Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 15, June 1971
By Cliff Furniss
The dawn of Sunday, 11th August 1912, was breaking behind the ridge of hills between Thames and Paeroa. The day had already begun for the farmers on the stretch of flat country bordering the willow-fringed banks of the Waihou River. Curls of blue wood-smoke rose lazily from farm-house chimneys and the mellow light of candles and kerosene lamps shone through windows here and there. Noisy dogs, egged on by shouts of "Gettaway back, there!" were shepherding lines of drowsy cows towards the milking sheds. A few people glanced casually at the familiar sight of the Northern Company's steamer "TANIWHA", gliding quietly along up the river, lights still burning, and trailing a long plume of dark coal smoke behind her. She had left Auckland at 9 o'clock the night before on one of her regular trips to Paeroa, carrying 10 passengers and only about 25 tons of cargo. The run down the Gulf had been a pleasant one, in clear weather. Captain William Sullivan, veteran of the river run, with long years of experience behind him, was at the wheel himself, on the light open bridge above the deckhouse at the break of the steamer's long poop. This was routine practice, for the river could be tricky if you didn't know it well. Even with Sullivan in command, the "TANIWHA" had spent a spell in dock a few months previously after bumping a snag in the river and starting a plank.
Through the open skylight on the deck below came the regular, soothing "issherthump, issherthump, issherthump," of Prices' reliable old compound engines, punctuated by the rattle and scrape of the fireman's shovel on the steel plates of the engine-room. It was about five o'clock, and already Captain Sullivan could make out the big wooden coal-hoppers at the Puke Wharf looming up some three hundred yards ahead as he span [spun – E] the wheel to ease the ship round the Puke Bend. In the deckhouse beneath his feet the steering engine clattered and chuffed and the ship began to swing. Then, with appalling suddeness, she struck heavily against something on her starboard side, with an ominous splintering of timbers.
"Here, take her, will you, while I have a look", Sullivan gasped to the Mate, "try and get her up to the wharf." Hurrying down the bridge ladder, he ran aft, pausing only to shout down to the engineer below to find out the state of things there. They were all right so far, replied the engineer, with no water in the engine-room. But as the Captain lifted a slab off the after hatch he plainly heard the dreaded sound of water rushing into the ship from damage received somewhere below the waterline. There was clearly no time to lose. The Mate had managed to poke her nose up against the Puke Wharf, and the hastily mustered passengers were helped ashore over the bows, to be followed by the mail-bags and the ship's papers. The crew manned the forrard gear and quickly discharged a few slings of sacks of wet chaff and pollard, before Captain Sullivan called a halt. There might yet be time, he thought, to swing the steamer round and berth her damaged starboard side in shallow water near the bank.
Slowly and awkwardly the "TANIWHA", helped by her screws and rudder, began to sidle round crabwise against the stream. They were only just too late - the current drove the water in even faster, and as she came squarely across the river she lost steam and settled resignedly on the muddy bottom, almost blocking the channel. It was very quiet for a few moments afterwards; the river clucked and gurgled round the stern, a string of bubbles rose from the flooded holds. The chief engineer gazed ruefully down through the skylight, where the river water, irridescent with oil and bearing a scum of coal dust and ashes, covered the cylinder tops. The ship's well-deck forward was submerged, and the crew had lost most of their possessions in the flooded fo'c'sle. But she remained on an even keel, with her long poop deck clear of the water.
There was much to be done. Captain Sullivan went ashore to send a telegram to the Northern Company in Auckland, telling them of the accident and asking for a salvage vessel to be despatched, with carpenters and divers on board. Accommodation for the crew was arranged at a near-by boarding house, and Mr. T. Whewell, the local agent for the Waihi Mining Co. offered to look after Captain Sullivan and his officers. As Mr. Whewell's house was only 20 yards from the ship, his offer was gratefully accepted.
Meanwhile, the Northern Company were not wasting any time. When their S.S. "CHELMSFORD" came in from Mercury Bay that day she was detailed to take a party, including the Company's manager, Charles Ranson, and the engineering superintendent, George Gow, to the scene. Carpenters were soon found, but some delay was experienced in locating a diver who lived out of town. Finally, she got away at 7 p.m., and was met at the river mouth by the small steam tug "MATUKU", which piloted her up river, and she reached the "TANIWHA" at 6 am. on Monday morning, 12th August.
The original plan was to construct a coffer-dam round the damaged part of the hull, which would then be patched, pumped out, and the ship towed back to Auckland. The Auckland Harbour Board's fire float was applied for to help with the pumping. The float left Auckland on Monday afternoon with Captain Bettis of "WAIMARIE", the "TANIWHA"'s running mate on Paeroa service. Mr. J. Freeman, - "WAIMARIE"'s Chief Officer, took over as acting-Master, with Second Officer, Mr. Sinnott, as his Mate, Mr. R. Savage relieving Second Officer of the "TASMAN" becoming temporary Second Officer of the "WAIMARIE". While "TANIWHA" was out of action, "DAPHNE" was selected as a possible replacement.
But now a new worry cropped up. The river current was steadily scouring away the mud beneath the sunken vessel. She had settled another four feet already, and with no support under her midships section, where the weight of engines, boiler and bunkers was concentrated, there was grave danger of her breaking her back. Divers had found a gaping hole in her starboard side, three feet by two, just below the waterline some 30 feet forward from the stern. The outer skin of the ship's planking was splintered for some fourteen feet beyond that again. A massive stump of freshly out willow tree, was thought to be the villain, lurking just below the surface of the river.
Plans were now revised to speed up work. The coffer-dam was scrapped in favour of a temporary patch to enable the ship to be moved to a safer position; "CHELMSFORD" must return to Auckland at once to take up her own schedule. Back early on the morning of Tuesday, 13th, she was away again at 11 am., sailing for Whananaki and Tutukaka on Wednesday, S.S. "PAEROA" was sent off with more salvage gear, and another diver was engaged. Work went on, patching the hole in the ship's side and blocking openings. On Wednesday night the pumps of the fire-float were started - the water level receding steadily all through the night. Early on Thursday morning the "TANIWHA" rose sluggishly from the bottom and was towed at once to Netherton where she was moored in shallow water, while the divers toiled to fix a stronger patch over the hole. It was hoped that her water-logged cargo would be discharged at Netherton in time to catch Thursday's tide, but the job took longer than expected, and it was late on Friday night before the "TANIWHA" sailed wearily for Auckland under her own steam, with the little "PAEROA" in anxious attendance. Safely in port at Auckland on Saturday, l7th August the "TANIWHA" was hustled at once into the Graving Dock. The heads of the Northern Company mopped their brows and heaved big sighs of relief - much too soon. The "TASMAN", now relieving-ship on the Paeroa run sailed into a thick fog in the river on Tuesday, 20th August. Groping her way carefully round the same Puke Bend where the "TANIWHA" had come to grief the "TASMAN" also struck heavily on a "submerged object". This did not penetrate her hull, but contented itself with knocking off her rudder. Fortunately, the "TASMAN" was also a twin-screw ship, and her master skilfully brought her out of the river steering with the engines. In the Firth of Thames the S.S. "WAIOTAHI" took the "TASMAN" in tow and brought her back to Auckland. Here, "TANIWHA" was floated out of the dock so that "TASMAN" could enter and have a new rudder fitted.
At last, on Monday, 26th August, "TANIWHA" was ready for sea again. She was then valued at £5,000, and the mishap was estimated to have cost at least £1,000, of which £150 - £200 was required to re-fit the accommodation. - (Passengers about 30, Crew 21).
In 1930, history repeated itself, when the "TANIWHA" struck another snag during thick fog and went down in the river at the Puriri Wharf. Once again, she was patched by divers, pumped out and repaired, to carry on valiantly in the river service until finally withdrawn in 1939, after faithfully serving the community of Paeroa and the surrounding districts since her maiden voyage away back in April, 1898. Towards the end of her career only one engine was in use and she handled "Cargo only" on the Paeroa run.
After withdrawal the Taniwha was moored in Shoal Bay, but later was brought into Freemans Bay and partially dismantled. Her engines - by A.&G. Price, Thames, for years expertly cared for by Alf Johnston, were broken up with explosive charges and the hull was towed to Northcote to be broken up on Sulphur Beach (near the site of the Harbour Bridge toll gates). Her bell which has a singularly sweet clear tone hangs in the Museum at Russell, far from the Waihou River and the Hauraki Gulf she knew so well.
The following are a few further statistics:- S.S. TANIWHA (1898 - 1938) Masters — Sullivan, Guenberg, Freeman, Keatley, Wann, Wells and Raynes (Reliev.) Tonnage – 262'81 gross, 190'77 net. Built by Robert Logan & Sons, Auckland. Material - kauri, diagonal. Speed, average 8.2 knots. Length of Poop, 76 ft. Saloon, upholstered in red velvet, panelled in polished kauri with cedar sideboards. Sailing - at night, with the tide. Breakfast served and refreshments available. The Chief Steward for some years was Robert Fournier who still lives in Auckland.