The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 9 (December 1, 1934)
The Genesis of a Great Junction — Frankton, Yesterday and To-Day
In 1867, from “Our Lady of the Snows,” a farmer came to New Zealand with ten years pioneering in Ontario to his credit. He bought 540 acres adjoining the infant military settlement of Hamilton, then less than three years old. The greater portion of the land was the grant of a Major, who had little inclination towards farming, and who afterwards became one of the best known Stipendiary Magistrates in the South Island. The land was a wilderness of fern and manuka, flax and rushes, but much of it had at one time been intensively cultivated by the Maoris.
Much of the hill land adjoining Lake Rotoroa had been in peach trees, and a splendid grove was still in full bearing about where the street called Queen's Avenue now runs. Just below it, where the Railway Department has recently erected a giant turn-table, there was a raupo swamp on the edge of which were two or three large apple trees, which even in that far-off day were moss grown and hoary with age. In the swamps, kahikatea and pukatea were still standing, and the giant boles of fallen rimus and a few kauris were half-submerged in the water and peat. The farmer working himself with feverish energy, and employing many of the Fourth Waikato militia men who still remained at Hamilton, cleared and ploughed the land, drained the swamps, which necessitated a big outlet to lower the lake, and in a few years had the makings of a fine farm. About the year 1875, surveyors appeared on the property and started laying off a railway line. Where Commerce Street crossing now is there was a small clump of bush (still standing with many native birds in it. Here it was decided the station buildings should go. The earthwork formation of the line was carried out by a fine body of men known as the Armed Navvies, who had Enfield rifles issued to them.
After a year or two, when the formation had settled down, platelaying commenced, and the first engines made their appearance. The engines of those days were not known by numbers, but were called after heroes and heroines in Scott's novels and poems. Names that I remember were “Ivanhoe,” “Marmion,” “Lord of the Isles,” and “Jeanie Deans.” There was also one of slightly different type-the “Fairlie Snake.” There were pigmies compared with the engines of to-day, but seemed to haul big loads, and travel in reverse, as I cannot remember any turntable nearer than Mercer.
One fine summer day, in 1878, the first passenger train came, and was welcomed by a big crowd (for those days) of perhaps three hundred persons. I did not notice which of Sir Walter's heroes broke the ribbon, but would like to think that it was “Ivanhoe.” Many young Hamiltonians had their first ride in a train that day, as the school children were given a short trip to Te Rapa. In the afternoon a sale of town lots and farmlets in the village of Frankton was held by J. D. and K. Hill in a recently erec5ted auction mart in Hamilton. This was probably the first sale of sub-divisions ever held in the Waikato. The prices realized were not large, the top price, £32, being paid for the corner on which the Hotel Frankton now stands; most of the farmlets sold at from £10 to £15 per acre. The first stationmaster, Mr. George Caldwell, came from Picton, where he had been in charge. He had been an officer in one of the line regiments before coming to New Zealand, was a fine type of man, and deservedly popular. At first two trains up and down were running, but this proved to be too much for the business available and for a long time one train was sufficient to cope with the traffic. The page 37 railway at first was not an unmixed blessing to the Waikato. One of the first trains brought a consignment of oats from the South which sold at 2/6 per bushel–prior to the advent of the line the farmers had been getting 5/-.
For a long time farming conditions were very bad indeed. The next forward movement was the building of a short branch line to Hamilton, and the extension of the main line to Te Awamutu, which was for a considerable time the railhead. The haulage on the branch to Hamilton was done by horse, under contract by W. H. Kelly, one of the Fourth Waikatos, who lived to be the last survivor of the regiment that founded Hamilton.
“They came with spade and rifle, the land to have and hold;
They built their scattered homesteads in those strenuous days of old.”
A single carriage, and one or two trucks supplied all the rail transport needs of the town in those days. Coaches, with picturesque jarvies, conveyed passengers from Cambridge and other places to the infant junction. The Frankton of those days consisted of a hotel and nine or ten houses. The population of Hamilton was about 1,200, and stood at that figure for fully fifteen years.
Meanwhile the Waikato River had been bridged, and the line extended to Morrinsville, and another line to Cambridge. The extension from Morrinsville to Te Aroha, the leaping of the Puniu, and construction of the Main Trunk line towards Wellington, further extension to the Thames, Waihi and Rotorua, together with the general advancement of the country owing to the expansion of the dairying industry, now began to make Frankton go ahead by leaps and bounds, both as a railway junction and as a town.
At Rotorua became more accessible notabilities began to come through Frankton on their way to the Hot Lakes. The Duke and Duchess of Cornwall stopped at the junction for lunch, the goods shed being requisitioned as a banqueting hall for the staff and attendants. On the return journey the Royal train was stopped at Frankton, and refreshments were served to our distinguished guests in their carriage. All that the writer remembers seeing of the Duke was the back of his head, but the stately lady who is now Queen of England, came to a window and bowed graciously in acknowledgment of our cheers.
Later on, that great soldier, Sir Hector McDonald, passed through, and was entertained in a marquee by Hamilton citizens.
When the Imperial troops visited New Zealand at the conclusion of the Boer War, small drafts of the various regiments were halted at Frankton for refreshments. Representatives of the Indian army did not line up outside but mostly stayed in their carriages. Tall, bearded Sikhs and stocky Ghurkas heavily bemedalled attracted much attention from those who could see them–one of the old Fourth Waikatos, a man of very low stature, could not, and much amusement was caused when a stalwart son of one of erstwhile comrades, lifted him up to a window to f east his eye upon those fine soldiers.
With the completion of the Main Trunk line to Wellington large alterations to the railway yard had become necessary. By this time the town had a population of about 5,000, with its own municipality (now amalgamated with Hamilton), and together with Ngaruawahia was the first to install electricity in the Waikato. The large number of railway enpolyees and their difficulty in securing homes at a reasonable rent induced the Department to erect a sanmill and house factory, per media of which, what is practically a model suburb of comfortable bungalows with all modern conveniences came into being. The Department has also, with commendable consideration, provided many amenities in the shape of an Institute hall, football ground, and a very fine bowling green, tennis courts and croquet lawn. It is probable that this railway junction, which started from such small beginnings, is now the busiest in the Dominion, and almost any extension of the North Island railways will add to its importance.