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

Stephens Island and Its Lighthouse

Stephens Island and Its Lighthouse

This article was to be concerned with the Stephens Island lighthouse, but first of all, and especially for any historical journal, much must be said about the island itself.

Stephens Island is not very large, being somewhat over one mile by one half mile. It is high, rising over 900 feet and therefore easily recognised at great distances. It lies about two miles north east of D'Urville Island, between Admiralty Bay and the Tasman Sea, and is generally taken to mark the western end of Cook Strait.

There are steep cliff faces on all sides, but at higher altitudes the bare rock gives way to easier grass, and some patches of scraggy bush.

The Maoris knew it as Takaporewa and knew it clothed in forest and loud with birds.

Tasman recorded his sighting of it. After his sad rencontre in Murderers Bay he sailed well into Cook Strait—his journal for the 20th December, 1642, records—"at noon we tacked to northward page 13and there saw a round high islet, about 8 miles West by South." After sheltering behind the islands here (the Rangitoto Islands) from northwest and westerly gales, he celebrated New Zealand's first Christmas in this vicinity.

Captain Cook entered in his journal for Saturday, 31st March, 1770. "The Bay I have named Admiralty Bay, the N.W. point Cape Stephens, and the S.E. Cape Jackson after the two Secretaries (of the Admiralty). It may always be known by the island which is pretty high and lies N.E. 2 miles from Cape Stephens".

He then refers to Nelson. "Between this island and Cape Farewell the shores form a large deep bay the bottom of which we could hardly see."

As for the lighthouse itself, it was first mooted in 1854. On the grounds that other than New Zealand ships would use its services, the Imperial Government was asked to provide it!

After the bark "Weathersfield" became a total loss in 1888, the matter was again pressed; work was started in 1892 and finished in 1894, by Beabey and Sons of Auckland. The major difficulty in the construction was, of course, the landing of stores and materials at the foot of the cliffs, and getting them to the site of the lighthouse some 600 feet up.

There is here a link with early Nelson, and with Nelson College—one David Scott, born in Tasmania in 1842, one of the first pupils of Nelson College, during 31 years service supervised the construction of many New Zealand lighthouses, including Stephens Island, East Cape, Portland Island, Cuvier Island, Cape Brett, Jacksons Head.

Then in 1892, it was the most powerful New Zealand lighthouse, with five wick paraffin lamps. Today it is still among the most powerful, and because of its great height, visible for 32 miles at sea level, flashing twice every thirty seconds. Today, of course, the original weight operated driving mechanism has been replaced, and both this operation and the lamps themselves are powered electrically (since 1938).

The Stephens Island that the Maori called Takaporewa, that Tasman and Cook sailed by, was noted for many wonders—its forests included the kohekohe or native mahogany tree; its birdlife—tuis, bellbirds, saddle back, native crow, kaka, parakeets, and the very famous semi-nocturnal Stephens Island wren; its sea birds—shearwaters, gulls, shags, the fairy prions or "doveys"; its tuataras; even a rare frog, discovered in 1918; paryphanta or land snails; and a unique weta.

After the lighthouse was established in 1888 much of this passed for ever. The bush was cleared, and sheep and cattle introduced. There are few trees now to attract tuis and kakas. The sea birds, and their friends the tuataras remain, together with some frogs, but the paryphanta are gone.

Finally, the first keeper's cat caught and killed the entire population of Stephens Island wrens, destroying an entire species, and thereby achieving for itself doubtful immortality.