Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 9, May 1968
BY CLIFF FURNISS
Perhaps I should explain that my interest in River Shipping stems from personal acquaintance with the Piako services going back to about late 1919 or early 1920, when as a toddler of three years I accompanied my parents on a trip up the river to Ngatea in the "GAEL". I still remember bits of that passage, and it aroused an interest in the Northern Co. Steamers which has lasted me all my life. My father made the trip to inspect the land being offered by ballot on the Mangawhero Road, not far from Patetonga, and he later drew a section and took up bee keeping there in June, 1920. This did not pay very well at the time, and we drifted into dairy farming. The Mangawhero farm being unsuited for dairying, we moved to Torehape in July, 1927, and carried on faming there until February, 1938. During the early years we were dependent on the river services for just about everything, communication with Thames being by Kerby's launches, and with Auckland by the Northern Co.'s steamers or the Piako Shipping Co.'s S.S. "ONEROA".
I was told of the start of the Piako River service in a talk I once had with an old engineer in the "TANIWHA". He had been the engineer in the little "KOTITI" when she was sent on an exploratory trip up the Piako. "This", he said "was the year the big comet came round", which I take to be Halley's comet in 1910, and this ties in with the first Hauraki Plains land ballot held at Thames 18th May, 1910. An old Quotation Book of the Northern Co. I perused recently does not mention any consignments to the Piako before 1910, although the book goes back to 1891. So, on the strength of this, I take 1910 as the start of it all. The "KOTITI", according to the old engineer, spent some six weeks up the river, "trading with the farmers" and managed to find her way right up to Tahuna, suffering some damage to her bridge and boats through colliding with overhanging willow branches. As a result of this pioneering voyage, regular services evidently commenced, but I have not been able to uncover any details of which steamers were employed before we went up there in 1920.
I was told that the "GAEL" was our 'regular steamer' in 1920, but I think the Northern Co. were undergoing a period of experimentation about that time. You see, they were faced with a bit of a problem. The settlements on the lower part of the river were the oldest established, and growing, and the founding of a butter factory at Ngatea and a cheese factory at Kopuarahi really required the employment of larger vessels to cope with the increased trade. At the same time, there were problems with serious silting in the torturous upper reaches, where the willow roots and branches were still a traffic hazard. Patetonga had been made the terminus for all services, and a large wharf had been built there under the care of a fine old ex-sailor and Thames miner, Bill Higgins, but there was little trade right up there, and the Company used a variety of steamers over the period 1920-24 to find the most suitable one for the service. We did not live near the river, so I saw the steamers only when I went out to town on holiday, yet over that four year period I travelled in the "GAEL" twice, and once each in the "HAUITI", "OMANA", "OREWA" and the "WAIPU". The auxiliary vessel "TOREA", the steamer "KAWAU" and the paddle tug "KOPU" were also on the Piako at that time, and there must have been many others I have no record of, so far. The "OMANA" was only sixteen feet in the beam, yet I remember she fitted almost like a cork in a bottle in some of the tight bends up near Mangawhero Landing as she wriggled her way up, stirring up clouds of thick black mud. Heaven knows what it did to her condenser.
So in the end the Company hit on a solution they had found satisfactory between Paeroa and Te Aroha. They made Kerepehi the terminus for the steamers and transhipped passengers and cargo for up-river ports to the launch "KAREWA" under the able care of a Maori 'Barney' Williams. I had some ghastly trips up to Patetonga in her crammed in with cases of gelignite, detonators, leaking case benzine, and in one case a silly clot who insisted on sitting up on the cabin top puffing at a big Sherlock Holmes pipe with all this lot around him. The cabin was full of cargo to the deck-head, the launch was so 'tender' you had to sit quite still out in the cock-pit amongst the dangerous goods, shivering in a frost (we sometimes left the steamer at 4 a.m. if the tide suited) or cowering from the rain under a tarpaulin. Fogs and floods added to the fun. I'm afraid travel in the "KAREWA" must have turned many passengers away to the new-fangled service-cars when they started running. But this compromise allowed the Company to supply larger steamers to the route, and from 1924 until the passenger service was withdrawn in 1931, the steamers "WAIPU" (205 tons gross) and the "HAUITI" (148 tons gross) were the only ones on the Piako service. In 1931 the steamers were replaced by motor-vessels giving a 'cargo only' service. But before this happened, I should mention that the establishment of Smerle's flax-mill at Kaihere, and increased trade in general, led the Company to extend the steamer service up to Kaihere, though transhipments for Mangawhero and Patetonga continued to be made at Kerepehi, into the "KAREWA". When the auxiliary motor vessels took over, there was another period of trial and error, with the "PAROTO", "TUHOE" and "PONO" doing the run in turn, until the "PONO" was selected as the most suitable, and she continued until the service was abandoned in 1948. In the last few years she only ran as far up as Ngatea, I think, and was often towed down the Gulf to the river mouth by the Paeroa steamer "TANIWHA".
So much for the Northern Co. The venture of the opposition concern, the Piako Shipping Co., was short-lived, for they sold the "ONEROA" to, Parry in 1924, and she left the Piako for good, though as the motor-vessel WAKANUI" she was at sea for many years after that. She was once the well-known "PITOITOI" of Bradney & Binns, by the way.
I don't know when Kerby started running up the Piako, but of his two launches, the "PORTARE" was owned by him from 1912 to 1929, and the "AHIKI" from 1916 also to 1929. With these two launches he ran a daily return passenger service between Patetonga and Thames at a return fare of 2/6, the trip taking four hours each way. Kerby also ran a freight-launch service with bread, etc. As well as these regular services, there were always tugs and barges, Lands Department launches and Priestman dredges and drag-line dredges at work on the river. So you see, it vas a very busy place in those days. I think McCallums' two small steamers "NGATEA" and "KEREPEEHI" [Kerepeehi is the correct spelling for Kerepehi; see Journal 53: Hauraki Plains Place Names - E] brought up much of the scoria for the early roading on the Plains from McCallums' Island in the 1920's.