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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 1, Issue 2, May 1957

Land Transport in the Early Days

Land Transport in the Early Days

Research into this subject emphasised the scattered and disjointed nature of the Information available. I was early confronted with two questions: one, how, when and by whom were the tracks and roads made? two, why were they made in those particular localities? I would suggest that interesting topics for future talks would be "Pioneer Exploration," "Roading Surveys and Construction."

Let us first analyse types of transport in the century after 1842. The following arrangement sets out clearly and, I think, accurately the stages of development:—

1.In the 1840's and at least to the 1930's, sea transport, coast-wise, reigned supreme.
2.First decade, 1842–52, saw Shank's Pony prevailing.
3.1850–70 was marked by common use of bullock drays.
4.Overlapping, came horse wagons from 1860's to 1900's.
5.1870–1914 was the period of coaches.
6.By 1914 Service Cars and Trucks were dominating the carriage of passengers and freight.

As sea transport is clearly a specialised subject I intend to confine my remarks to inland transport as far as the outbreak of the First World War. Obviously the first exploratory trips inland were on foot. I need only refer you to the far-reaching explorations of Heaphy, Fox, Dobson and Brunner. The first settlers made extensive use of rivers; for example the chief means of access to the rural sections allotted by the New Zealand Company in the Waimeas was by boat to Cotterill's Landing, near the present Appleby Bridge. This landing was the base site for Cotterill's survey of the West Waimea block, and it was the supply point for most of the settlers on the plain.

Unfortunately other and larger rivers proved barriers to the speedy opening up of the Nelson area, because they ran athwart the main routes radiating from the settlement at Nelson city. The direction, and the turbulent nature of the Motueka, Takaka, Buller and Grey rivers, long proved handicaps. As far as the smaller streams are concerned it is important to remember that they were then page 5much easier to navigate, being free from those shingle islands that followed from the erosion consequent on overextended burning of hillsides to produce pasture for sheep.

The most important factor in creating a demand for improved inland access was the discovery, in the late 1850's, of gold and minerals in Collingwood, the Pelorus Valley, West Coast, and Lyell. Thus the early '60's saw well-marked tracks up the Maitai from Nelson City and so over to Canvastown and the Pelorus, and routes to Murchison and Lyell, and from the West Coast to Lyell. The search for industrial metals, especially copper and chrome brought the Dun Mountain Coy., formed in London, 1856. Before the American Civil War had brought about the ending of its chrome market this company had built a tramway; this line carried on passenger conveyance from Nelson to the Port for many years after both copper and chrome freight had disappeared altogether—in fact until 1907—with a legal limit of 4 miles per hour.

We can sum up the first decade thus: a time of very restricted access between isolated settlements, each very much dependent on its own exertions for livelihood, amusements, entertainments; we note the large number of very localised race meetings at Hope, Motupipi, Wakefield, Murchison. Thus it is not surprising that the honour of opening up the series of almost annual invasions of Australian racecourses lies with Mr Redwood, who, in 1858, took a small team of three horses across the Tasman (each proving a winner), and who is deservedly hailed as the "Father of the New Zealand Turf." Naturally enough many settlers worked and died within the narrow confines of their one locality. I give this account from the past as illustrating the importance of the human foot during the first twenty years. The Rochefort Bros. were commissioned in 1859 by the Nelson Provincial Government to traverse the chief West Coast rivers. They, the first to do so, went by ship to Westport, then by canoe up the Buller some four miles above Lyell. Wrecked, they were rendered destitute of food and gear. So they walked back to Westport, crossing on their way the mountain ranges, and then turned north-east again over ranges, until they reached Collingwood, and then along the coast over more rugged hills till they reached Nelson. On their way from Lyell they met the two Mackays, half-starved, who had walked all the way from Jackson's Bay, had failed to hit Murchison via the Maruia Valley, had then struck for Collingwood, via Westport. The Mackays had been sent by Governor Gore Browne to buy 3½ million acres from the Coast Maoris—for 300 sovereigns.

From the 1860's the story is one of rapid progress, springing out of the sudden increase in population caused by the influx of miners, and also the timber industry. Thus, by the '70's it was possible to ride or drive eastwards to Blenheim, south-westwards to Murchison, both approximately eighty miles across the hills. Within the flat farming area of the Waimeas a discernible pattern of roads was appearing. But, for large and regular movement of passengers and goods from one part of the province to another sea transport still prevailed, especially in the absence of any form of really organised public transport overland. I would point out that mails and papers were distributed as, and when somebody happened to walk or ride in the requisite direction. These were the times when Mr W. C. Hodgson, Inspector for the Nelson Education Board, tramped far and wide across the hills and flats, from school to school, frequently dossing down in any conveniently placed shack; and many a lonely evening he spent writing poetry—or adding further paragraphs to his most comprehensive, and often very scathing official reports on schools, scholars and teachers.

Family history provides some insight into conditions in the '70's. In 1874 my father, Thomas Newman, at the age of 15. purchased a horse and dray, to carry firewood from Foxhill to Nelson, roughly 16 miles. His timetable ran like this: on the first day he went from home, at Brightwater, 8 miles, loaded the firewood, and returned home; on the second day he left Brightwater at 2 a.m., unloaded at Nelson, and returned home in the late evening, having covered 24 miles and earned up to 16 shillings.

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Although the Waimeas had very localised services a few years previously, the first true stage coaches appeared in the later '70's. We note that Francis Holder ran from Foxhill Inn to Twist and Gay's stables in Tory Street until 1876, when the railhead reached Foxhill. Beyond the flats of the Waimeas, however, "roads" were still tracks—and farmers' produce and purchases continued to move largely in bullock drays and horse wagons until 1910. Some pioneers in the very early days of passenger-mail transport included: S. Haycock (Nelson-Riwaka), J. Thompson (Foxhill-Sherry River), and Newmans (Foxhill-Murchison). By 1890 Newmans catered for Richmond-Riwaka, Belgrove-Lyell, Reefton-West-port and Lyell; in 1887 the Nelson-Blenheim tri-weekly 80-mile run went through, over the two main divides in 11 hours, thus completing the Nelson-Blenheim run, the flat part of which, Blenheim to Havelock, had already been opened up by the Pickering coach ten years earlier.

The westward routes from Nelson were long argued. We note that it took years to decide on the more direct route, via Hope Saddle, 2040ft, and that until 1910, Murchison, being on the left bank of the river Buller was by-passed. It is, I feel, a significant pointer to the work of the early explorers that their early tracks remain very largely the modern routes. Originally, of course, the larger rivers were crossed by punts; and always the typically heavy rains that could be expected every now-and-again made normally shallow fords hazardous in crossing.

I would like to conclude this talk by summarising, very briefly, the part played by the Newman family in the development of Nelson transport. You are aware of the detailed histories that have been written, so I shall pick out just a few facts that may give a speedy over-all picture.

Thos. Newman and his 12-year-old son, William (my grandfather) arrived in the "Bolton," 15/3/1842, some six weeks after the first landings. By 1864 William was packing goods and freight from Canvastown to Nelson via the Maitai Valley; the same year one son, Harry, carted firewood into Nelson; another son, Thomas (my father) followed suit in 1873, being then some 14 years. In 1876 the two brothers carted wool from the huge Upper Wairau sheep stations to Blenheim, and it was in that year that their father, William, was drowned in the Wairau. They then contracted to cart crushers and stampers to the Owen river gold mines, using two six-horse teams—but the gold petered out very rapidly. Thus, by 1879, we find them running their first coach—having served their apprenticeship in firewood, timber, wool and mining machinery. Our first coach, built by Balme and Co. of Hardy Street, Nelson, on English lines, at a cost of £120, could not face up to local conditions. So Newmans turned to the "Cobb" coach, which, having been designed by Abbot and Co. of Concord, was also known as the "Concord". Freeman Cobb had taken this design to Melbourne, where the coach was known by his name. I must emphasise that, despite popular belief to the contrary, the "Cobb" was a "Concord". Its body was slung on six or eight heavy leather straps attached to iron jacks at each end of the coach; a king-pin in the front had the vital function of freeing the body from the front axle in the event of capsize. C. Cole took this type of coach to the Otago gold-fields in 1863.

For four and a half decades, from 1870 to 1914 the stage coach was supreme in inland carriage of passengers and mail within Nelson Province. And, as this talk draws to an end, I would emphasise this point—that practically in every case the securing of a mail contract marked the birth of some particular coach service, for, without some such contract coach services were uneconomic. It boils down does It not, to something very like the granting of an early form of subsidy to those living In isolated areas.

1914 ends the coaching era, though Nelson-Redwoods Valley till 1917 and Glenhope-Murchison till 1918 kept their runs; and 1914 may be taken as the beginning of motor transport. But contemporary developments in this sphere are so rapid that we must end by saying that the full history of the service car has still to unfold itself.