Was It All Cricket?
Chapter 37 — Port Craig — Venture and Adventure
Venture and Adventure
The sawmilling industry has passed through many ups and downs in New Zealand. In its earliest years, mills were owned by individuals who had moved up from the ranks. With their practical knowledge they had, within certain limits, been able to manage their own affairs and cope with the growing demand that came from a population that was ever increasing. At first a standard mill produced an output of approximately one million feet per annum, if worked full-handed. For the most part they were worked single-handed; that is, the men from the breaking-down bench, after cutting the log into flitches, moved over to the breast bench to cut into boards and scantlings. These two benches represented the total sawing plant. The bush was always handy to the mills. In Southland and Auckland bullocks were used to haul the logs; when the length of this haul increased, a wooden tram-line was laid and horse-drawn trucks took the logs to the mill. Many concerns were of the most primitive nature, yet, though they pulled and hauled and sawed in a manner that would be considered old-fashioned to-day, they nevertheless maintained the output necessary to supply the needs of every district.
At the time of the formation of the Marlborough Timber Company, with its mills at Opouri Valley, a limited number of sawmilling companies were already operating in different parts of the country. The day of the bullocks had passed, and horses were fast disappearing. The introduction of steam log-haulers, steam locomotives and more modern mill plants now involved much greater capital expenditure.
It was this fact, more than any other, that hastened the formation of combined company interests, for only they and the successful sawmiller of the past were able to keep up with the increased expenditure required. The mills Craig erected in Opouri Valley were already an advance in the way of improved methods of production. The old-fashioned saw benches had page 509 been retained, but many improvements had been added, such as return feed on the breast benches, and also a crane at the log bank. Steam log-haulers were in the bush, and locomotives hauled the trucks of logs to the mill. I speak of South Island sawmilling, for in the North Auckland peninsula different methods were needed to cope with the big kauri trees.
John Craig was a studious man, and we arranged to have sent to him from the Pacific coast the Timberman, one of America's best industrial magazines. Over the years he had read of the development of modern sawmill practice and logging operations.
The building of an extra mill in the Opouri Valley shortened the life of our operations there and in a time that was all too short, we began to look for another area of bush. We were now strongly established on the different markets, and planned an enterprise on a bigger scale. In anticipation of more modern plant in the mills that we would build, it was decided to send Craig to America and Canada to see the industry at work on the Pacific coast. He came back with immense enthusiasm for the methods Americans and Canadians had developed to such a high state of efficiency. He became a convert to the overhead logging system, and was able to tell a tale of operations the like of which we had never dreamed. We all became enthusiasts for the building of a mill such as was now outlined by Craig. He told us many delightful stories of the kindness of the Americans and Canadians and how they went out of their way to show him everything that could be of interest.
We had now to find an area of bush worthy of the mill we would build. Craig visited Wairoa in Hawkes Bay to inspect an area of freehold bush on the banks of the Mohaka River, in which Cornelius, my brother-in-law, was interested. The bush was splendid, but there appeared to be no way of getting the timber to the markets on which we operated, for the Mohaka River was not navigable and Wairoa a shallow draught harbour. Next, a property on the shores of West Haven Harbour, at the extreme north-west of the South Island, and a little south of Farewell Spit, was inspected. This was originally a large area of forest, but several small mills had already nibbled here and there and spoilt what was an otherwise ideal place for our combined timber and shipping interests: it was now too far encroached upon to fulfil our requirements.
Shortly after this we learnt of a very large area in the ex- page 510 treme south of New Zealand. Craig was a Southlander and seemed anxious to return to the province of his birth. When we eventually inspected the site, it was found to be in a very inaccessible place on the western side of Te Wae Wae Bay. The only place for a harbour in this wide, open bay, so exposed to the south, was at Mussel Beach, where nothing better than an open roadstead seemed possible for shipping. On arrival at Invercargill, Craig and I arranged for James Collins, the Government Timber Ranger, to accompany us. As he was the man who acted for the Lands Department in the sale of bush, and had not previously traversed this part of the country, he was glad to go. Two half-caste Maoris, Jim Donaldson and Barny Prince, were engaged, and away we went to establish camp at Mussel Beach. These men proved invaluable, for both knew the country, were splendid rifle shots and excellent cooks. As pigeons and kakas were plentiful it will be realized how well we fed after a hard day in the bush.
For two weeks we explored the territory. The country proved to be an enormous area of bush that ran back into the hills behind our camp, along the coast to Sand Hill Point, about five miles to the south, and from there, in a westerly direction, beyond the Wairaurahiri River, towards Preservation Inlet. Lake Hauroto, more than twenty miles long, the source of this fast-flowing river, lies some twenty-five miles inland and as the best tracts of mixed bush covered extensive milling areas on both sides of the river, and around the lake, the amount of timber available may be imagined. We estimated that there were more than five hundred million feet of timber, including a considerable percentage of beech. This staggering figure fired our imaginations, and we began to plan for the future. The only anxiety at that time appeared to be the harbour facilities; our first intention was to build a breakwater that would give protection to steamers of the size of the Opouri, and load the bigger ships from lighters in the bay.
I was en route to Australia when this first inspection was carried out, and Craig came with me, making his first visit to the Commonwealth. We left from the Bluff and on the first afternoon out, as the Manuka steamed along the south coast, were able to get a good view through field-glasses of the country we had so recently explored.
When we told our timber friends on the other side about page 511 Mussel Beach they were much impressed, for the place would have direct sea communication with Australia. Alex Saxton, the biggest timber merchant in Sydney at that time, immediately said, “I'll put in ‘so much’ “—and he spoke in thousands. As Stewart and also Albert Guthrey of the Union Box Company became interested, it will be understood how we were spurred on to proceed with this scheme.
On returning to Christchurch we had a number of meetings to discuss the proposition. It was decided that we should all go down to inspect the place. It was a big party, and all went in holiday spirit. We took the train to Invercargill, and then on by rail again to Tuatapere. There we hired conveyances to drive us to the coast and along the beach to Bluecliffs, a distance of about ten miles. The last leg of the journey was through the surf in a flat-bottomed surf boat to a launch waiting to take us to Mussel Beach. It was as though the vendors of the bush had put on a special treat for us for, although it was mid-winter, we experienced perfect weather and crossed the bay in a sea calm enough for a rowing boat.
We pitched tents and soon learned who were the good housekeepers. Richard Scott, our Chairman, who was used to camping out, was champion—as the Geordies say—at managing affairs at cooking and meal times, and although we had our two batmen he was the real chef. Fish was plentiful, and with so many birds in the bush, we again fed as Craig, Collins and I had a few months earlier. A warm gulf stream runs through Foveaux Strait and gives Stewart Island the temperate climate for which it is noted; it also affected Mussel Beach and gave it a climate much wanner than other parts of Southland. Tucked away in the corner of Te Wae Wae Bay, it was sheltered from the sou'west winds, which made it a peaceful spot.
The inspection of the bush was cursory, but pleasant. Most of the party were past middle age and a walk as far as Sand Hill Point was enough, though some went farther afield. We spent a week in this camp. The walks, the weather, the tucker and merry camp life were a real tonic to men used to a city life. The success at Pelorus Sound had made everyone an optimist so far as sawmilling was concerned, and Craig's considered judgment of the place was sufficient to convince all that here was a place that our sons would be able to carry on for many a day.page 512
On our return along the beach we again stopped at “Kelly's Pub,” discovered on the outward journey by Peter Graham and John Greig; this was a wonderful little waterfall from a spring above that gave ice-cold water as clear as crystal. As these old Scotsmen were of a generation when flasks were carried in the hip pocket the brightness of the “morning tea” party may be imagined.
It was now decided to take up options on four thousand acres of bush surrounding Mussel Beach. This would have the immediate effect of locking up all the areas of bush in the back country, most of which were native lands. It could hardly be called deliberate “gridironing,” for Mussel Beach was the only suitable port for the whole district.
Craig always stayed with me when he came to Christchurch, and after the decision to proceed with the scheme we spent days and nights planning—always planning and estimating. My wife used to say we were crazy and laughingly asked, “Can't you talk anything but sawmills?”
At last all was decided and orders placed for the sawmill plant. The total cost was enormous compared with the more primitive New Zealand saw benches and log-haulers, but this modern machinery was estimated to reduce considerably the cost of sawing and logging. For the mill, we decided upon a complete plant from the Sumner Iron Works of Everett, U.S.A., and for the bush, the Lidgerwood Overhead Logging Plant; these had impressed Craig as being best on the Pacific coast.
With our Nydia Bay mills nearing the cutting out of the bush, it was decided to transfer one mill to Mussel Beach to be used for sawing the timber required for the building of the big mill and all houses, stores, and huts, as well as the dance hall and billiard room that were to make up this new sawmill village. Away went Craig, full of zeal and enthusiasm for the great undertaking he had in hand. Always a tremendous worker, he was now to work harder than ever before. In the middle forties, he was in the prime of life.
We arrived at Tuatapere at day-break and on reaching the beach found a heavy sea, backed by a southerly gale, dashing up on the foreshore where numbers of our men were patrolling. During the night the launch had broken away from her mooring and was being pounded by the breakers as she lay broadside on to the sea. The surf boat above high water mark, the launch lying helplessly in the rough sea, and the anxious expressions on the faces of the watchers, left little doubt in our minds that the worst had happened. It is perhaps idle conjecture to try to piece together the events that caused the tragedy. On my previous visit to the mill I had said to the boatman, “What would happen if you were thrown into the water with those gumboots on?” Parry, the best boatman in the district, laughed and said that would never happen to him.
The story may briefly be told. The small mill was completed and ready to get steam up. Craig had ordered a hand pump to fill the boiler, but bad weather had delayed the small cargo steamer that traded to our mill settlement. Becoming impatient, Craig telephoned, ordering the pump to be railed to Tuatapere to catch the wagon that maintained a connection with the mill by carting along the beach to the launch that ran across the bay from Bluecliff.
All went well until the cart reached the Waikoau River which was in flood. The carter decided to lighten his load before attempting to cross the swollen stream. As bad luck would have it, and not knowing how anxious Craig was to get the pump, he took it out and left it on the bank. When the launch arrived at the mill Craig was on the wharf to meet it. He was distressed and angry!, It would have been easy, if slow, page 514 to fill the boiler by bucket, but, having gone to so much trouble to get the pump from the Bluff he was not going to be thwarted in this way. Turning to Parry, the boatman, he said, “Hurry up and have some lunch, Fred, and I'll go back with you.”
Off they went. After the departure of the launch the wind freshened and some of the men told me that they watched with anxious eyes the progress of the small craft when crossing the bay. Knowing the Waikoau was in flood and the pump lying on the far bank, they apparently decided to go straight to the river mouth and land through the surf of the open beach. This was frequently done in a calm sea, but white tops were showing by the time they reached their destination.
That is all we know of the story, but there is evidence sufficient to piece together events leading to the happening. Craig's boots were found above high water mark, and it is surmised that when he saw Parry in difficulties, as he would be with his gumboots on, he returned to the surf to try and save his boatman. When, in due course, the bodies were washed ashore, it was found that Parry had managed to discard one gumboot only. It is possible to picture the scene of these two men bravely fighting for their lives and making desperate efforts to get rid of the waterlogged gumboot that stood between life and death for them both. Additional light is thrown upon the character of Craig when it is said that a well-worn copy of the New Testament was found in his pocket.
This tragedy of the sea was to cast a gloom over our saw-milling township. In John Craig we lost a very dear friend, as well as a manager of outstanding ability. He was one of New Zealand's foremost men in the sawmilling industry.
We were now to learn how difficult it was to find a successor to Craig. First one manager, then another, then a third was tried, but the job proved too big for them.
In the midst of our dilemma we were to suffer another cruel blow. Less than a year after John Craig's death, his brother James, who was in charge of our tram-way gang in the construction of the main line, was caught in an explosion when, in a cutting, he staved behind to light the fuse that was to fire a charge of gunpowder. We were never to know whether it was the match carelessly thrown away, or a spark from the fuse that fired the box of powder he had failed to remove to a safe place. It was as though an apparition had appeared when this page 515 brave man, mortally injured, emerged from the smoke and walked slowly towards his comrades. His hair, eyebrows, and moustache were burnt off, and his shirt torn from his badly burned body. Strong men were moved to tears as they looked upon this distressing sight, and were amazed at the fortitude of the victim of the sad mishap. The effect of the burns made his skin too tender to have them carry him and he managed to walk down to the settlement. There he received such treatment as could be given before putting him aboard the Ketch at anchor ready to cross the bay to Riverton where there was a hospital. He died three days later. James Craig, like his brother, was a fine character; his courage in this moment of anguish will ever be remembered.
The machinery from America was now arriving and the work of landing it on the site was a task of some magnitude. We hired a ten ton crane from the Timaru Harbour Board and this, stationed on the wharf, was able to handle most of the heavy lifts from the lighters. It was impossible to handle the boilers in this way; these had to be put over the ship's side into the sea. Although the tubes were plugged, there was very little buoyancy, and they looked like submarines when being towed ashore to the little sandy beach where they were rolled above high water mark.
But the all-important work was to get the big mill erected and the tram-lines laid into the bush. The first five miles of this line had to cut across the lay of the country, and this meant numerous cuttings, many of them through rocky points of the spurs that fanned out to the foreshore. Round Sand Hill Point two expensive bridges had to be built; one of them across a deep gully, at the bottom of which ran a stream one hundred and twenty feet below.
Even before the building of these bridges we had become anxious about the management of the place. The control of a settlement of a hundred men, many of them with wives and families, called for a man with wider experience and qualifications than are required of the ordinary mill manager. The construction part of the job was big enough without the responsibility of providing the amenities and services that were required to make the people happy and contented. The Sumner Iron Works of America had sent to us a man named Wright to plan the mill on the site and work in the alterations Craig had page 516 specified to suit local conditions. He made an excellent job of this, and the ability he showed prompted us to ask him to stay on and manage the whole scheme until the mill was in full operation. But Wright proved to be a mill designer only; the responsibility of handling men was too much for him.
We then appointed Peter Daly as manager; he was a rugged New Zealander of full-blooded Irish parentage. He was big, strong, forceful, and brainy. Daly had been trained on the fringe of the time when men were driven along at their work, and he retained some of the characteristics of those times, but he also possessed the ability to handle men considerately, as we understand it to-day.
I have referred to Bob Lamb's habit of swearing, for it was a habit and always liable to occur in ordinary conversation. With Daly it was different, for it was only when angered that he burst into “song.” Then he could be heard for miles around. An Irishman's flashing anger is over in a moment and no one took umbrage at what he said. His friends told a good story of his young days, when, working with his father on a bridge contract, Daly junior struck his thumb with a hammer and then let go with a flow of profanity that shocked his father who rebuked him with a pious reference to his church, but Peter, still suffering pain, yelled back, “To hell with the Pope!”
Daly's management and capacity for construction work was soon to restore order out of chaos. He also tackled the liquor question in resolute fashion. Just as at Nydia Bay, we found there was a sly grog seller on every ship that came into the port. It mattered not whether it was a Monday or a Friday when the ship sailed, there was bound to be a carousal in the settlement that night. It was not an easy matter to smuggle ashore unnoticed, say, a crate or a keg of beer; on the other hand, it was easy to manage bottles of whisky. The result was that men used to drinking beer would soon feel the effects of taking spirits. Some would become merry and bright and want to sing, others turned sullen and quarrelsome. Inevitably the end would be laughter and song, sometimes turning to fights that resulted in black eyes and bleeding noses. Next morning several men would be absent from work Daly watched this happen several times and then decided to act. Calling the men together he announced in characteristic manner that these drinking bouts had to stop. He threatened to sack any man on the spot and page 517 said that if he caught a cook or a steward bringing liquor into the place he would chuck him overboard! After this outburst he said he had no wish to interfere with their liberties, but insisted on some form of regulation in this traffic in liquor. He then made a novel suggestion; he said that any man could order, and have consigned to himself, whatever liquor he wanted, provided that on arrival it was held in the Company's store until Saturday night. The men jumped at this proposal. In due course small kegs of beer and cases of bottled ale began to arrive. As there was always a dance in the settlement on Saturday nights, the first try-out of the scheme was not without its moments of anxiety. Even in outlandish places, and among the most rugged men, women always have a refining influence, and this was soon evident on these occasions. No one drank to excess, and most of the carry-over was imbibed on Sunday morning. All were ready for work on Monday. It was as though the forbidden fruit had lost some of its savour when feats of clever smuggling gave way to open purchase.
This system remained over the years at Port Craig, and proved to be a successful way of handling what is often a difficult problem. Apart from illustrating Peter Daly's shrewdness and knowledge of men of this type, it was to prove that understanding and tolerance are better weapons than total prohibition. The United States took some years of trial to find this out and in the process presented to the world one of its greatest Jokes; prohibition that did not prohibit! It gave a new and sometimes ugly meaning to the American coined word “boot-legging.” It also produced an Al Capone!
The men now worked better, and we moved on towards our goal. But the hand of Fate still hovered over us, for another fatal accident was to fill us with grief. The launch was going over to Bluecliff to meet the wagon and bring back stores. The tide was unsuited for carrying the goods along the short stretch of beach from the cart to the landing stage; so that both launchmen could do this work, young Basil Cox, in his middle teens, a son of our head yardman, was sent to help them. The launch had been anchored a short distance away and the surf boat moored close to the overhanging landing stage which was reached by a rope ladder. A rope from the stern of the boat was then attached to the landing stage. When the men went away to get the stores they left young Cox to look after the boat page 518 which was riding easily over a small swell that came in at regular intervals. When the men came back the boat was upside down and the lad missing. It was assumed that when the men tied the stern of the boat to the landing stage, they had not left enough loose rope to allow the boat to swing freely to its anchor and in a head-on position to the swell of the sea. The proverbial big three must have rolled in and, held at each end, the boat turned over.
Was there to be no end to this sequence of tragic happenings that had so sorely distressed us and cost the lives of four men? It was as though there was a hoodoo over the place. Men began to be scared to make the trip in the launch and surf boat and later many preferred to go by the timber steamer to the Bluff across the stretch of rough sea in Foveaux Strait.
We had now passed through a period that was full of anxiety and sadness. The progress of the work had suffered in consequence, but was now sufficiently advanced for the installation of the machinery. The Sumner Iron Works sent out a man named Wilder. He could beat Daly at swearing, but many of his expressions grated on one's ears, for he was continuously blasphemous. His sense of humour was his saving grace.
Next came Markey, sent out to break in our team to the working of this American plant. He was a quiet man with a pleasant, genial nature, and was to prove the butt of many of Wilder's jokes. All his front teeth were heavily stopped with gold fillings. One day Wilder said, “Shut your gob, Markey, or someone'll rob you!”
Wilder facetiously called our logs “tooth picks”; they were certainly smaller than some of the Pacific coast timbers that grow to such height and girth. He was a great raconteur, and told amazing stories of his experiences in Burma, where he was sent to erect an American sawmill plant. His stories of tigers and snakes were lurid—even frightening. He always painted with a heavy brush and his colouring and filling in of details often held his audience spell-bound.
We were now nearing the completion of the job, but worries other than fatal accidents were now looming ahead. As in the early days of Nydia Bay, the strain on our resources became very great and a darkened horizon was warning of an approaching storm; first it seemed a long way off as we crowded on sail to finish. The long delay in completing the work, and the page 519 difficulty of obtaining efficient labour in such an out-of-the-way place had added enormously to the cost. The capital expenditure we had budgeted for had long since been absorbed. More and more money had been poured in; some had been additional capital, some arranged for by an increased overdraft at the bank, the latest additions being covered by guarantees. Surely the tide of adversity and the sadness of the happenings were in themselves distressing enough without the threatening approach of financial difficulties for the company?
Shortly after Daly had taken over the management, he expressed to me some doubt about the possibility of the expenditure being kept within the bounds required to make the undertaking a financial success. As he had not traversed the back country as Craig and I had at the outset, I suggested he should see what was behind the venture and what had made Craig plan so boldly. Taking a bushmen with us, we went away around Sand Hill Point and spent many days in the bush. On our return to Port Craig—the new name given to the place in memory of our late manager—we spent a day climbing to the trig station where, from a height of 1,500 feet, there was a wonderful view in every direction. As we stood and looked down on the terraces along the south coast and saw the miles of bush country extending far beyond that which we had just traversed, Daly turned to me and said, “Now you can spend your damn money!”
This view from the trig station was always an inspiration to us and more than anything else maintained the fixed determination of everyone to see the job through. All my co-directors were from ten to twenty years my senior, so we had plenty of sage judgment on our side. No one ever suggested giving up; all found additional money when required, although the heaviest load fell on Reese Brothers.
It was about this time that I first met, at the Midland Hotel, Wellington, Mr. H. A. Massey, the foremost sawmiller of Southland. He at once wished to discuss Port Craig, for some years earlier he had taken up the same bush area, but allowed the licence to lapse on account of the difficulties and estimated expense of establishing mills there. After lunch one day he asked me if I would accompany him to the Lands Office to look at the plans of the district. Having been to the place, he knew all about the work involved. After studying the contour page 520 of the country he said, “You'll be all right if you can get round Sand Hill Point,” for he knew this represented the most difficult part of our tram-line construction work. When I replied that we were already round that point, he said, “Mr. Reese, you'll make a fortune,” and then turned to his favourite theme, giving a homily on money-making, and the use of money, and added his usual warning not to make money one's god. It seemed strange to hear such words from an old man who, all his life, had been a seeker of wealth, and had amassed the greatest fortune any individual sawmiller has made in New Zealand.
A seemingly far-fetched, but authentic story, which illustrates his nearness in money matters, is told of his negotiations for the stabling of a pony he had purchased for his young sons. He approached the owner of nearby stables and asked a price for stabling, feeding and grooming the horse.
“A pound a week,” replied the stableman.
“Tut tut!” said Mr. Massey, using an exclamation he was noted for.
Fifteen shillings was the next offer, but another “Tut tut!” reduced it a further five shillings, for the stable owner received much patronage from Mr. Massey and did not wish to fall out with his valued client.
After completing the arrangement, the winner of the deal walked away, then turned back and said, “Oh, about the manure from the pony—I would like you to save it for my garden.”
By this time the stableman had overcome any feelings of servility and apparently thinking it was now his turn, said quite seriously, “Oh, Mr. Massey, at ten shillings a week there won't be any manure!”
Mr. Massey, in his interview with me, was most persistent in his enquiries about Port Craig. He said he would call and see me in Christchurch on his way back to Southland. A week later he called, and I was surprised at his resuming the role of interrogator and asking many pertinent questions about our enterprise in the south. When I replied that our operations could not in any way be a threat to his interests, he answered, rather wistfully, I thought, that he once owned eight sawmills in Southland and all were now cut out except two. This meant he would be entirely out of the sawmilling industry in a few page 521 years. This gave me an inkling with regard to what he was driving at, and, having broken the ice, he came straight to the point with the suggestion that he would be willing to purchase a half interest in our big venture. The conversation was now more free and we discussed values and options. In the end we agreed upon the terms and I undertook to have it confirmed in writing, while he was to visit the mill and see for himself the nearly completed undertaking.
He left in a happy frame of mind. He was still to be the Timber King of Southland! It was arranged that he would catch our little steamer Oreti, leaving Invercargill on Saturday. On Thursday we received a wire from our agent, saying Mr. Massey wished to take his wife with him—could we arrange accommodation? On Saturday morning we received another wire from our Invercargill agent. It read as follows: “Mr. Massey Died Suddenly Last Night.” And so ended negotiations that might have meant much to the Marlborough Timber Company. As Mr. Massey left an estate valued at half a million, it will be realised what accession of strength would have been added to our sawmilling company had he lived to carry out what he wished, and obviously intended to do.
Fate had dealt us heavy blows, but now seemed determined that assistance would be forthcoming. It came in a manner of approach only slightly less direct than that of Mr, Massey. It was not long after this that my old cricket friend Arthur Sims was up at my house for a game of bridge. Before leaving he handed me the prospectus of a New Zealand sawmilling proposition that Australian friends had asked him to advise upon. He wanted my opinion of it. Glancing through the glowing accounts of the place, I found that it referred to the same property that Craig had inspected at West Haven. When I gave Sims Craig's report, he decided at once, and advised his friends not to proceed with it. In this conversation he asked me a few questions about our own concern down south, and on learning of the difficulties that lay ahead of us, began to ask questions similar to the ones to which he would have wanted replies had he been following up the West Haven proposition.
By this time Sims, Cooper & Company had become a powerful force in the frozen meat export business, as well as in wool, with enormous interests not only in New Zealand but also in Australia and in England. Sims, always venturesome, page 522 was at once interested. He decided to visit Port Craig, and asked Sir Robert Anderson of Invercargill to accompany him, also taking C. M. Ollivier, his attorney in Christchurch; I was the fourth member of the party. In the end he decided to purchase a half interest.
With Sims, Cooper & Company, and Sir Robert Anderson in the concern, we at once became a sawmilling company of great strength, and anything seemed possible; it was as though a puff of wind had sprung up behind a ship that was almost becalmed.
Now I was to see at close range the amazing qualities possessed by this genius of commerce, the greatest we have had in this country. The work could now race ahead, speed was essential. It was like one of our old cricket partnerships, but this time Sims was the attacking batsman. Experience in the control of Freezing Works had taught him the effect that turnover had upon overhead charges. The excessive cost of the whole venture now called for a greater output than that on which we had based our original estimates. Additional plant would be required for this. “Put it in,” says Sims. A bigger locomotive would be needed to cope with heavier loads and longer distances. “Buy one.” It will thus be seen what driving force our new partners brought into the concern.
The last big job was the building of loading arrangements on the wharf to convey the timber to ships lying off-shore. In our earliest planning Craig and I had sat on the terrace above and studied the little bay that was to be our harbour. Craig turned to me and said, “What a pity we couldn't convey the timber to the ship with an arrangement similar to the Lidger-wood method of bringing logs in from the bush.” It was obvious to both of us that in the swell of the sea, a ship's mast would not be steady enough to keep the main cable taut and always clear of the water below. We finally came to the conclusion that for big ships, loading by lighters was the only way. We planned accordingly.
At the time we were completing the work at Port Craig there came to New Zealand four jolly American lumbermen, representing the great Californian Redwood Export Company. As Reese Brothers were their representatives in Christchurch I saw a good deal of them. An evening of billiards at my home was a merry party. I showed them around our city and introduced page 523 them to all the timber people. When they were leaving, Mr. Cochran, their leader, said to me, “Well, Mr. Reese, you have been very good to us. Is there anything we can do for you?”
“Yes,” I replied, “I understand that somewhere on the Pacific coast there is a mill that loads timber by wire rope into a ship lying off-shore. Could you find out for me how it is done?”
Mr. Cochran burst out laughing, slapped me on the shoulder and said, “That's at our mill, my boy!” and named the place on the coast. “I sure will send you plans and photographs of the loading operations.”
In due course they arrived. One glance at the illustrations and I saw the single point missing from Craig's conception of utilizing the Lidgerwood logging system. Instead of the main cable being attached to the mainmast, it went through a strong block on the far side derrick and away to a heavy mooring in the sea. The ship could thus roll or surge backwards and forwards from its moorings, while the main cable remained taut and always over the centre of the ship's hatch. I was thrilled with this information. The rest was simple, for in Daly we had a man who was most capable in planning anything in connection with machinery. He erected a tower on the wharf, installed at its foot a log-hauling winch, and combined with it a friction winch to control the hauling of the carriage that ran on the main cable to and from the ship. It was all very well done. A heavy mooring, like a mushroom anchor, was made of concrete, with pointed railway rails cast in and protruding, to ensure its holding fast on the papa sea-bed. This never failed us in holding the wire rope.
Now we were ready to load. There was great excitement when the first big ship came in to try out the scheme. Some of the sea captains were very timid about their ship being trussed up to moorings when so near the shore. The Union Company sent one of their best skippers for this trial shipment. Great care was taken in getting the ship held in position. After dropping anchor, she backed away and mooring lines were then taken to buoys anchored on the port and starboard sides, both fore and aft. The ship was thus like the centre figure in the five of diamonds. Up went the sling of timber to the top of the tower, to be hooked on to the carriage, and there was a cheer from the shore as this first parcel of timber raced towards page 524 the ship. A signal from those on board and the sling was lowered on to the deck. While the carriage was being hauled back again, the ship's second derrick lifted the sling of timber and lowered it into the hold, just as if it were loading at the wharf. As the winchman became more expert the pace quickened and soon the timber was going aboard faster than the men could stow it away. Right on through the night the loading continued. An electric torch was attached to the carriage so that its progress could be followed from the shore, while on the ship red, white, and green lights were used to signal “Stop,” “Lower,” and “All clear.” A brilliant success was the unanimous opinion, to be emphasized when it was found that we were loading faster and more cheaply than is done over the wharf at the timber port of Greymouth. The carriage, carrying slings of five hundred feet of timber, made the return journey in less than three minutes. Ten thousand feet per hatch per hour was the rate maintained throughout. It is a grave indictment of the wharf labourers on the Greymouth waterfront when it can be stated that their rate of loading to-day, with cranes on the wharf, is only three thousand five hundred feet per hatch per hour. This figure is taken from a shipping company's records kept over a long period.
There was but one hitch in this first day's operations; the hauling rope, being only five-eighths of an inch in diameter, would swing about like a whip and coil round the main cable. At night one could see sparks flying as the ropes rubbed together. But Daly was not easily beaten. By the simple process of making this rope run through blocks attached to a guy that led it slightly off the line of the main cable there was no further trouble. There was now no limit to the size of coastal steamers that could load. The Union Company sent in three and four thousand ton vessels that would load up to half a million feet of timber for Auckland or Wellington and then call at ports en route to complete their loading with produce and general cargo.
We were now under way. The output climbed higher and reached three-quarters of a million a month; the record being 769,000 in May, 1928. This was the largest output of any sawmill in New Zealand and was a tribute to the machinery of the Sumner Iron Works. Nothing like the “shot gun” feed saw-bench had been seen in this country before.page 525
The marketing of this huge output took me to many parts of New Zealand. We were more firmly entrenched on the North Island markets than in Otago and Southland, where merchants seemed able to buy from inland mills at less than “list” rates. One day I learned that the old-established business of McCullum & Company was for sale; their main business in Dunedin had branch yards in Oamaru and Invercargill. This firm had a fine reputation, but was being undermined by virile competition. When I told Sims about the business being on the market, he said, “Come back and see me in a week's time.” Realizing the interlocking strength that absorption would give to the Marlborough Timber Company, he finally said, “Buy it.” His friends, the Baillieus of Melbourne, who had asked for an opinion on West Haven, now came in with him in this southern venture. This well-known Melbourne family was a powerful and influential force in the Australian financial world. They found half the additional money required to enable the Marlborough Company to purchase McCallum's business; Sims, Cooper & Company found the other half. By this deal we reached the peak of our success. The work over these years had been marked by ups and downs reminiscent of some of the great business concerns established in the earliest years of colonizing efforts in this Dominion. We now set sail in search of the success we all thought would be ours, and to which we seemed entitled. Timber was in great demand, the country was prosperous, and the future looked bright indeed. Any survey of what was thought to lie ahead encouraged confidence.
Then came the economic blizzard that was to sweep the business of the whole world off its feet. There was no falling barometer, no low reading of the glass to give warning of an approaching storm. It came like a cloud-burst out of a blue sky. Fortunes were lost overnight, old-established firms staggered to keep their feet. The overseas market for meat, wool, butter and cheese fell at an appalling rate and reached a disastrous figure. People were bewildered, discouraged and distressed.
What chance had our sawmilling company in the face of such circumstances? Many mills closed down. Disintegration is a natural sequence when associations are unable to ensure to members a fair division of trade. Millers began to break page 526 away and look after themselves, and to fight one another. The price fell, then fell again and again.
I remember Craig saying, when he returned from America, that a shrewd old sawmiller had told him that in a trade depression it was the small mill that fixed the price. How true this was to prove during the slump in New Zealand. Overhead costs can be cared for only by a proportionate turnover. Without the latter, the big company mills are worse off than smaller ones operated by a working owner. There became no alternative but for Port Craig to close down, for our financial obligations were very heavy and the mill could not be run at a loss, for we had relied too much upon the bank, to whom security had been given as well as guarantees. Reconstruction was inevitable. It was a crash comparable with that of the great Huon Timber Company in Tasmania, when so much English capital was lost. There, too, it was the small mill that got down to a price at which the big company, without a reasonable turnover, could not operate.
We were in a dilemma and knew not what to do. The bank remained patient and considerate and left us to make our own decision. The slump continued and something had to be done. The fall of the Marlborough Timber Company affected the affairs of the Forest Sawmilling Company in Westland with which the former had interlocking capital arrangements. Finally, Sims said that our group had better save what it could from the West Coast mill, and he would take over Port Craig and McCallums'. The write-off of capital and payment of guarantees was but a passing phase with Sims and his group, for they were all wealthy men, but for the rest of us it was a severe blow. Reese Brothers, with the most shares and biggest guarantees, felt it most, but our banker stuck to us like a trusted friend.
The depression lasted for years. At the first sign of revival, Sims opened up Port Craig, but the market had not fully recovered and he closed it down again, never to be reopened. On the other hand, the merchant business of McCallums' prospered and to a considerable extent compensated for the sawmill losses. There is irony in the fact that under present-day conditions, with the greatest timber boom this country has ever experienced, Port Craig could be successfully contributing to the supply of timber so urgently required. As the page 527 difficulty of access to the place remains, there would, no doubt, be uncertainty in obtaining the best workmen. The decision to abandon the enterprise was a right one at the time, for no one could foresee present-day conditions. In any case, taxation of to-day would kill any chance of recovery.
I have quoted Lord Leverhulme's forecast of the immediate future of the tallow market. An equally classic example of great men misreading the future is to be found in the decisions made by Hirsch, a man of many parts and an American millionaire of outstanding capacity who had made his great fortune from trading in Brazilian diamonds, rubber and pelts. He owned a great rubber plantation in Brazil. When on a visit to England he was offered three million dollars for his plantation, but refused. By the time he got back to America the bottom had fallen out of the rubber market and his trees were not worth one million dollars. As the market slumped further, he pulled out all his rubber trees and planted coffee. When the latter crop had reached the stage of supplying a world that apparently wanted coffee, the bottom fell out of the coffee market! One would need second sight to be able to anticipate such happenings.
In this tale of venture and adventure, I must include a story that is good enough for Punch. After the drowning of young Basil Cox, an inquest was held at Tuatapere, the nearest town. The principal witness was the man in charge of the launch; he was a big Maori named Wakapere, against whom I had played football when he was a member of Uru's team. The local newspaper, in a report of the case, referred to Wakapere as a “Master Mariner.” The sawmill village was tickled over this title given to our boatman. His wife and family were as thrilled as though an honour had been conferred upon him. A week later, the school-master at Port Craig gave a talk on shipwrecks, and told his pupils some stirring stories of the sea. At the end of the lesson he asked the class if anyone could explain what a marine disaster was. Wakapere's young son was in the class and up went the little Maori boy's hand. “Please sir, my father is a marine disaster!”
As I approach the end of this chapter, it may be fitting to tell one more story; it was told me by one of my American friends. We should all have heard it before we went into the Port Craig venture.page 528
A pioneer farmer in the Middle West was clearing his land of forest. He had erected a small sawmill and sold timber to neighbouring farmers. One day he was visited by an old friend who also had bush lands. The visitor at once saw the possibilities that would be open to him if he had a sawmill plant on his farm. He eagerly sought information and sent a wire to the makers, asking for a quotation for a plant similar to that supplied to his friend. Next day, back came the answer, “One Hundred and Fifty Thousand Dollars.” He did not take long to decide and drove across to the country post office to send the following reply: “If A Fellow Has a Hundred and Fifty Thousand Dollars What the Hell Does He Want With A Sawmill?”
I have endeavoured to tell a plain story of an enterprise that called for courage and determination. It is not intended to be a hard luck story. It is true that we suffered grievous setbacks, but we also made many mistakes; we underestimated the cost, we miscalculated the time it would take to complete the work, our judgment was sometimes at fault. It will thus be seen that we made the openings for Fate to deal out her heavy blows. There was one satisfaction; we saw it through to the end. One day Mr. Peter Graham, the oldest and dearest soul among us, said to me, “Well, Dan, I'm glad we didn't give up before the job was completed.”
Intimate friends associated in business enjoy to the full all the success they may win. It is not always possible to maintain an unbroken front of friendship in the face of defeat and disaster. It was an outstanding feature of our failure to succeed that no one upbraided the other; all shared in the responsibility, as all shared the heavy losses suffered. That Sims and his partner were good losers is illustrated in Arthur Cooper's remark to me, when he said: “Now, you mustn't think you can carry a broken market on your shoulders.” What we regretted most was the fact that the Baillieus of Melbourne did not get a run for their money, for they were no sooner in than the whirlwind of trade depression toppled over a venture that deserved a better fate.
And so, in this southernmost part of New Zealand, there still remain these many millions of feet of timber that await the axe and the saw of the pioneer. It is unlikely that another big mill will be erected in place of the one that promised to be page 529 the greatest of its kind in the Dominion. The road keeps forging ahead beyond Tuatapere; some day it will reach these forest areas, when a dozen small mills, carting their timber to the railhead, will play the part that one great mill, under more favourable circumstances, might have played.
As a supplement to the story of Port Craig, some reference to the Tongariro Block should perhaps be made. This was the name of a huge area of splendid bush situated just north of Mount Tongariro and on the western shores of Lake Taupo, containing a high percentage of totara and matai, the most valuable timbers in New Zealand, excepting kauri. The land belonged to the Maoris. A twelve months' option, held by a London Syndicate, had expired and the bush was offered to us. Owing to the difficulty of connecting this area with the railway there were few competitors. Sims and Cooper thought we had better have a look at it; the reason was that although Port Craig was in full stride and the markets were absorbing the total output, there was always the danger of the North Island sawmillers again being able to meet the big demand in the northern cities and towns for heart timber. South Island mills could supply only a small percentage of heart, so when the millers of the north were able to stipulate that a buyer must take his full percentage of other grades of timber, they dominated the market. Given heart totara and matai, the Marlborough Timber Company, with its rimu supplies from Port Craig, would have become unassailable at all the seaports, for it was here, with a single sea freight, that we would meet the inland miller at his most extended transport position.
In 1927 the Hon, W. A. Watt, ex-Premier of Victoria, representing the Baillieu interests, came over from Australia, and Arthur Cooper and I met him at Wellington, where we were joined by Captain Mclntosh Ellis, Director of Forestry in New Zealand, who had undertaken to show us over the areas; he brought with him his leading forester, while Woolsey Allen, a well-known Auckland sawmiller, met us at Taupo.
We camped at Tokaanu, at the southern end of the lake, and slept in a big Maori whare. Next morning, all. mounted on horseback, we left like a team of Australian stockmen going into the back country. I had not previously seen the pumice lands of the. North Island, and its effect upon the growth of bush was surprising; instead of being a tract of solid bush— page 530 as we would say in the South Island—here the trees grew on the high-level land only, with flat valleys subdividing the timber areas, and in some places forming islands of bush. The land in the valleys appeared to be sour, and grew only bracken and fern. We rode along these valleys and dismounted at various points to walk through the forest; the great totara, matai and “old man” rimu trees made an imposing sight. There was certainly no doubt about the bush. At the end of each day we were all very tired, with everyone sore in the same place! The talks in the whare at nights took me back to similar scenes at Nydia Bay and Port Craig.
Impressed with the possibilities we left for Waimarino, then on to Kakahi, the station on the main trunk line where the mills would most likely be built. Looked at from this end, it was at once obvious that a railway line into the bush would absorb a considerable portion of the capital expenditure, which was estimated to run into several hundred thousand pounds. I must confess that having surmounted the early difficulties of Port Craig by such a narrow margin, I had some misgivings about facing a new venture of such magnitude, but Sims, Cooper, Sir Robert Anderson, and the Baillieus were big figures in the financial world, with reputations that would enable them to go on to the London market in the flotation of a Tongariro Timber and Railway Company.
Convinced that this, one of the few remaining big areas of totara and matai forest in New Zealand, was worth exploiting, our party returned to Wellington to take up the option and to have the whole scheme thoroughly gone into. Imagine our surprise and disappointment when we learned that the London Syndicate had asked for, and, on payment of another substantial deposit, been granted a renewal of their option.
The depression came before much work could have been done, but had we taken up the areas, the annual payment of timber royalites over the slump years would have reached a considerable sum. The rise in bush values after the depression to a figure higher than in 1927 would, of course, have more than cared for these early payments, while the subsequent boom in timber, now greater than ever, would have ensured the successful development of the undertaking, but I felt that, for some of us at any rate, Fate, this time, was on our side when she placed the option on Tongariro beyond our reach.