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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 3, Issue 1, October 1974

Rai Valley Sawmills

Rai Valley Sawmills

page 36

Timber mills that have operated in Rai Valley and adjacent valleys over the years from 1898 to 1974.

It is safe to say that the first timber cut in the Rai Valley was by means of pit sawing, producing telephone poles for the first telegraph line from Blenheim to Nelson built in 1866. There used to be an old pit and some pieces of totara, where this sawing was done, at a site across the river about a mile south of the Rai township. The sawyers were W. Anderson and Walter Seymour. The totara slabs, which were off-cuts from the telegraph poles, were used by my father to build a hayshed over seventy years ago when he owned the property.

I have seen 58 mills erected in the Rai and Upper Pelorus Valley and am the only one lucky enough to be able to say I have seen them all. There have been six in the Ronga Valley, six in the Tunakino Valley, 14 in the Opouri Valley, nine on the east side of the Rai River, and eight on the west side. In the Upper Pelorus and Tinline Valleys 15 mills have operated over the years. Today there are only two operating in the area, one in the Opouri Valley and one in the Rai Valley, within two chains of the site where the first mill started.

Rai Valley

The first mill to cut timber in the area was one erected by Hans Fanselow near where the Rai Valley Post Office now stands. The first timber from that mill was carted by Mr Orsman of Havelock on 11th January, 1898. It could be possible that I was there with my mother when this left the mill, but I would have been only about one year old then. Fanselow would have secured his logs from Forrest's property.

The second mill was built by Nees and McLean about half a mile on the Rai side of the Pelorus Bridge, their gear being deposited on the site there on 6th June, 1900. They milled the area of country between the road leading up the Pelorus River and the main road to Nelson, the area now owned by the Scenic Reserve Board.

The next mill to start operating in Rai Valley was erected by Robertson Brothers of Nelson about 1902 on the area where the Rai Valley Dairy Company secretary's house now stands. Robertsons milled the area west from here. This was Crown land at the time but was later drawn in a ballot by E. Wiffen. Bullock teams were used at that mill for a time. Robertsons milled much of the Rai, Carluke and Ronga Valleys, and the area of flat land between the Rai Dairy Factory and the turnoff to Carluke (now owned by Jim Hughes) and the area at present being farmed by M. Maule and D. Leov. (This land was open for selection in 1916 as Soldier Settlement farms and was originally drawn by Jack Laird and Joe Simpson. Fifty acres of hill country on Laird's page 37 page 38

Key to Map

1Robertson Bros.
2Hewetson & Sons
3A. Leov
4Hewetson Bros.
6Templeman & Simpson
9Robertson (3rd mill)
10Fanselow (1st mill)
13Bryant Bros. Snr.
14Bryants Bros. Snr.
15Baigent & Son
16Leov & Young
17Bryants Snr.
19Nees & McLean (2nd mill)
20De Boo & Sons
22Baigent & Sons
25W. Carr
26Robertson Bros.
27Robertson Bros.
28Bryants Snr.
29Robertson Bros.
30Griffiths & Holland
31Prentice Bros.
32Webley Bros.
39Webley Bros.
34Baigent & Sons
35De Boo & Douglas
36Prentice Bros.
37De Boo Bros. & So.
38Webley Bros.
39Webley Bros.
40W. Carr
42Marlborough Timber Co.
43Marlborough Timber Co.
44Bryant Bros. Snr.
46Sharland Bros.
47Baigent & Son
49Bryant Bros. Jnr.
51Bryant Bros. Snr.
53Bryant Bros. Jnr.
54Bryant Bros. Jnr.
55Bryant Bros. Snr.
57W. Carr
58Bryant Bros. Jnr.
page 39section which had not been milled were felled by my brother Harold Leov, and Bill Price, before they were seventeen years old, at £2 per acre). Robertsons also milled Section 48, Ronga Valley, land drawn by Norman Dolamore and now owned by Stan Holdaway.

A wooden tramline was made up the Ronga Valley, horses generally being used to draw the trucks. An old Puffing Billie tried by Robertsons was more off the rails than on them! It is possible that Robertsons cut some timber on Seymour's property as he owned the land where the mill was built.

Brownlees extended their operations into Rai Valley early in this century. They didn't build a mill at the time but extended their tramline to take their logs to their existing mill at Blackball, a short distance on the Rai Valley side of Havelock. They simply logged an area of bush on the west of the main road and river south of Bulford bridge. (This country is now owned by Wearing Brothers but could have been either Crown land or owned by R. Forrest senior at the time). Brownlees also milled the area known as Blicks Estate. (Miss Brownlees bought this from Blicks and when they had finished milling the area was sold and it made six nice farms). Brownlees really only took the easy going, leaving plenty of scope for the other small sawmills that followed. The big Rai flood of 1904 washed away all their tramline bridges.


About 1906 Brownlees erected a big mill at Carluke (on the east side of the river from Rai Valley township) capable of cutting 20,000 feet of timber per day. (The mill and township were named Carluke after their home town in Scotland). There were about 100 whares and small cottages, and also a store, hall, school and post office. About one hundred men were employed here and the Blackball mill was still operating as well. They eventually had a tramline to near the head of Ronga Valley, half-way up the Opouri Valley, and well up the Tunakino Valley. Three steam locomotives operated on the lines and the biggest one hauled up to 24 trucks at a time. Brownlees only took the cutting rights over half the Opouri bush areas thinking that the rest would be theirs in due course. But such was not to be.

Craig Mills

About 1907 the Mariborough Timber Company applied for, and was granted, the rights to mill the area at the top of the valley. Two mills were erected right at the top of the valley under the management of one John Craig, generally known as "Bull" Craig who was a tiger for work. Craig's Mills, as they were known, started in 1907 and operated for about 12 years. The timber was taken over the high hill to Nydia Bay, for shipping, by means of horse trams and winches—no mean feat considering the steepness of the hill. (Bob Spitall who used to run the boarding house and eating house for the mill workers later drew the land, where the mills were situated, in a ballot).

page 40

These earlier mills operated in a fairly big way and only worked the areas where the logs were easily collected. Brownlees closed down about 1913 and the Marlborough Timber Company a few years later and it was after the cessation of these larger concerns that the smaller mills really came into their own.

Back to Rai Valley

Bryant Brothers started milling about 1906 near the first Rai Valley School (then Flat Creek School) and Bryant Brothers, both the older and the younger generation, have operated mills until recent years. They logged the bush areas near the mill and also from an area of Crown land well back from the road. (In recent years S. J. Couper has built a mill on his property close to where Bryant's mill was, milling logs from far and wide including some from their Tinline property). About 1911 Bryant Brothers erected a mill on my father's property, situated on the east side of the Rai River about a mile south of the township and milled an area of Crown land to the east of this section. (About 1917 Jack Nolan drew this area in a ballot, and it now belongs to C. T. Leov). This mill was burned down soon after it was put up. D. Higgins and Dean Eyes were baching in a whare about twenty chains away when the engine driver raised the alarm about midnight. They leaped out of bed and dressed in such a hurry that later one man found that he had put his jersey on upside down in mistake for his pants.

C. T. Leov's sons and G. Young's sons erected a small mill on Nolan's section a few years ago and cut a small amount of timber, mostly tawa. Also on Section 2 Block V (the land which my father owned) Baigent & Sons of Nelson erected a small mill a short distance east of Bryant's mill and cut out an area of Crown land behind the section owned by Nolan.

Rai Saddle

Robertson Brothers of Nelson erected a mill at the foot of the Rai Saddle, about the site where the piggery now stands, and they logged the area on the south side of the road which was later drawn in a ballot by Harry Horton. A few years later Baigents erected a mill on the other side of the road from Robertsons (where the Stale Forest Service buildings now are). This was when the war was on and there was a shortage of petrol. A man named Ingram burned the mill slabs for producer gas to be used in cars.

Ronga Valley

Baigents erected a mill on Hewetson's property in the Ronga Valley about 1915 and milled timber from this and a neighbouring section. Robertsons erected a mill at the head of the Ronga on a property which I owned and milled an area of adjacent Crown land about 1923. (Bill Holland was manager of the mill). Another mill was erected on my place about 1930 by Hewetsons and they worked an area of Crown land on the west side of the Ronga Valley. (It must have been a lean time for Hewetsons as the slump page 41was on, and I can remember paying eight shillings per hundred feet for quite good timber). From my place Hewetsons moved to their own property and milled timber there for years, getting logs from far and wide. This mill has now closed down.

The other mill in the Ronga Valley was erected by Simpson and Templeman on Turner's property. They logged an area of country which had been by-passed by both Brownlees and Robertsons (now owned by Don Leov).

Adrian Leov erected a small mill on his property (now owned by a Mr Biggs). This is a property that has changed hands numerous times.

Tunakino and Opouri Valleys

Small mills operated in quite a number of places in the Tunakino and Opouri Valleys. W. Carr erected a mill and was there for quite a number of years. Robertson Brothers had a mill in the Tunakino and when the immediate area of bush was cut out, the mill was shifted to another site in the same locality and they cut timber there for some time. Robertsons also erected a mill further up the valley. The firm of Griffiths and Holland erected a mill only a short distance from Robertsons on the opposite side of the river.

After Craig's mill had gone Jack Kerr acquired a section in the Opouri and erected a small mill there. He cut timber for his own house and several of his neighbours, all new settlers in the valley. Prentice Brothers bought Kerr's mill and cut some timber on a neighbouring section, then shifted down the valley and worked out other areas of bush. This mill finished up at Rimu Bay in the Pelorus Sounds.

Webley Brothers then started up in the Opouri Valley and this was re-sited several times. When the bush was cut out in the head of the Tunapai Gully, the mill was taken over by Hill and Papps and erected up Alfred Creek, logs being obtained from adjacent areas of both Crown and privately owned land. Baigent and Sons set up a mill in the Opouri close to where the first mill had been. When the immediate bush area was cut out it was moved to a new location, and eventually as the bush finished was moved away to the Wairau Valley.


De Boo Brothers and three mates erected a mill in Kaiuma Valley on Pretty's property and after cutting the timber on that property they moved to an area of Crown land further up the Kaiuma Stream. At this stage the mill was taken over by Goslings. When the bush was cut out there the plant was bought by Simpson and Templeman and this is the one previously mentioned as being used in the Ronga Valley. Again, later, the mill was moved to the Rai township and operated there by Fred Templeman for quite a number of years. Today this same mill is being operated by Mr Gibson. Logs are collected for near and far, operating in page 42areas where logs could never have been collected prior to the use of crawler tractors.

Return to Opouri and Carluke

W. Carr erected a mill in the Opouri to clear out an area of bush which remained there. A. De Boo and K. Douglas later took over the plant and moved it a few miles down to the valley to work out another stand of timber. Finishing this they moved the mill setting it up at Carluke only a few chains away from where Brownlees had their big mill. The De Boo family operated the mill here for many years but could not have kept going for so long had it not been for crawler tractors and motor trucks to collect the logs.

A small mill was operated by Max Wallace at his place in a valley called Staghorn near the head of the Opouri Valley.

There were two mills in the Rimu Gully area milling areas of bush that Brownlees had left. One, owned by Ingram and Partner, was on the right hand side of the road, and the other was at the head of the Gully, being operated by Baigents.

Upper Pelorus Valley

The first mill in the Upper Pelorus Valley west of the Pelorus Bridge was put in by Bryant Brothers. After milling the immediate area they logged an area of Crown land across the Pelorus River having to use a very high tram bridge for trucking the logs to the mill. This plant operated for a number of years. About 1923 Sharland Brothers erected a mill at the mouth of the Tinline River milling timber from land owned by Jim Sharland. About 1924 Baigents started a mill at what they called Sunny Side, further up the Pelorus.

Tinline Valley

Bill Gardiner started a mill quite close on the right side of where the bridge crosses the upper Tinline River. Bryants shifted their first Pelorus mill up the Tinline and erected it close to where Bill Gardiner had his mill, milling country further back into the hills than where Gardiner went. Bryants shifted this mill to the Tunakino Valley and milled an area of country which they bought there. Again, Bryants started in the head of the Tinline Valley, and when they had finished Adam Gibson took over the mill and continued to log an area of country there.

The mill which had been operated by W. Carr, in the Tunakino Valley, was bought by Ward, Taylor & Co. and moved into the Tinline Valley and started milling above Bryants scene of operations. Later Carr took the mill over again. Baigents moved their mill from Dalton's at Canvastown and erected it near the same spot as Bryants had been. About 1931 Baigents of Nelson erected a mill near the bridge which crosses the Upper Tinline River opposite where Bill Gardiner had had his mill. About 1938 Robertsons started milling an area of Crown land well up the Pelorus, their logs having to be brought across the Pelorus River.

page 43

The new Bryant Brothers (junior) company also started milling in the Tinline Valley, and later shifted to the end of the road in the valley to mill an area of bush left there. Most of these milling operations were only possible through the use of crawler tractors to collect the logs. Bryants had a Fordson half-truck, and one wonders that they are still alive considering the places where they took it. When they finished milling in the Upper Tinline Bryants shifted to a different site and, when finished there, moved their mill to the Heringa Valley.

More Recent Mills

One of the last mills erected in the Pelorus Valley was that of F. Sharland.

The latest mill to be erected in the whole district Number 24 on map, is in the Opouri Valley, the logs being trucked from Tuna Bay, in Tennyson Inlet, the bay close to Duncan's Bay where Duncans had a mill about 100 years ago. (This latest mill is the plant that Hewetsons ran in the Ronga in earlier years).


It would be interesting to know the quantity of timber milled and the value of the timber sold. The first sawmillers were paid 5s to 10s per hundred feet (board measure) for their good timber and at times white pine could be had for the taking. Even in the early 1930s good timber could be bought for 8s to 16s per hundred feet. The small mills came and went, cutting out areas of bush in gullies and on hillsides which the bigger mills left. The crawler tractor was the greatest factor as the small mill owners brought logs from steep hill country that was impossible to work years ago.

Today the two mills operating are having to cut a good deal of pinus which is poor timber when compared with the good totara, matai, rimu, white pine, and birch, that the first mills sawed. At today's prices the value of the timber milled could represent a very considerable sum.

Today the green pastures and well-fed herds of cows give quite a different picture of the district. A modern tar-sealed highway with high-powered vehicles creates new industries in place of the sawmills and the timber trade of a few decades ago. With its clear streams, steep hills, areas of native bush, its lush pastures, and herds of cows, it is the home of many happy and contented people. The district has the atmosphere of prosperity!

Personal Note

Mr Leov is a descendant of the first settlers of Rai Valley, being the first baby boy of the valley.