Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 10, October 1968
By ROBERT LOWRY
In 1880 the Main Trunk Line from Auckland had reached Hamilton and the iron-work for the great railway bridge across the Waikato had been ordered from England. This bridge was the key for the opening of the Thames Valley and Ohinemuri by rail. The main obstructions were patches of swamp, but by March 1886, the line between Hamilton and Te Aroha was ready for traffic.
In 1892, with the Hon. R. J. Seddon as Minister of Public Works, the rail construction from Te Aroha towards Paeroa was given considerable impetus the main obstacle being the large bridge required to span the Ohinemuri River, but by 1895 Paeroa was effectively linked with Hamilton and indeed with Auckland though the route was a long one. (The shorter projected Paeroa - Pokeno Railway across the Hauraki Plains never eventuated). River services were then doing an efficient job between Thames and Paeroa but scattered settlers were thankful when the rail link, commenced some years previously, was completed in 1898.
The Paeroa Railway Station was at first in a much more central position than it is now. It was near the site of the present picnic area, opposite the Paeroa Hotel and Station Road led to it from Thames Road. This was before the Stopbank was built. But it must be remembered that Paeroa was to become an important rail junction used by many trains, and the yards were not big enough for shunting purposes. (In 1925 the Station and Refreshment Rooms, now a Social Hall, were moved about half a mile towards Thames, and for a time the little Mackaytown side station was used at the old site for passengers only).
However the greatest need for a railway was felt by the mining towns and a syndicate had offered to subsidise this although the Karangahake Gorge presented a major difficulty. Finally the Government engineers decided that it would be necessary to construct a long tunnel through the hill and this was commenced in 1900 while a contract was let to Messrs J. & A. Anderson of Christchurch for the construction of a combined road and railway bridge at Karangahake the price being £8,771. An air shaft was sunk at the west end, about 600 ft. from the mouth and the work on the 1,188 yard tunnel with its grade of 1 feet in 50 went on from both ends both day and night, some very heavy ground being met with. Then further contracts were let for the second and third crossings of the Ohinemuri River at the Owharoa end.
Early in 1904 the section of the line from Paeroa to Karangahake was opened for goods traffic. Ultimately the station facilities there in addition to the building and passenger platform included two sidings capable of holding 33 and 32 wagons each, a goods shed 30 ft. x 12 ft, and a loading bank. Then tablet instruments and fixed signals were provided. (Station masters were in charge till 1917 and the last attendant was Mr. T. Cotter 1924 - 32).
Towards the end of 1905 the line was completed to Waihi with station buildings there and at Waikino, and the official opening was held on the 9th November. Two "specials" ran from Thames to Waihi and local people turned out in force. As the first train steamed in to the Waihi Station, drawn by two locomotives with balloon funnels, two ladies, Mrs. Roche and Mrs. Barry, held a ribbon across the main line. Amidst great excitement the ribbon was broken and the line declared open. For many years our Railway Stations at arrival and departure times presented lively scenes with people, whistles, flags and wheel-tapping (for safety). Railway excursions were the order of the day even cattle trucks doing duty. Freight carried over the years has been enormous - including many tons of coal daily, besides mining requisites and later farm produce. In 1945 the outward revenue in one year from Waihi was £8973.
The first locomotives which were made at Price's Foundry at Thames were small tank engines, such as the "F" and "Fa" class used at the opening. The "F" was a 20-ton saddle tank, with a 0 - 6 - 0 wheel arrangement (3 wheels of the same size coupled by a rod). The "Fa" was a 29 ton tank locomotive with an 0 - 6 - 2 arrangement and bogie wheels under the cab. They all had "coffee-pot" balloon funnels for arresting sparks, and large kerosene headlamps. Old-timers will remember how swiftly the train sped through the tunnel on its down grade but how it laboured, even sometimes with two engines, to make the ascent - passengers emerging with soot-laden noses.
Waihi station in 1905 was classified as an important "Special", Karangahake and Waikino (both of which had Stationmasters) having 6th and 5th class buildings respectively. The Waihi and Paeroa facilities included a passenger platform, a "cart-road to platform", a 50 x 30 ft. goods shed, an engine shed and a loading bank. They were locomotive and water servicing stations and had loop siding accommodation for 97 wagons. An early time-table dated 1912 shows that there were then four mixed (goods and passenger) trains and two goods trains running between Waihi and Paeroa. The time allowed for the 12½ mile run was in most cases 55 minutes which included stops at Waikino, Owharoa, Karangahake and Mackaytown (where there was a small siding for passengers who crossed a swing bridge and the recreation ground).
For the next 21 years the railhead remained at Waihi, but there was strong agitation for the extension of the line to serve the east coast area. However with the intervention of War it was not until 1-5-1927 that the Section from Waihi to Tahawai was opened. Then on 18-6-28 it reached Tauranga being extended to Taneatua on the following September.
More recently the locomotives most commonly used were the powerful "J" class steam - (108 ton, 4 - 8 2 type) and the "Df", the most powerful non-electric, having a rating of 1,500 horse-power. It was not uncommon to see these locomotives hauling long goods trains up to 100 wagons, and until recently seven of them travelled each day on week days, the time allowed being 35 minutes between Waihi and Paeroa South. This new station on Rotokohu Road enabled direct Tauranga - Waikato trains to by-pass Paeroa Station and so save time.
To-day there are even more powerful diesell engines mostly imported from overseas but Price's Foundry still sponsors a wonderful maintenance service and although passengers no longer travel by rail, the Railway Department continues a 24 hour goods service 7 days a week. It is less obvious perhaps because one misses the sound of the old steam engines with their shrill whistles and clouds of smoke but day and night the work goes on as the long trains manned by 3 men, transport goods of all descriptions bound for places near and far. Much shunting goes on between Paeroa South and the main station and there is still a daily goods service to Thames from Monday to Friday, notwithstanding the undisputed fact that the increase in heavy transport motor licences have changed the pattern of delivery.
With the improvement of the roads in the district Bus Services became strong competitors to the Railways for passenger transport, and "Railway Road Services" have now supplanted even the sleek railcars which sped through the country, but let us not forget that for over 60 years the Railways have served us well.