The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 12 (April 1, 1929)
“The Manawatu” — A Story of Pioneer Railway Enterprise
A Story of Pioneer Railway Enterprise
In a thesis written for the degree of Master of Arts in History, Mr. G. A. Mill, B.A., recently presented a history of the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company (1882–1909) in which he described the manner in which a group of plucky and patriotic Wellington citizens took in hand the construction of a railway, and how they succeeded in making a payable proposition of a venture which, at times, was regarded by their contemporaries as a forlorn hope. In the following article will be found some extracts from Mr. Mills' valuable treatise.
In 1878 the region between Wellington and the tiny hamlet of Palmerston North was a wilderness of forest and flax and swamp lands, a veritable terra incognita. That was the day when wool values determined the prosperity or otherwise of New Zealand. Refrigeration was then a “newfangled notion.” The adventurers who desired to venture abroad to Foxton journeyed in an eight-horse coach which travelled along the beach, two wheels in the sea, in ten mile stages. The advocates of a railway into this wilderness were regarded by many people in those days as harmless eccentrics, but the idea, having taken root, was carefully nurtured by enthusiasts who lived to see the realisation of their dreams and to hear the acclamations of the local populace.
When it was first proposed to build a railway from the city most people favoured a line through the Hutt Valley. When this line had been completed the question arose as to whether the Wairarapa or the Manawatu systems should next be undertaken. Persistent agitation triumphed, and that unique piece of construction, the Rimutaka Incline, came into existence. Between 1875–80 the building of a railway between Wanganui, Palmerston North and Foxton, the introduction of Scandanavian settlers and the judicious sale of land demonstrated to all the wonderful potentialities of the northern parts of the Manawatu and districts farther up the coast. About this time people began to think of a main line of railway to connect Wellington with Auckland.
The tremendous cost of working the Rimutaka Incline (the five miles were counted as ten for the purposes of charges and fares) and the limited number of trains worked, as well as the extra amount of time occupied on the journey, definitely ruled out the proposal that the main trunk should follow the Wairarapa route. The Manawatu Gorge was at that time considered page 28 another stumbling block. It was realised by those who gave any thought to the matter that if an economical line was to be built from overland to the capital it would have to follow the shortest and easiest route. The Manawatu, which was bound sooner or later to need a railway, satisfied each prerequisite condition. However, before the Government could think of construction, it was necessary that the native titles should be extinguished and the land thrown open for settlement.
The man who seems to have taken an early active interest in the project was Mr. James Wallace, a grocer of Lambton Quay, Wellington, who owned land in the Porirua and Upper Manawatu Districts. He travelled between his various interests fairly frequently and seems to have been one of the first to realise the importance and possibilities of the district. Before 1870 he had interested several, including Mr. E. G. Wakefield, in the route. Later he brought the proposal before the Hon. Mr. Macandrew, Public Works Minister of the Grey Ministry (1877–9) with the result that in the Public Works estimates of 1878 proposals were brought down for a line through the district. Speaking on the question the Minister said: “In addition to the area of 300,000 acres of Maori land, 180,000 of which have been under negotiation for some time, the line will render available for settlement 100,000 acres now in the hands of the Crown; and there can be no doubt that taken together the lands will eventually realise an amount which will go far towards covering the cost of the proposed railway. I think Parliament and the people will agree with me that the sooner the connection is made the better it will be for the country.” The Minister had surveyors out, also. There were three alternate routes, and the difficulty was to find one which in every respect was suitable. By the time the House met to receive his statement in 1879 Macandrew was able to report the expenditure of £1,500 on surveys and preliminary work. For six miles, near Wellington, the line had been located and pegged ready for the letting of contracts. Contracts let included £9,000 for rolling stock from England, £4,700 for miscellaneous plant, and £805 for construction. Preliminary surveys had covered 23 miles of the Wellington end and 8 miles between Foxton and Levin.
It was hoped to have 1,000,000 acres available for settlement when the line had reached the Manawatu. The plan was to reserve to the Crown the increase in value due to the railway, utilising such profits to pay for the line. However, in October, 1879, Sir George Grey's ministry was defeated on a motion of censure alleging extravagant and imprudent expenditure, and Sir John Hall became Premier, pledged to prudence and economy.page 29
Train services in New Zealand were reduced by 370,000 train miles and the speeds also cut down. Pessimism reigned. Few believed that any of the existing lines would return even interest charges, while all agreed that money had been frittered away without adequate return in many small undertakings.
So a Commission was set up to report on the proposed line. After a flying trip through the country they returned and condemned it by bell, book and candle, on the grounds that the proposal was premature, the country it would open up was still in the bands of the native owners, and that the value of the land that would be served was greatly over-rated. They advised that the expenditure at the Wellington end be at once stopped and the labour employed thereon transferred to the Masterton and Mauriceville section.
The Commission's report had one important effect. Whereas previously there had been general lassitude towards the project, now public opinion became animated in its favour. Deputations waited on Ministers, meetings were held, articles and letters appeared in the press. All extolled the advantages of the line and spoke candidly of the iniquitous short-sightedness of the Commissioners.
Mr. John Plimmer, “the Father of Wellington,” at once threw his hat into the ring. He advocated the formation of a company and expressed the conviction that there would be few people in Wellington or on the West Coast who would not take shares in it. The agitation took a practical form at a meeting of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce on 29th September, 1880, when Mr. W. T. L. Travers brought down a series of resolutions in favour of a private company to carry on the work and inviting neighbouring districts to participate in the movement. Mr. Plimmer, in speaking to the motion, gave the views of many of the business men:
“I know we can save some hundreds of thousands of pounds per year in what can be produced in the district if the West Coast line is completed. If the theory is put into proper form I am willing to take up £1,000 worth of shares. If I lose that thousand and the railway is made I will gain £5,000; if the railway is not made I will lose £5,000.”
On his motion the meeting carried a resolution in favour of the formation of a company. The Committee appointed composed Messrs. Travers, Levin, Johnston, Moorhouse, Jas. Wallace, Shannon, Brandon, M.H.R., Hutchison, M.H.R., George, Greenfield, Woodward, A. Young, Plimmer, J. H. Wallace, Hon. P. Buckley, and Dr. Grace; Mr. J. Wallace acting as secretary.page 30
Here in such cautious beginnings we see success for the Company to be formed by these business people of substance and note. The committee set to work at once. Their first step was to deputationise the Government in an endeavour to persuade them to continue the line, but with no success. Negotiations were then entered into to discover what concessions the Government would offer. The result was that the Government offered to give to a company all the work done, rights over land, all rolling stock, plant or materials on the spot or on the water, together with the right to reclaim a piece of land between Pipitea and Kaiwarra with the spoil from the tunnels, etc., to serve as a station site.
The proposals which the Company in its turn brought before the Government were three in number. The first was that the Government should guarantee a reasonable amount of interest on the capital with a view to tempting the British investor. Next it was proposed that the Crown lands through which the line would pass should be charged with the cost of the railway, thus purchasing the line for the country. Thirdly they desired that the Company should receive a grant, about 100,000 acres of Crown land along the route. The proposals of the Committee were refused, and late in December all the city had guessed that the Committee had turned down as insufficient all the proposals of the Government.
Some of your griefs you have cured,
And the sharpest you still have survived;
But what torments of pain you endured
From evils that never arrived!
—Emerson: translated from old French.