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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 1, 1987

A Short History of Sawmilling in the Nydia Bay Area

A Short History of Sawmilling in the Nydia Bay Area

page 29

The vegetation pattern of Marlborough is governed by climate, relief, soil, aspect and man. In general, land to the west of the Wairau Faultline and its attendant mountain block (Richmond Range), has a high rainfall, allowing the development of lush podocarp forest. This is characterised by matai, miro, kahikatea and rimu trees. Generations of Maori settlers and early European visitors, such as Cook and the whalers of the 1830s, utilised selected trees, but it was not until the demand for timber increased, in the 1860s, that milling and clear felling of the lowland forests, in the tributaries of Pelorus Sound, began.

Alexander Duncan set up the first sawmill in Marlborough, at the head of the Grove Arm of Queen Charlotte Sound, in 1861.

The first Wakamarina Gold Rush, in 1864, saw the demand for sawn timber escalate and, by 1865, William Ross Brownlee had built the first of his New Zealand mills, at Mahakipawa, in Pelorus Sound. He prospered, and expanded by purchasing the failed Havelock Milling Company mill in 1871. This mill had opened in 1866, on the site of the present marina complex.

A load of sawn timber reaches the base of the incline in Nydia Bay. MHS.

A load of sawn timber reaches the base of the incline in Nydia Bay. MHS.

page 30

Brownlee moved the Havelock mill to Nydia Bay in 1876. the Maori had named this Opouri Bay, or "The place of sadness". Within four years the Nydia Bay mill had produced 10 million feet of timber from 1000 acres of valley floor, at the head of the bay. It was moved to Kaiuma Bay and produced another 18 million feet of timber by 1887.

For the following 20 years, Brownlee and Co. continued to expand from their base mill and port at Blackball, on the Pelorus river, near Havelock. They received no serious competition, until John Craig, a Westland miller and Daniel Reese, a Christchurch timber merchant, gained the milling rights to 800 acres of the Upper Opouri Valley, in 1906. Reese described the Opouri forest as "magnificent, probably the best ever grown in New Zealand". Trees were tall and straight and of a larger diameter than those in Westland, with a greater percentage of heart timber.

Reese and Craig were faced with many problems in milling and selling this timber. The largest was the lack of a low-level rail or road route to a port, as their rivals, Brownlee and Co., controlled this.

John Craig opted for an ambitious route over the 450 metre saddle between the Opouri Valley and Nydia Bay, and began construction of a wharf at Nydia Bay. The map shows the various stages of this route. Approval for access over
Marlborough Timber Company Opouri Valley Operations

Marlborough Timber Company Opouri Valley Operations

page 31the farms of John and William Gould, allowed the building of a two foot gauge tramline from the wharf, to the base of a prominent spur leading to the Opouri Saddle. A track was cleared up this gradient, which averaged one in three, and a steam hauler was placed at the top.

Once the hauler was operational, the rails, rollers, other building materials and mill equipment were winched to the top. It was necessary to build a 700 metre tramline along the saddle, to reach a suitable spur running down to Mill Stream, in the Opouri Valley. A second steam hauler was set up and railway track run down the slope. From the base of the incline, a further tramline ran to the newly constructed mill, and a collection of houses and huts. Steel rail was used on the two inclines and corners, whilst timber rails were used elsewhere.

This mammoth construction job caused the two partners to run short of capital and eight business associates joined then, to form the Marlborough Timber Company, in 1907.

During this time, Brownlee and Co. had extended their tramline into the lower Opouri Valley and built a modern bandsaw mill and a village, called Carluke, after Brownlee's home town in Scotland. Upset at the competition from Craig, they moved to gain another 800 acres of bush, but Reese moved faster and beat Brownlee with his application to Wellington by 24 hours. The second mill was built immediately and both appear to have been called Craig's Mill (Upper and Lower). The tramways and inclines proved able to handle the combined output of about five million feet per annum, although they were working for ten to twelve hours per day.

The wharf in Nydia Bay about 1913. MHS.

The wharf in Nydia Bay about 1913. MHS.

About two thirds of this output was rimu, valued for building, door and window frames, and furniture, whilst kahikatea, used to build tallow casks for freezing works, made up most of the balance. Smaller quantities of matai and miro were also milled, but the red and black beech forest was not used. An efficient two-way trade with Australia was set up by Reese, which saw the 300 metre long Nydia Bay wharf hosting trans-Tasman ships. These took Opouri timber to Sydney and returned with Newcastle coal for Christchurch, or Australian hardwood timber for port expansions at Lyttelton and Wellington. Coal, for the two incline haulers and the mill boilers, was off-loaded at the Nydia wharf.

The Opouri mills saw a settlement grow to house the bushmen, millers and their families. As well as houses and huts, there was a dance hall, library, bakery, butchery, smithy, grocer's store, two-table billiard room and a boarding house, run by Bob Spitall. Spitall also ran the bakery and store, and was the village photographer.

A second settlement, for yardmen, truckers and wharfies, grew near the Nydia Bay wharf and was based on William Gould's farm. He ran a store to sell supplies, used his woolshed as a hall and built a grass tennis court.

page 32

Both settlements held "Bush Cabarets" and, when combined, saw the men and their partners riding the incline railway. As women were outnumbered by the men, grandmothers, mothers and daughters were in demand as partners. Although the owners of the rival sawmills did not see eye to eye, this did not prevent visits by Carluke and Craig's Mill staff to each others dances, when their respective tramways were used to transport the revellers.

As mill manager, John Craig ran a strict operation and he was greatly respected as an employer. His men were worked hard but paid well. Slackers did not stay long, but some men served the company for many years. Due to his hard work and strength of purpose, John Craig was known as "The Bull".

As a result of the Marlborough Timber Company gaining the cutting rights to 1600 acres of the Upper Opouri Valley, Brownlee's Carluke mill ended its life in 1915, after only nine years. Despite building 70 kilometres of tramline, the modern Carluke mill and the extensive port and mill at Blackball, they had missed out on what they saw as a bonus, requiring little expense to collect. Instead they packed their equipment, including rails, steam haulers, locomotives and sawmills, and moved to fresh forests in the "Valley of the Giants", at Bell Hill, near Greymouth. The company had, however, had fifty profitable years in the Pelorus area.

It is not clear what happened to the Marlborough Timber Company's Opouri operation, at this time, as sources give dates for the closing of Craig's Mills ranging from 1915 to 1925. It is known that their closing saw the evacuation of valuable equipment over the inclines, to be shipped to Greymouth. As the completion for milling rights continued between Brownlees and the Marlborough Timber Company in the Bell Hill area, it is possible Craig's Mills closed nearer to 1915. Production records suggest 1919. One of Craig's mills was sold and removed to Orepuka, near Riverton in Southland, during World War II.

The demolition of Craig's Mill bakery in 1923. From left, Nugget Robinson. Robert Spittal, George Anderson. MHS.

The demolition of Craig's Mill bakery in 1923. From left, Nugget Robinson. Robert Spittal, George Anderson. MHS.

page 33

The demise of the large mills allowed many small mills to open, using unmilled pockets of forest. Further selective logging occurred in Nydia Bay and, in the early 1980's, preparations for planting exotic forest, on the land milled in the 1870's by Brownlees began, but ceased with a change in Government policies. Milling the Pelorus forest continues today, with the 1987 export of logs from the Upper Pelorus Valley to Asian consumers.

The Nydia Incline Today

Although all useable materials were removed from the Marlborough Timber Company's operation 60–70 years ago, energetic historians, with a day to spare, can follow the transport system from the wharf site to the mill sites. Close to the wharf site, the Department of Conservation has set up a photo interpretation display. At low tide, lines of volcanic basalt ballast from the Auckland scows, which carried timber from the 1870's Brownlee mill, are exposed. So also are the stumps of the wharf piles, corroded iron ware and broken glass of early beer bottles.

The line of the tramway, from the wharf to the base of the incline is now indistinct and shows best in artificial cuttings, decaying bridge timbers, and lines of rough wooden sleepers, in a beautiful section of punga forest. A fragile remnant of timber work, used to bridge a swamp, is protected by fencing.

On both inclines, nature has masked the scars of the millers. A thick layer of leaf litter, rapid regeneration of pungas, supplejacks and epiphytes and severe pig rooting on the lower slopes, have blurred the outlines and covered equipment. Obvious relics include worn out rails, steel rollers and bearing holders, scattered bricks, coal and sleepers. The more observant will spot the insulator cups of the winch signal telegraph, high up on the trunks of some trees.

Small terraces, with scattered bricks, coal and iron, mark the sites maintenance huts. The rollers needed greasing, otherwise the wire cable would wear or break. A railway waggon axle, protruding from a living tree, is evidence of such a breakage.

The steam hauler sites have substantial quantities of machinery, roofing iron, wire cable and rubbish, but the mill sites have been under pasture for many years and are difficult to locate.

Sections of this transport system are now visited by several hundred school pupils each year, in an effort to educate people about our past and the need to treat our historic sites with respect.

If all visitors continue to leave the relics on the site, perhaps the engineering efforts of John Craig will, one day, be compared to those who constructed the famous Denniston incline near Westport.


Insull, H. A. Marlborough Place Names . Reed, 1952.

Leov, L. C. Rai Valley Sawmills . Nelson Historical Society Journal, Vol. 3 No. 1.

Rai Valley Centennial Committee. The Rai And Its People . The Committee, 1980.

Reese, D. Was it All Cricket . Allen and Unwin, 1948.

Paton, B. R. Sawmill Pioneers in the Pelorus . Unpublished dissertation.

Lincoln College, 1982.