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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 11 (June 1, 1930)


One of the first benefactors of his country is the man who builds a bridge. He would not be appreciated in the Sahara, or in Central Australia, but in a land like New Zealand he is the pioneer whose work is of prime importance to progress and civilisation.

In this land of rivers and streams, gulches and gullies, we owe an infinite deal to the skilful engineers who spanned with steel such canyons as the Makatote and the Makohine and who laboriously built long bridges across the fierce snow torrents that come roaring down from the Southern Alps. Every now and again we hear of such and such a river having been bridged at last, the Mokau or the Motu, or the Waiapu. It marks a stage in the country's advancement; the ford or the punt giving place to the reliable way for wheels.

Soon in the North Island every important stream will have been spanned. It is rather different in some parts of the South Island, particularly far down in South Westland, where you may ride a hundred miles, fording a snow river every few miles—one of them is half a mile wide at its mouth—and never a sign of a bridge, until you come to that high, rickety affair strung over the narrow canyon of the Wills River, near the Haast Pass.

The bridge is one of the first tokens of man's march in such a country as New Zealand. It was just the same in early Britain. The country troubled little about bridges until the Romans came, and then the bridge-builders gave the country arched stonework that lasted for centuries. Here the Maoris of the era of violent contact between white and brown looked with suspicion on the bridge; the deep river that could not be forded or that could only be crossed with difficulty was a means of defence. The shrewd “Kingmaker,” Wiremu Tamehana, strongly opposed road-making in the South Auckland country in the early Sixties; even before the Waikato War began he perceived that a road and a bridge were the forerunners of conquest.

The primitive emergency bridge of the old campaigning days in New Zealand was a bridge of barrels. On such a bridge horse, foot, and artillery crossed the Whangamarino in the advance into the Waikato. Bridges laid on floating barrels were, too, the first means by which Cameron and Chute crossed their troops over the Waitotara and Patea Rivers in the West Coast Wars of 1865–66. The bridge-builders who accompanied the army in the invasion of the Waikato laid permanent bridges over the small streams, but the Waikato and the Waipa had to remain unspanned for many a year. There was a time not so long ago but what many of us can recall it, when only four bridges crossed the Waikato on its whole length of two hundred miles—one at the head at Taupo, one at Atiamuri, and the others at Cambridge and Ngaruawahia. It was an exasperatingly slow job crossing in the old-style punts on wire ropes at such places as Hamilton, Huntly and Tuakau.

The building of the railway bridge which spans the high-banked Waikato at Hamilton will be remembered by old-timers as a particularly difficult task, because of the unreliable nature of the quicksand-like river-bottom. The engineers who sank the piers thought they would never reach sound footing for their lofty bridge.

The Rangitaiki Fords.

Curious little byways of pioneering memory are explored by the lightning flashes of memory as one travels the country and rolls smoothly in a railway carriage or a motor car over some long white bridge. Such a river as the Rangitaiki was at once useful for military purposes on its lower reaches, by reason of its navigable character, and an obstacle on its swift upper course. In later times, when one had to cross it on the long ride from Rotorua to the Urewera Country, it was a river to be dealt with circumspectly. Strong and deep and fairly wide, it was not at every place that it could be forded. I have a shivery recollection of getting out of my depth, or rather my horse's depth, at the ford opposite William Bird's place, some miles below the present bridge at Murupara, and drifting down stream towards some rapids. It would not have mattered had the Rangitaiki been low, but she was running rather high, and I was not sure of the right ford. By page 26 good luck, horse and rider both got out some distance below where we entered the river, and the next try took us safely over. Since then I have forded the river at one or two places above Murupara, but on these occasions took care to keep in company with Maoris who knew all the crossing places. Higher up there were once frail bridges of a log or two thrown over narrow canyons only a few yards wide.

It is perfectly easy to get into trouble at an unfamiliar ford, no matter how much o:.e may have crossed back-blocks rivers on horseback. I know places in the King Country where the ford is just above a waterfall; there is a shallow, slippery papa rock ledge at such crossings on which your horse must contrive to keep his footing or go over with you. Those are the places where you would say your prayers to the first man who built a bridge.

Bridges On The Golden West Coast. (Photo, T. W. Fletcher.) The railway bridge (in the foreground) and the Cobden traffic bridge (in the background) spanning the Grey River at Greymouth, South Island, New Zealand.M

Bridges On The Golden West Coast.
(Photo, T. W. Fletcher.)
The railway bridge (in the foreground) and the Cobden traffic bridge (in the background) spanning the Grey River at Greymouth, South Island, New Zealand.M

In the Snow River Country.

There are far worse rivers, however—the icy torrents of South Westland. The Waiau, which rises in the terminal face of the Franz Josef Glacier, was a nightmare to far-south travellers. It has been bridged during the last two or three years—a blessing to all whose occasions take them south of the Waiau. Getting wet in one of our northern rivers is a trifle, but it is a serious business in one of those snow rivers if you have a long ride to follow, and have not time to thaw out and dry your clothes immediately on getting out of the chilling bath. But the worst risk is that of getting rolled over and over in the torrent should your horse lose his footing—one of those rock-bedded glacial watercourses where you never can see the nature of the bottom because of the discoloured water.

Queer bridge some of us have crossed—sometimes literally straddled—in the back country. Often just a tree felled across a stream and its branches roughly lopped off. I remember in particular one which it was a ticklish trial to tackle; slippery smooth above a deep, dark creek; but a Maori woman with a big kit of potatoes strapped on her back took it with so little concern that she paused when half-way over the log to light her pipe. The lady, however, was barefooted, which accounted for her confidence.

Limestone Bridge of Ototohu.

Perhaps the most curious bridge of all is one at Ototohu, near Mahoenui, quite close to the main road between Te Kuiti and the Mokau. When some of us roamed about those parts of the limestone country, we walked up a smooth-bedded little creek from Mr. John Old's farmhouse, until we came to the natural bridge, which spanned the miniature canyon, fifty or sixty feet above our heads. It was a perfect bridge of rock, beneath which its white-walled stream had worn its way ages ago. Useful, too, as well as wonderful, for page 27 it enabled the settler to cross his cattle from one side to the other of the deep gulch. Long ago the Maori found it of strategic defensive value; there were ancient entrenchments in the bush and fern at each bridgehead.

The natural difficulties on the Rotorua line surmounted by the skilful engineers who constructed the great viaducts, concrete-bedded and steel-trussed and latticed, on the North Island Main Trunk railway, make that era of public works construction a quite splendid chapter in the story of our pioneering development. Elsewhere on our railway construction works there were incidents in which Tangata Maori took an obstructive hand.

On the Rotorua Line.

The late Daniel Fallon, one of the good old generation of Irish contractors who bossed the pick and shovel men and the axe and saw brigade on many a big railway job, once told me of the “divil's own row” he had in putting up a bridge over a stream on a section of the railway to Rotorua. It was up in the hill country after you leave the Matamata Plains. The local Maoris, over some question of title, disputed the right of way, and while some of the most stalwart wahines, as was the pleasant custom of the old days, grappled the nearest workmen, their husbands and brothers threw the timbers into the creek. Others tackled the supports below with axes.

On The Lower Reaches Of The World-Famed Wanganui River. (Govt. Publicity photo.) The Dublin Street traffic bridge, Wanganui, North Island, New Zealand.

On The Lower Reaches Of The World-Famed Wanganui River.
(Govt. Publicity photo.)
The Dublin Street traffic bridge, Wanganui, North Island, New Zealand.

Tempers waxed hot, and a big Irishman on the half-built bridge, seeing a black head below in the gully, tugged away at a heavy timber that would drop beautifully on to John Maori's skull.

Dan Fallon saw it just in time to prevent murder being done. “Leave that alone!” he yelled. “If you drop it I'll knock you into the creek!” His angry countryman reluctantly obeyed him. Had that Maori's skull been cracked, Dan's contract certainly would have come to grief, to say nothing of other complications.

There were some trying times in our pioneer bridge-building, as in surveying and road-making, but wise old lads like Dan Fallon found it paid to go easy with Maori obstructionists, and to keep their tempers in spite of provocation. It may be that is why the men from his part of the Green Isle make such good policemen.