Topic: Crossings by Janet Pates

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Crossings by Janet Pates was an entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

Historian James Cowan once described the Waikato River near Tuakau as ‘a quarter mile wide, moving leisurely and unrippled on its majestic course to the sea.’

For Maori and early European alike, the river constituted a highway but also a barrier. Maori were adept canoe handlers and swimmers, not so the British soldiers of the Waikato campaign nor the area’s early settlers. Often clad in boots and heavy clothing, they capsized canoes, fell from banks and occasionally sought eternal solace in the river’s dark waters. One pushed a canoe out into the stream before discovering he had no paddles, tried to jump back to the bank and the river claimed yet another life.

By the early 1880s, settlers were beginning to press for a reliable river crossing and in 1883, to coincide with the ballot of 36 one hundred acre farms at Onewhero, a punt service was established. Sometimes, a river crosser would arrive to find the punt on the opposite bank.  Either they would have to wait until someone crossed from the other side, or take a boat and row across to fetch the punt.  Three years later a larger, more up to date vessel came into operation with Esau Gale, a veteran of the 65th Regiment, employed as ferryman.  The craft had railings enabling stock to be carried and was pulled across the river by a wire rope anchored to either bank, using the current to propel the craft. 

For this service, the charges were:


Person                                            2d.

Horse                                             2d.

Calves                                             1d

Sheep  (Up to 50 head)                 1/2d

Sheep   (Over 50 head)                 1/4d.

Horse and driver                           3d.

Goods not in vehicle.                    1/- per ton.


Development across the river increased rapidly and in 1894 the settlers began to petition the Government for a bridge, pleading the need for something better than the ‘wretched apology for a punt’ which presently served the district.  Their pleas were met with sympathy and vague promises.  Perhaps a bigger, better punt?  But they were adamant.  ‘As I write’ one petitioner claimed, ‘the punt is stuck on a sand bank in the middle of the river.’ Nothing less than a bridge would satisfy them. It took six years of pleading and cajoling, but eventually the growth in population and farm production in the area made their case irrefutable.

The tender of Mr Orlando Wells, for a pile bridge 950 feet long, at a cost of £5,983 was accepted and the first pile driven in June 1901. A year later the bridge was complete but it stood unusable for several months because the approaches were yet to be formed.  One frustrated farmer complained of having to drive his mob of sheep under the bridge instead of over it, with several drowning in the process. At last, the road was completed although when the bridge was officially opened in May 1903 the last half mile on the swampy, Tuakau side was described as ‘a duck pond.’

The gala opening by the Hon. James Carroll Minister of Native Affairs was marked by a luncheon at the Tuakau hotel. Congratulatory speeches were made and toasts drunk to various worthy bodies and citizens after which the official party endured a rough ride to the bridge, with several vehicles almost overturning. Perhaps the drivers were a little too well toasted!

A large crowd of citizenry gathered to watch Mrs Poland cut the symbolic cord and to listen to the official speeches. The Chairman of the Raglan County Council suggested the bridge be named the ‘John Ballance Bridge’ in recognition of that minister’s work in promoting development in the area. This was agreed to but the name obviously didn’t fire the public imagination as I have never heard the bridge referred to as such.

For the return journey, the minister and his party declined a repeat of their rough car ride, opting instead for a boat ride down to the river’s landing place followed by a walk back to Tuakau to catch their special train to Auckland.  

The bridge was a huge improvement in river crossing but no one anticipated the rapid growth in both the volume and weight of motor traffic. After a brief, twenty six years the decking, constructed of kauri, was perfectly sound, but the rest of the structure, built of Australian hardwood, was in need of repair. Five men were working at those repairs when ominous cracking and creaking sent them running for their lives. Despite the deck being badly twisted, a motorist, who arrived shortly after was indignant at not being permitted to drive across.  One of the workmen left his coat hanging on the bridge. It had £2 in the pocket and, he announced, anyone who collected it was welcome to it. Perhaps it was still there when the damaged section later collapsed to hang below the bridge for many weeks.

Caesar Roose of river shipping fame, quickly had a pontoon, drawn by a launch in service.  Even in those days, inflation was a potent factor.  Gone were the 2d fares.  Instead, the charge was 1/- per person and 7/6 per vehicle. These prices brought loud complaints and when it became obvious the service was going to be needed for a considerable time, negotiations led to them being cut to a little over half. 

Then began a debate of the pros and cons of building a new bridge as opposed to repairing the old.  Finally, it was acknowledged that even with repairs the old, one way bridge would soon be inadequate for the district’s needs and in May, 1930, the Raglan County Council took the decision to erect a new, two way concrete structure. As a stop gap measure, the old bridge was repaired with extra piles added, enabling it to be brought back into slow and careful use.  This was also of assistance in the building of the new bridge which took place right alongside.   

The new bridge came into use in May 1933 but this time, there were to be no speeches, no lavish lunch, no toasts. The total cost of the bridge was close to £28,000.  Eighty percent of this was met by the Main Highways Board but the Raglan County Council, Pukekohe Borough Council and Tuakau Town Board were required to contribute the rest. When asked about an official opening, the County Chairman said, the ratepayers had a fine bridge and he thought they should leave it at that.  

The new, reinforced concrete bridge was of the bowstring type, each of its six re-inforced concrete arches forming a bow held by a bottom chord. It was, at the time hailed as the first ‘true bowstring bridge’ built in New Zealand but it was a popular method of construction around that time and there are a couple of others which lay claim to a slightly earlier date. I’m not sure if they are ‘true bow strings’ or not.

During the Second World War, Port Waikato was seen as a possible landing point for a Japanese invasion.  In preparation, a large log was placed, upright, at the Onewhero end, ready to be dropped and block the bridge. I am told explosives were also in place in place under the bridge. Fortunately, there was no invasion and the bridge survived the war unscathed.

These days there are many bridges spanning the Waikato River but this one, with its graceful arches framed with bright willows, the river beneath still running on its leisurely, unrippled way to the sea, is to my eyes, the most handsome of them all. But having known it for most of its eighty years, I am perhaps, a little biased.



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