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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 1, October 1981

Transport by Rail and Road

page 33

Transport by Rail and Road

It is very difficult to explain to a modern generation just how convenient the Nelson Railway was and how important it was to the development of the country districts. Transport and communications of all kind have developed at such an extraordinary pace in recent years that it is now hard to realise the conditions of 60 years ago. It is almost impossible to imagine the difficulty of using bullock wagons and pack-horses to carry goods to such places as Sherry River or the Buller Valley, or of taking a week to go to the Wangapeka and back. Doubtless it is impossible for those who now see goods being carried to these places in two hours!

It is easy to say now that the Nelson Railway did not serve any useful purpose, but prior to the general use of motor vehicles it provided the lifeline for the districts it served. When the railway was built to Foxhill in the 1870s there were very few bridges over the rivers which had to be crossed at a ford by the horse teams, and roads were rough gravel strips. Transport is said to be the lifeblood of a community, certainly it must have been to pioneer farmers of a 100 years ago when financial returns were small and it was often a case of enduring and existing. A passenger service which could bring people to Nelson in an hour or even less must have seemed the height of luxury, even if the four-wheeled carriages were not very luxurious!

So far an overall history of the Nelson Railway has not been written, but information is being stored up and, no doubt, an able pen will eventually write a very interesting story. Meanwhile we have to face the fact that to a generation which has always known tar-sealed roads, buses and heavy motor vehicles, the Nelson railway appears a myth from the past. Nevertheless there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of people who can remember that, when attending the Nelson Colleges, they travelled daily on the train to and from the city. Certainly the line was never extended through to the West Coast and Canterbury as originally intended. The construction from Belgrove onward proceeded by fits and starts according to the whims of various political groups, but it was the introduction of motor transport which brought its final ending. It is possible that in its earlier years the Nelson section paid its way, but it appears that from about 1911 onwards the losses grew from year to year. With the growing use of motor vehicles in the 1920s it was realised that short sections of line could not survive, they must be connected to the trunk system, and efforts were made to extend the line from Glenhope to Inangahua. It is not the purpose of this article to consider the rights and wrongs of the closing down of the construction works when the line had been completed to Gowanbridge. The fact of the matter is that the extensions from Glenhope and Kawatiri to Gowanbridge were not taken over by the Railways Department.

When we were children at school about 1920 we would run out to the road fence to see a car go by while the passing of a six-horse wagon called for little comment. Certainly there were very few cars in our country district at page 34that time. Motor cycles were coming into use and all these were of British or American make. Some of the American machines such as Big X, Ace, Harley Davidson and Indian, were heavy powerful machines. The British ones such as Rudge-Whitworth, Douglas and B.S.A. were popular makes. But the railway still provided the link to the city and port for both goods and passengers.

If we consider the year 1925 and make comparisons we find that by then motors were coming into more general use. There were a few private cars and odd motor trucks mainly carting goods to and from the railway stations. Both Newmans and Gibbs' were running service cars from Nelson to Westport. It was an all day trip with morning tea at Korere and lunch at Murchison. None of the roads were tar-sealed and the rough gravel took heavy toll of the high pressure tyres. There were many unbridged streams to cross and floods often caused lengthy delays. There was little through traffic to the city.

This writer remembers that in the early 1920's the main road along the Hope straight was simply a dusty gravel wheel track on each side with a grass strip in between. One of my boyhood recollections was the crossing of the old Brightwater wooden bridge. It was attended by a man with a red flag to see that traffic travelled very slowly. At night the watchman carried a lantern.

From 1925 onwards motor traffic was increasing rapidly. The railway was still very important for both goods and passengers but the changing pattern soon became evident. By 1930 most gravel roads were being regularly graded and improved and most streams were being bridged. Also-by then, there were a few stretches of tar-sealed roadway in the Waimea County, namely Beatson's Road at Wakatu (then the main road) and from Stoke to Champion Road at Richmond.

The employment measures in the late 1920's and early 1930's meant that a great deal of improvement was carried out on the country roads – more especially those over the hills. In 1934 the main highway from Stoke to Belgrove was tar-sealed by a Christchurch contractor who was using a hot-mix process which was a new development at the time.

Until about 1930 there was no decent road to Lake Rotoiti from either Nelson or Blenheim but this construction was one of the employment measures of the late 1920's. In keeping with the times it was all pick and shovel work. My brothers and I trucked the food, equipment, bridge materials, cement, culvert pipes, and most requirements from the Kohatu railway station. In some places between Kikiwa and Tophouse the road was steep and, in general, not far removed from the days when it was the track for bullock drays. Over the years some side cuttings had been put in to avoid the steepest grades down into, and out of, the gorge-like gullies. (One wonders just how the bullocks really managed to haul the drays!)

From Tophouse to Lake Rotoiti the road was still part of the original track following the rocky formations on the west side of Black Valley. One gully commonly referred to as the "Switchback" was simply crossed by going straight down into it and straight up the other side. Unless care was taken motors stalled in attempting the climb. With loaded trucks it was only possible to gain a few yards at a time. (When I told this to a gathering one page 35modern man wrote the statement off by saying that it was bad driving. He did not realise the great advances which have been made in both roads and motor vehicles. Modern trucks are far more powerful and better geared to handle steep grades.)

When Transport licensing was introduced in the early 1930's the motor traffic had captured a great deal of the trade, but the Railways Department was represented at all hearings of applications for licences. The rail trade was being whittled down but strenuous efforts were made to keep the railway operating.

It finally closed in 1955 and was demolished shortly afterwards.