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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World

Wayfaring on Eltham Road

Wayfaring on Eltham Road

We conclude with some impressions of the wayfarers whose daily traffic through the Kaponga district tested the work of the builders and maintainers of Eltham Road. Prominent among them was Danish immigrant ‘Bill’ Moller,* who in January 1902 sold his farm at Makaka and bought out the Kaponga carrying business of George Bradford,54 becoming a prominent Eltham Road carrier. Moller was an athletic man, over six foot tall, with a great love of horses and facility in handling them. The daily carriage of Opunake's dairy produce on the long haul to the railway at Eltham became the bedrock of his business. Since the butter could not be transported in the heat of the day, the wagons left Opunake at sunset for Kaponga, where they stood overnight and before dawn were taken on to Eltham station. Because of their size they were facetiously treated as ships by the railway workers, who chalked on their sides such graffiti as ‘The S.S. Takapuna will sail this day’. In the daylight hours the wagons were available for all kinds of less perishable freight. They were hauled by six-horse teams harnessed three abreast and Moller took great pride in having each team well matched in colour and size. Throughout his 10-year ownership of this business he made his home in Kaponga. Over these years there were never fewer than three of his children attending Kaponga School, and each year he provided one page 232
A Moller's Carrying Co wagon passing through Kaponga, c.1911

A Moller's Carrying Co wagon passing through Kaponga, c.1911

of his big wagons free of charge to take a load of children in well-decked splendour to the school picnic.55

While Moller made a specialty of the long Opunake-Eltham haul there were other carriers meeting the needs of the various centres along the road. In his tramway report of 1907 Black estimated the annual traffic on the Eltham Road at 13,750 tons, which he broke down as follows:

Tons per annum
Eltham to and from Opunake 4250
Eltham to and from Auroa Rd 3000
Eltham to and from Kaponga 4000
Eltham to and from Mangatoki 2500

Clearly most of this traffic was either servicing or passing through Kaponga, the major node on the route. Its daily movements went on largely unreported unless they met with mishaps. We take up two of these connected with Kaponga's dairy industry. One day in January 1904 the daily output of the Mangatoki Co-op's Kaponga creamery came to grief, giving rise to this news item:

The place where the Kaponga waggon capsized is easily found. If the wind is in the right direction the perfume of the rotten cream is discernible a hundred yards away. Even the bicycles shy clear at the odour. Hundreds of minahs have a daily feast of the unusual tucker. But Oh! that smell.56

On 2 January 1906 a more tragic accident affected a day's output of the Kaponga Co-op. Robert Bartlett of Palmer Road had the contract for carting the butter to the railway and his driver this day was William Irving, page 233 a Scottish bachelor of about 70 years. While driving between Kaponga and Duthie Road at about 6am the wagon's axle broke, throwing Irving to the road and burying him in boxes of butter. A passing stranger came to his aid and Dr Maclagan was called but he died an hour or so later.

In the mid months of each year the contract carriers for the dairy factories had a few months of respite, but the mail coaches had to endeavour to keep to their timetables even through trying winter months. Schedules changed down the years with population growth and altered train movements. A new timetable commencing on 1 January 1910 had these times for the daily Eltham-Opunake mail coach:

Leave Eltham 6.45am. Leave Opunake 12.45pm.
Leave Kaponga 8.05am. Leave Kaponga 3.30pm.
Arrive Opunake 10.45am. Arrive Eltham 4.45pm.

Another coach left Kaponga daily at 6.50am to reach Eltham at 8.05am On the return journey, which left Eltham at 7.45pm and reached Kaponga at 9pm, it delivered the Star. The quality of the coach services was a matter of continuing interest. On 23 December 1903 Eltham's ‘Our Own’ proudly described the local workmanship in the overhauling and renovating of the Eltham-Opunake coach, including special spring cushions, no doubt a boon on this route. In August 1904 the mail coach was disabled in a mishap at Te Kiri on a bitter night with four inches of snow. When the contractors nevertheless met their continuing schedules they received high praise from Awatuna East's ‘Our Own’ (8/8/04). On 25 April 1906 the same correspondent noted that the coach now passed each morning and evening lit up with ‘two splendid acetylene burners … a vast improvement on the old system of lighting’. But on 14 December 1906 he also noted that dignity was not allowed to get in the way of service:

So busy are the carriers just now that they are not able to undertake all the work required of them, and it is quite a common thing to see the Royal Mail Coach drive along filled with milk cans which have been made in Eltham and which the farmers can not do without at this busy time of the year.

For the period 1904–09 this Awatuna East ‘Our Own’ was a particularly gifted one, being storekeeper William K. Howitt.* Mishaps and holdups were common on the stretch of road that he observed, due to the number of substantial streams that were unbridged or poorly bridged, so that all heavy traffic was forced to cross by fording. The unbridged Awatuna Stream was a major annoyance, cutting the Awatuna settlement in two and forcing Awatuna East firmly into Kaponga's ambit. Howitt took a special interest in wayfarers passing through and in their misfortunes with this stream. We will draw on some of his comments, both to illustrate wayfaring on the western edge of Kaponga's district and to draw attention to traffic that had mostly either already come through Kaponga or was on its way there.

Howitt's most frequent complaint (e.g. 9/9/07, 4/2/08) was of timber page 234 wagons from the Te Kiri mill getting stuck in the Awatuna. Repeatedly they blocked the ford for up to four hours, and had settlers not piled in and helped the holdups would have been longer. Once a serious accident was narrowly averted when the front part of one of these wagons came away and the horses were frightened. The driver managed to steady them. Again it took hours to get the waggon and timber out of the stream (1/9/08). Other wagons also came to grief. Once one of Moller's wagons loaded with three tons of goods had a big smash-up in the stream and had to be dragged to the local blacksmith's shop for repairs (1/10/08). With these complaints Howitt repeatedly appealed for a bridge to allow ordinary traffic to keep moving while the ford was blocked by these stranded monsters.

The cattle regularly fording the stream caused no comment but Howitt noted when large flocks of sheep passed through. Thus in February 1906 there was great inconvenience when drovers getting 1100 sheep across blocked the ford for two and a half hours at a time when milk carts were coming to the factory. Local tradesmen joined the drovers to speed up the work (20/2/06). Again in October 1907 it took 10 men and boys four hours to get 700 sheep through the stream. Some were drowned and traffic was seriously impeded. This flock had already passed through Kaponga on its way from Palmerston North to a Pungarehu property (5 & 11/10/07).

In wet weather the ford was dangerous; in the dry it was repellent. Coming to the ford after travelling the dusty roads, weary, thirsty horses found the stream a sad delusion due to pollution by the dairy industry (4/ 3/09). As Howitt wrote (23/3/09):

The old mountain would be ashamed of the Awatuna steam if she could see it five or six miles away from the deep ravine whence it springs. It comes into life the essence of purity and grace, and then glides down into civilisation till it becomes at Awatuna ford a filthy crossing filled with the refuse of the cow-yard and the dairy factory, and is a place where hardly any animal will drink.

We will use Howitt's comments on the ford to introduce our final topic—the appearance and multiplying of motor vehicles on Eltham Road. In April 1908 the ford had him wrestling with the language of this new technology:

A motor car got stuck in the Awatuna stream for over an hour one day last week. The water was running rather high that day, and as the car tried to dash through it the water reached the driving gear and cooled off the driving power, with the result above stated. (28/4/08)

In the drought of the following March he remarked that ‘the Awatuna ford is a cause of great trouble to motor-car drivers, who frequently come to grief in its slimy waters' (23/3/09). Probably the first motor car to frequent Kaponga was that of its visiting dentist, ‘Kickapoo’ Hunter, from about April 1903. But as late as August 1905 Howitt mentioned that ‘the motor cars have not made their appearance yet’ at Awatuna East, owing to page 235 the two unbridged streams between there and Kaponga (14/8/05). In February 1906 he reported a considerate motorist, Stewart of Opunake, passing through ‘on his motor car’. Stewart stopped his vehicle some distance away and came to warn owners of unattended horses at Howitt's store that he was passing with his car (14/2/06).

By 1908 motors were an established feature of Eltham Road. In May the Kaponga Town Board gave permission to chemist and watchmaker T.C. Cadman ‘to erect a galvanised iron motor-car shed adjoining his premises’.57 In October it was the depredations of the Opunake Sawmilling Company's motor wagon on its section of Eltham Road that first led the Eltham County Council to give serious consideration to tollgates.58 A few weeks later ‘Our Own’ reported a New Plymouth motor party breezing through Kaponga in the process of motoring around Egmont within the day.59

Commercial travellers were prominent in the early motor traffic on Eltham Road. On 10 February 1909 ‘Our Own’ reported:

to-day (Tuesday) there [were] no less than eight representatives of wholesale houses in town, their mode of conveyance being by motor. Kaponga streets certainly looked up-to-date with four motor cars lined up in front of the business places.

By the end of our period the advantage of motor lorries over horses and wagons was becoming apparent. Engineer Basham became a strong advocate of the advantages of motor lorries for roadworks.60 And with the transformation of the roads by tarsealing speeding became a problem. One night in October 1913 Riverlea's ‘Our Own’ (14/10/13) was angered when driving his gig to Kaponga by the ‘criminal carelessness or laziness’ of no fewer than three motorcyclists who passed him ‘travelling probably at thirty miles or more an hour’, not one of whom carried a light. In March 1914 the Kaponga Town Board decided to write to a local carrier about the menace to the town of the excessive speed of their motor lorry.61 But not all carriers were a problem. In October 1914 the Eltham County Council engineer described the Egmont Carrying Co's drivers as very experienced men who did everything in their power to nurse the roads.62