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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 11 (February 1, 1937)

Railway's End — The Rosstown that is Ross

page 37

Railway's End
The Rosstown that is Ross

(Rly. Publicity photo.) Blazing the trail for the extension of the railway to Ross, 1902.

(Rly. Publicity photo.) Blazing the trail for the extension of the railway to Ross, 1902.

With the Homeric blue of Tasman's Sea always before its eyes and the encircling arms of the mountains about its shoulders, with its setting of green malachite of bush and its gemmed marquetry of gardens—“The mountains look on Rosstown, And Ross looks on the sea…”

Ross, at railway's end is, I think, one of the two most attractive townships I have come to know during years of vagabonding up and down Westland. Yet its first reception did not suggest anything of the charm which, in later days, I was to find in this most entrancing little place. To be decanted from a leisurely train near to midnight on a wet Christmas Eve; to be able to see nothing but a little station lighted by a solitary kerosene lamp, and peopled with vague, oilskin-coated figures emerging from or disappearing behind the down-drawn curtain of the rain—this, indeed, was railway's end, the end, one felt, of civilisation itself. Behind were brightly lit towns, and their busy people and the pleasant memory of a warm (if leisurely) train. Ahead, one knew, were long leagues of rain-forest, incredible bush-clad leagues that stretched themselves interminably into the sparsely-peopled south. One trembled on Omar's “strip of herbage.” One stood, metaphorically, between the desert and the sown.

Ross, rightly, reproached me for an ill-timed arrival. Obviously, too, it resented being treated as but a mere stage on a hurried journey south instead of having due regard as a terminus. Knowing its own charm, conscious of its power to caress those who inger to savour of its sweetness, the town at railway's end scorned me as one of the great company of transitory folk who take the gasoline trail from Hokitika to the glaciers in a day and then come back and insist that they have seen South Westland. In reality they have seen little more than two green walls of bush; the real Westland withholds her face from them, as Ross withheld hers from me on this, my first passing-through.

But the station and the lonely lamp, with no hint of settlement in the drenched darkness behind them had already intrigued me; and later, as the car that had been sent to meet me squished up the long road from the station, hurtled itself past a few lighted windows and panted up the steep hill that leads away from Ross, I vowed to go again, and soon, to the town at railway's end.

And so I went again to Ross, and Ross smiled for me. When the sunkissed air is filled with the exquisite, intangible scents of bush; when there is running water close at hand and a tui is singing; when the millions of scarlet bells on the great, wild-running fuchsias are calling to the rata to match them in colour; when you may look on fields of pink and white foxgloves and see lassiandra setting out its purple cups, when there are mallows and pinks and Canterbury be'ls and Sweet Williams ablaze in little, old-fashioned gardens; when there is met with, always, the simple, the great, the unquestioning courtesy of the Westland-born—when you can appreciate these things, go, as I did, to Ross, and you will find them all. You will find, also, a kind of deep peace, such balm to the soul as one does not find readily in most New Zealand towns. Why so very few of our towns have the power to impart this sensation is a matter for thought. Perhaps it is because in few places in New Zealand will you meet with a judicious blending of the old and the new, such a marriage as brings, instinctively, the idea of perfection. I found such perfection, long ago, at Howick; more recently at Akaroa; and but yesterday at Ross. How passing strange to find it at Ross, the town of all towns whose very being was engendered by a fevered quest for gold!

There are many towns of the West Coast, relics of the hectic gold-hunting days from which the mind turns away, saddened. They are old and they are weary. Their houses are falling into decay, the iron chimneys ruinous, the verandahs slimy with moss, the windows askew in decrepit walls. They are like the tragic Gunhilda of Kingsley's Hereward who, when misfortune overtook her, refused to have a bath. Said she: “I have done, lady, with such carnal vanities.” But Ross is no Gunhilda. True, there are old-fashioned, shabby little houses which hide themselves discreetly behind veils of climbing roses or passion vine or honeysuckle; but generally Ross is brightly clean, and her cheek is still painted for the admiration of townsman or visitor. Her pride does not allow her to say that her day is done.

And what a day was hers! As early as 1866 there were five thousand men on the Rosstown field. It was a scene of frenzied activity, of delving and burrowing and shifting and sluicing; of strong men pitting themselves against the stony-breasted earth in order to filch her bright necklaces of gold. Nor was the work confined to the daytime. Rosstown's night was lit up by great flares, and the rattle of the engines never ceased; for on some of the deepsinking claims the work went on, in shifts, through the whole twenty-four hours. In the upper valley, however, there were claims on which the gold lay at no great depth. Here, instead of shafts, great excavations called “paddocks” were made, the stones and soil being hauled to the surface until the rich wash-dirt was laid bare. Owing to the nature of the ground (the Ross page 38 page 39 field was a particularly wet one) the work was dangerous, and accidents were frequent. Many were the miners who yielded up life to a sudden fall of earth and rock.

Archdeacon Harper, whose “Letters from New Zealand” contain so many stark little vignettes of the old West Coast, has left us a description of an early Rosstown funeral. “As I stood there waiting,” he relates, “I looked down on a scene of singular beauty… An extensive valley encircled by primeval, forest-clad hills, a few years ago untrodden by man's footsteps, silence broken only by the voices of birds and the murmur of the stream winding through it … to-day the habitation of some thousands of people, dotted with huts and tents and mining machinery, the main street of the town which leads up to the church thronged with men making way for a procession of four hundred miners; the coffin, with its cross of clematis, carried between its bearers, the sound of hymns rising and falling as the procession wound its way up to the church. At the grave the hillside was thick with people, and I took the opportunity of speaking to them and asking them to sing. For a long time we remained there, the evening sunshine casting its quiet glory on the forest and the distant sea, lighting up the faces of the great crowd of mourners who seemed loth to leave the place …”

That was a day of peace in old Rosstown; but at midnight the work began again, with the night-shifts in full swing, the engines puffing and rattling, and the tingling bells making strident echoes among the hills.

The records of early Rosstown contain accounts of many such accidents, all too many of them fatal. But some had their grimly humorous aspect. Consider, for instance, the case of the miner who, when frying his evening meal of bacon, found himself falling down, down into the earth. He had unwittingly built his tiny shack on a heap of tailings concealing a deep shaft which had been roughly boarded over. With the giving way of the boards the tailings began to pour into the shaft, and the miner went with them. The accident was seen, and men flocked to the rescue. Although there seemed no chance for the unfortunate man, it was a point of honour with the miners never to lose an opportunity of succouring a mate. All that evening, and well into the night the rescuers worked in relays, hauling up the dry stones which had filled the shaft. At last, some fifty feet down, they came on the entrance to an old drive, and there found the man who had been so rudely shot into it. He was bruised, of course, but was otherwise uninjured; the air, penetrating through the loose stones had enabled him to breathe. In his sudden descent he had clutched at the blanket of his bunk, and they found it with him, also the frying-pan, to which he had held. His one lamentation was that the bacon had, somehow, got lost!

I climbed, on an evening of gentle beauty, to the old cemetery on the hillside above the town. Thence I could see the whole sweep of the lovely valley with its treasures of bush and berry, in sharp contrast with the great, bare heaps of tailings built up by man's gold-lust. From below me there floated up the joyous voices of young people, playing tennis—actually on the site of a mine from which millions of pounds worth of gold were literally wrung! All about me, on the green hillside, slept the pioneer diggers, the men who in the prime of their manhood had danger and discomfort as their hourly companions, who stood, each man by his mates, and who were among the most law-abiding community of miners the world has ever known. And, being a woman, I could not but help think of their womenfolk, they who had planted the honeysuckle and the roses and the red-belled fuchsias about the doors of their tiny habitations, and who had scrubbed and cleaned and baked and done all the difficult jobs of primitive housekeeping through days and weeks, often, of the reeling Westland rain. I thought, too, of the children, of the little girls to whom a field of growing wheat would have appeared as a miracle, of the small boys to whose tongues, in imitation of their elders, there came so readily talk of washdirt and flumes and sluices and sludge-channels. And when I reflected that these folk of early Ross lived and toiled amid the wild freedom of one of New Zealand's most enchanting valleys, I could not wonder that the Westland-born, for all his deep courtesy, does not readily call any man master.

(Rly. Publicity photo.) Ross township, Westland, South Island, New Zealand.

(Rly. Publicity photo.) Ross township, Westland, South Island, New Zealand.

Later in the evening I sauntered through Ross with a Rosstown man, an enthusiastic citizen of the town at railway's end. After he had pointed out the various sights of the township with elaborate carelessness, I sensed the high pride he had in it, and his love for the place which, refusing to grow old and unlovely, still paints her cheek and adorns herself with flowers. We visited the library and the very fine open-air swimming pool, lingered beneath the great English trees planted symmetrically in the heart of the town, and viewed from afar the white scar on the hills which marks the limeworks of the West Coast farmers. We came at last, on our travels, to a quaint little one-storey hotel across whose low-set windows were huge guards of the coarsest-meshed wire-netting.

I suggested that the mosquitoes in this part of the world must be abnormally large.

“We don't get mosquitoes at all—or very few of them!” most promptly responded the Ross man.

I asked, then why the wire netting? He explained very patiently, almost apologetically. “You see, the calves eat the curtains!”

Yes, even without the bush, without the tui singing, without the thousand romantic memories of the past, one can be happy in a town like that!

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