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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 2, Issue 5, November 1971

Farewell Spit Lighthouse

page 7

Farewell Spit Lighthouse

From the earliest days of European settlement Farewell Spit had been a great danger to shipping and the number of strandings and wrecks was such that the provision of a lighthouse became an important issue. Since similar conditions applied to other parts of the New Zealand coastline (although a light was suggested by the Nelson Provincial Council in 1859) it was some years before action was taken.

In 1865 the Central Government provided lighthouses at several locations in urgent need, and one of the early activities of the Marine Department when established in 1877, was to press on with this work. In 1866, when a number of lights had been erected round New Zealand, Farewell Spit was under consideration. Richard Aylmer, an expert brought to the country to erect lighthouses, did not regard the Spit as a suitable place to erect a light owing to the instability of the sand and the engineering difficulties in providing a firm foundation for a tall tower. His suggestion was for a lightship anchored two miles off the tongue of sand. The controversy ended with the provision of a lighthouse which came into use four years later. This was one of a number designed by J. M. Balfour, Colonial Marine Engineer and Superintendent of Lighthouses.

Farewell Spit lighthouse came into service on June 17, 1870. The tower, a few feet higher than the present one (eighty-eight feet high and 97 feet above sea level), was built of hardwood timber on the open lattice-work principle. As was usual at that time an oil burning light was fitted. The revolving mechanism was operated by the keeper winding up the centre pole from the ground a weight and as this gradually fell it wound the gear round. The light, flashing each sixty seconds, was visible for 17 miles and showed a red sector over the end of the Spit.

It is understood that Samuel Brown of Wellington was the successful contractor for the erection of the buildings for a sum of £2,496. Lacking information about the delivery of the materials and equipment I can only conclude that these were landed on the site from the sea in much the same way as was done for the later lighthouse. After about 25 years' use it became evident that the life of the wooden tower was limited owing to deterioration of the timber caused by the weather and abrasive action of the sand blown against it.

Because of this a new steel tower was built nearby and the light and mechanism was transferred to it in January, 1897, and firsthand accounts of the work involved in the building of the new lighthouse have come to us from two men who were on the spot. The "Hinemoa," Captain Fairchild, stood off the Spit and surf boats, two strapped together, brought building materials ashore including timber for three houses, as well as everything for the lighthouse. The procedure was to stack timber across the two boats and build page 8a level platform, then put two or three of the sections of steelwork for the lighthouse on top of the timber. The loaded boats were then floated in as far as possible and a dray was driven out and backed up to the boats. Men worked in water up to their chests using small pinch bars and rollers to get a section on to the dray. Just one section was a two-horse load, the dray being tipped to unload. The men found it most uncomfortable working in the water and sometimes when the tide was coming in the water rose a foot or so as a wall of water.

One of the difficulties in building both the first and the second lighthouses was the lack of shingle for making concrete foundations, but shells were used and the concrete has lasted well. There were no beds of shells but when found in sufficient quantities they were hand raked into heaps and shovelled into drays. If too much sand was not shovelled up, about 2½ cubic yards made a dray load for a three-horse team, two trips per day being possible if the distance was not too great.

The original houses provided for the keepers were only small cottages but much better ones were erected after the new light came into service. When the building programme was under way the "Hinemoa" came in late one day and proceeded to unload bricks on to the surf boats. Several drays and drivers had been waiting and their job was to drive out into the water to the boats, throw a load of bricks aboard, and then drive up on the beach and tip them in a heap. At night the only directions the drivers had to go by were the light from the lighthouse and the light from the "Hinemoa". During that night a storm blew up and the heaps of bricks were covered by sand. The men went round with crowbars prospecting where they thought that the bricks might be, but they were lost.

During the Russian Invasion scare in the 1880's telegraph lines were erected to the Farewell Spit lighthouse. At Takaka, totara poles sawn square were prepared, and these were shipped into the area round Pakawau and Puponga. The intention was to sail in as far as possible on high tide and unload the ship while the tide was out near where they were required.

One of the great problems for the early keepers was the continual drift of sand and the seemingly never-ending job of shovelling it away from their cottages. Sand was in everything.

First attempts to get trees established at the lighthouse reserve were unsuccessful and it was only by the arduous task of carrying soil back after a trip to Puponga for the mail that trees were given a good start and became established. This largely overcame the nuisance of sand in the homes, and the plantation became a well known landmark, at times being of great assistance to mariners.

Until recent years transport was a real problem but about every three months a ship from Nelson would land goods. At one time there was an anchorage on the inside of the Spit about a mile from the lighthouse and goods were carted from there.