constitution in 1874, and was chairman of the Board from 1877 to 1891. In 1876 Mr. W. J. Steward (now Sir William) was elected Mayor, and it was during his administration of three years that the town's water supply was inaugurated. The scheme of Mr. D. A. McLeod, C.E., was adopted, and he was appointed engineer at £1000 a year. The total length of the race is twenty-six miles thirty-five chains from the intake to the reservoir; the ground, with the exception of a few miles, is hilly. It is an open race 2 fect 6 inches wide at the bottom, having an average depth of 4 feet, and a width of 9 feet at the surface. The general fall is 1 in 3960, except for a few miles from the intake, where it is about 18 feet to the mile. Where the gullies were not long the race was formed round them and back to the face of the spur, but where the detour would have been too great the water was carried over the gully in fluming. There are six large aqueducts; the longest is 600 feet long, the highest trestle having an altitude of 87 feet. There are five tunnels aggregating 138 chains. The reservoir covers an area of fifteen acres, calculated to contain £1,000,000 gallons, the floor being 235 feet above high water mark. Thus sufficient presure is obtained to raise the water to any part of the town. In 1876 the borough loans amounted to only £35,000, but in March, 1878, the first waterworks loan of £60,000 was raised in London. It was readily taken up, and realised a gross sum of £62,152; but page 501 this amount was found to be insufficient and a further sum of £50,000 was borrowed in March, 1880, and subsequent borrowings brought the total indebtedness, on account of water supply, to about £140,000. On the 2nd of September, 1880, after many delays, the waterworks were completed and publicly opened. One result has been the decrease of the death-rate from 10.4 per 1000 to 8.9 per 1000.
The liabilities of the borough are heavy, but the rateable value of the town is only £31,809, and the rates are not so high as is generally supposed. They are only 2s 9d in the £, with a water rate added on a sliding scale, averaging about 1s 1d in the £, and making the total 3s 11d. The advantages of the water supply are so great that it is hardly fair to call the charge made for it a rate. The harbour rate is in addition to the borough rate.
Oamaru is the concentrating point of four railway lines and has direct communication with Dunedin, Christchurch, Kurow, and Tokarahi, of course including all intermediate stations. The line to Christchurch was opened for traffic on the 1st of February, 1877, and to Dunedin on the 6th of September, 1878. Unfortunately, the railway to Dunedin has, under a differential tariff, carried the produce of the district away, and assisted to take the trade and shipping to other ports, and thus Oamaru has lost the profits as well as the credit of a large proportion of her exports. However, since the Government adopted the policy of acquiring large estates in North Otago, and granting leases in perpetuity, to induce closer settlement, there has been a rapid increase in the rural population, which has largely tended to increase the prosperity of the town. Oamaru serves as a market town for some of the settlements of South Canterbury, in addition to North Otago. At the census of 1961 the borough had a population of 4836—now (1904) increased to about 5200—exclusive of the suburbs of Newborough on the north, Waiareka on the west, and South Oamaru to the south, which, amongst them, have fully 1000 inhabitants.
Oamaru is notable for its remarkably fine, dry, and bracing climate, and if there is fine weather about anywhere, it is abundantly enjoyed at Oamaru. The streets of the borough are nearly all named after British rivers. Thames Street is a notable thoroughfare, flanked on the east side by banks and retail business places and shops. On the western side are the Corporation offices, the post office, the Athenæum, gaol, police station, courthouse, offices of the Waitaki County Council, and business premises and residences. The railway, in its course through the borough, crosses Thames and Severn Streets, and skirts the beautiful public gardens through which flows the Oamaru creek. The local governing bodies include the Oamaru Borough Council, Harbour Board, and Waitaki County Council, besides the Committees of the Hospital and the Benevolent Institution. There are two Presbyterian churches, one Anglican, Roman Catholic, Wesleyan, and Baptist, a Salvation Army corps, and a Church of Christ. The prominent buildings include the Roman Catholic Basilica and convent, St. Paul's Presbyterian Church, Columba Presbyterian Church, Meek's Elevator, the Bank of New Zealand, National Bank, and Bank of New South Wales, the Athenæum, and Girls' High School. There is abundant accommodation at the numerous hotels and boardinghouses for visitors and travellers. Oamaru numbers amongst its local industries three flour mills, the largest of which is the Crown Roller Mills, the New Zealand Refrigerating Works, the Oamaru Woollen Mills, and two sawmills. The schools include the Waitaki Boys' High School, the Girls' High School—the former of which is in the suburb of Eveline — three large public schools, and the Roman Catholic convent seminary, and primary school. Many of the wholesale places of business and solicitors' offices are situated in Tyne Street. A notable landmark of the early days stands at the top of Severn Street in the tall dismantled windmill tower, which has not been in use during the last quarter of a century, but remains a monument to pioneer enterprise, and a testimony to the quickness with which some industrial methods are superseded by others in a progressive colony. It should be mentioned that the Farmers' Co-operative Association is one of the most important of Oamaru's modern institutions.