KARANGAHAKE the years of the gold 1875 -1935
Mackaytown, situated at the eastern foot of Turner's Hill, about four miles from Paeroa on the Waihi Road, lies within a semi-circle of the Ohinemuri River as far as Doherty's Creek, and on its northern side, includes the Rahu Road area. Across the river lies the imposing Tapu Ariki (sacred burial ground), and often referred to as Te Moananui's Hill.
The Maoris of Ohinemuri were considerable travellers and made full use of rivers where they were navigable for canoes. Otherwise, foot—worn tracks were followed by the shortest route, which often necessitated the fording of streams.
The Missionary, Rev. Samuel Marsden, recorded a journey he made in 1820 from Thames to Tauranga. He wrote:
"About four miles up the Ohinemuri River we crossed at a ford at the foot of a high hill. The water was breast high but my four New Zealand guides carried me across. We had to ford this river twice before we crossed the summit of a hill."
Many of the early gold-seekers, after arriving in the vicinity of Paeroa by boat, set off on foot for those hills.
It is known that James Mackay in his administrative position, had to contend with many difficulties, such as the long delay in constructing a road over Turner's Hill in order to avoid river crossings. Finally, a section of the Army under Captain Turner was despatched to accomplish the task which would take the route past the deep "tomo" or tunnel that was reputed to go down to the river. A Maori legend tells us that a chief's daughter was detained there by a "Taniwha" and thereafter the river became known as "Ohinemuri" — "The girl left behind".
There had been a ford near the western foot of Turner's Hill on the property of Mr Marsh (who later delivered milk to Mackaytown and Karangahake). Opposite Marsh's farm, James Turner, another early settler, built a thatched cottage on his land bisected by the new road over the long steep ascent, a major difficulty for the great horse teams that hauled heavy machinery to the mines.
The news of gold discoveries in the region, even before the opening of the field, attracted adventurous "Prospectors", on foot or horseback, and one of these was Doherty, who lived for some years not far from the creek named for him. No doubt he was lured by the fact that the sandy clay bore some resemblance to the alluvial soils in the south. It is said that in those days the creek followed the route of the Rahu Road and it was assumed that its elevated reaches could provide a fall of water for sluicing.
A preliminary drive was put in from just above the river, but was soon abandoned as no values were found. Water from the Rahu, seeping through the drive, eventually broke through and cut a chasm whence it joined the Ohinemuri River.
The Rahu Valley provided an early route to Waitekauri, where mining also began in 1875, (there being no "Waihi" at that time). But a branch track led to the Old Tauranga Road, via Katikati which had the honour of having the first' telegraph office in the district. On the day of the opening of the Ohinemuri Field, James Mackay despatched his Clerk to Katikati on horseback, to send a telegram to Parliament. Obviously the "road" then, was merely a track, and after it passed over the saddle north of the White Rocks, a branch descended to the vicinity of Owharoa where gold had been discovered. Ways and means were explored of finding an easier route to these places but it was considered that a road through the Gorge would be an impossibility.
The late Courtney Kenny, a well—known Paeroa Surveyor, recorded:
"In 1877 the first Trig Stations in this district were established by J. Baber, a Government Surveyor, and one of these was fixed on the peak of Karangahake. As many of the first stations were not very accessible, a number of lesser ones were established by N. Kenny in 1881, P.E. Cheal in 1881 and J. Baber in 1887. It was from these, that all road, railway and land surveys were directly or indirectly connected."
Prior to 1885, when Ohinemuri became a separate County, the Thames County had a road put over the hills from near Doherty's Creek and graded up to pass over the Bluff above the Gorge and down again to Owharoa. It was known as Butler's Track, after the contractor.
Mackaytown became important for travellers, especially when wagons, drawn by eight-horse teams, began transporting goods for people, and machinery for the mines; and coaches brought more people seeking work: and homes. Many of the early hotels "folded their tents", or were used for other purposes after the first abortive rush, but Carol Nash's Hotel at the foot of the Rahu Road was in a strategic position and maintained its trade. It is rumoured that it was built almost entirely of packing cases, but Mr Nash planted the many poplar trees that later beautified the area. The opening of the Ohinemuri Field was a spur to the neighbouring embryo settlement of Paeroa and Mr John Ritchie who opened a Private School there in 1875, later conducted a Part-Time School at Mackaytown.
An old newspaper cutting tells us that:
"On the 15th August 1876 a school, under the Education Board, opened in Mackaytown in a building lent by Adam Porter with 24 children."
Shortly afterwards Mr Ritchie was appointed Headmaster of the new Paeroa School.
In 1888, Mr Ritchie, now a widower, returned to Paeroa to live with his daughter (Mrs J.W. Shaw) and to be near her sister (Mrs Ellis). He also had another daughter (Mrs Coleman) and four sons. (The youngest, Fred, and his wife, became well known in Karangahake.) Mr Ritchie again took charge of the Mackaytown and Owharoa Schools, but during 1889 a new school was built at Karangahake, and although Owharoa was still under his charge, Mr Ritchie taught at the new school until he retired in 1891.
The first Goldfields Post Office was opened at Mackaytown on 1 April 1875 possibly in the Warden's Office, with Mr Henry McKay as Post Master. Mr W. McLoughrey was appointed on 1 January 1876, the Post Office being in a General Store, approximately where Mrs Morran has lived for years. On 17 January 1878 John McWilliams became Post Master with a salary of $24 per year. The building was burned down on 9 June 1887 and the local service was not restored for some years as a Post Office had been opened at Karangahake. (We acknowledge with thanks this information from the Postal History Society via Mr Bill Taylor, Mackaytown.)