Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 21, June 1977
Told By Thelma Goodson. Written By Joyce Neill
Horahora electricity village was a very pretty place. The houses were on a terrace above the Waikato River in a kind of a valley between two lines of hills which became more like a gorge when the cold winds blew. We seemed to have extremes of heat and cold as well as the fog; but our houses were comfortable with all the up-to-date extras of those days, but well before fridges, sophisticated washing machines and home freezers, of course.
It was amazing how isolated a community could be when only three miles from a main road. Of course it depended on those few miles and the one which separated Horahora Village from the Hamilton-Rotorua and Taupo Highway was a very narrow, roughly corrugated road running alongside the river where the fog collected in winter. At any time of the year we found it a long three-mile walk along that track, but when there was more mud than gravel on the road, the condition in which we arrived at the bus had to be considered. It was the state of the road that so effectively isolated us.
I was very lonely at first. I had always lived in Auckland City and the adjustment to the village life took me a while but I grew to love it, mainly because we were with such fine people - all of them. During the years they have moved to other towns and other countries but I still keep in touch with the friends we made there, wherever in the world they now live.
We settled in our Horahora home in 1932, soon after we were married but the story of this power project began way back in 1890. Gold caused its being for after the discovery of the glittering metal came the need for some kind of power to help obtain it from the reef. Waihi was the El Dorado and a Mr Barry who arrived from South Africa to fill the appointment of Superintendent at the Waihi Gold Mine conceived the idea of installing a power station on the Waikato River at Horahora. The scheme was commenced in 1910 and completed three years later.
Mr Barry was sent to Europe to select machinery for the project, choosing Sumins [Siemens – E] generators and Boving governors. Mr W.P. Gauvain went to England a year later to order all the rest of the machinery necessary for the electrification of the mine and the mill. During the next few years he paid visits to Horahora to supervise the construction where a Mr Roche, a German Engineer, was in charge of design, construction and lay-out of the works.
When first completed there were six turbines and generators giving a total capacity of 6300KW, and 469 steel towers were raised across the countryside and over the mountains to carry the power forty-four and a half miles to the substation at Waikino.
While the project down in the river was growing the village up on the terrace was being established, and more and more huts were built for the single men, as well as family cottages, as the number of workmen increased and wives and children arrived. Because of the winds that hurried up and down the river, shelter trees were planted but there was no look of permanency about the place until after November 1919. It was then the New Zealand Government purchased the whole project because of the wastage of surplus power the mine had been unsuccessful in selling. The Public Works Department set up a Waikato Electricity district with Mr T. McLennon as first District Electrical Engineer. As the demand for power increased the power-house was extended, the tailrace widened and two generators added, to produce 10300 KW.
By 1926 the village was a Public Works Department Electricity Village and the population was increased to meet the added amount of shift work.
I was young, and I suppose silly, or I would not have felt so cut off from all I had ever known. Gradually I learnt to understand the people and their ways. They were all very kind to me and that includes the nearby farmers and their families. The isolation taught us all to pull together, making our own fun. Whatever was happening in our village, all the people from the surrounding countryside joined in.
We had tennis courts and everyone who could spare the time came there especially on Saturdays. Table tennis was my sport and I was seldom too busy to have a game. With so much shift work, there was often someone encouraging me to get to the other end of the table. I certainly did my share of giving those tables a hiding! It was much more in my line than the afternoon tea parties the hostesses of which baked all the most luscious goodies they could think up. We went along in our best frocks and hats with matching gloves and handbag! Even if I disliked the dressing up I joined in the exercise for I learnt that in a small community it is best to forget ones likes and dislikes, (one learn't tolerance) being so dependant on each other, or remained "outside the Pale".
In an odd way our seclusion created most of our fun. The men arranged their own get-togethers and for them, and for other special occasions they could always find some way of getting some beer delivered until making their own drink became the fashion: Some of that home brew was extra powerful! Some of us only needed one glass and we were ready to do the can-can and for an inexperienced drinker like me it was a trap I learnt to watch.
Possibly it was the Department Serviceman who brought in the beer as he would bring in anything else urgently required and the departmental car was always there, available in any emergency like a hurried trip to hospital.
Before our gardens were established we bought all our vegetable supplies from a greengrocer who came there from Hamilton.
We had to buy all our groceries in large quantities, getting in our order once a month. A butcher called twice a week and a baker brought us very nice bread. Our milk came from one of the farms and we had a billy shed under a large roof where one of our men ladled it out. We had our names on our billies and collected them ourselves and this gave us an excuse to catch up with the news of the day.
The visits of the linen-man was another service we appreciated. It was exciting when Mr McCreasch of Frankton arrived once a month. He would open up his big bags in which he had everything we were likely to need, from small haberdashery odds and ends to lengths of cloth and household linen: a tremendous help to all of us.
Of course we could write away for mail order goods. We had our own small, but efficient Post Office. That was another place where we had impromptu chats. On mail days we hurried down there, waited while the mail was sorted then stood in the queue for our turn to receive it.
We all kept poultry so we always had eggs and I had a special rooster to keep the hens in order. There was nothing wrong with his breeding but was he wild! If he was loose he flew at me every time I went outside the door. One gentleman thought I was exaggerating when I said how I was kept prisoner: and he told me so. But when he came around to prove it he discovered he had no more courage than the rest of us. That rooster's splendid breeding and fine upright appearance did not save him for I am afraid he had sealed his own fate.
There were other kinds of food which came our way and one year the Maoris had a feast when there was a run of lampreys, or blind eels. They came in their thousands crawling up a ramp, trying to get farther up the river to lay their eggs. The force of the water kept them back and the Maoris collected them in sugar bags. That was the only time it happened but there were occasions when eels got caught in the screens as they tried to get back down to the sea to spawn. Some were between five and six feet long. One of the largest got caught with a trout in its mouth and was half choked when taken from the water to be photographed.
We could not have starved there with all these fish arriving almost on our doorsteps and rabbits hopping about all over the place and, in spite of the rabbits we learnt after a time how to make a good vegetable garden in that river shingle.
We made our fun simply, but when I receive letters from our Horahora friends, I think that the successes their children have made of their lives demonstrates the type of people there; for many of them have important positions today and all who passed through our little one-teacher village school made a success of their lives. The building was small but the teaching and discipline was what counted. I often think of the bank above the river and the children playing about it, their only security a three-wire fence, and yet there was no accident. Doubtless they were trained that way from the time they could toddle because there were places where, if they had fallen, it would have been the end of them. The power-house, with its tailrace, weir, control gates and head-gates was away down below the settlement with its throbbing life. When the men's shift ended and they left for their home they had to climb 100-150 steps to get to the higher level.
There was an emergency in 1929. Until June of that year life in the village had been so normal and quiet that the fun that started when the Arapuni Dam was commissioned was a shock; almost unbelievable. Suddenly, thousands of tons of pumice was washed down the river and settled on the screens at Horahora, almost cutting off the water supplying the turbines. It packed the turbine blades so tightly that the supply of water could not get through and what it did to the blades had to be seen to be believed!
Twenty-four hours a day the men worked endeavouring to clear out the pumice from the screens and turbines. Cleaning the turbines in rotation meant that by the time the last one was done it was time to begin again on the first one; this in spite of the fact that the work went on for twenty-four hours a day for weeks on end. At last the flow of pumice began to ease and life to return to normal, but unless it was seen, it would be difficult to realise the damage caused by the passage of all that pumice through the turbines. There were holes in the blades through which a man could put his hand while in other parts the metal was worn so thin that holes could be pushed through with the fingers. There was very little left of the bearings on the control shaft.
Shortly afterwards there was a fire in the transformer house which disrupted the supply for some time. The department was assisted by the Auckland Power Board's steam station at Kings Wharf.
When all the mess of the fire was cleaned up everything at Horahora settled down to normal again until the next emergency!
Our annual school picnic was a great day. Of course we all went, mothers and fathers and single men; we all joined in to make it an occasion to remember. Before every family owned a motor-car children had few outings from their home but these small pleasures we all shared seemed to satisfy them. We usually went to Matamata Hot Springs, and what fun we had!
For us there was the Ball we women organised each year. The preparations were part of the fun. The ladies decorated the hall which was really an old cement shed with a very up and down floor. Gathering licapodium fern to soften its outlines was an excuse for a pleasant day's outing in the bush and I remember, on one occasion, having my first view of a small native owl asleep on a branch.
Ball night was a grand social affair and all the farm folk living near came that night. There were other special nights put on by the men when supper meant baked potatoes and miles of sausages. Instead of paper serviettes, rolls of toilet paper were passed around. It was all good fun. As well as these social nights, every birthday was celebrated, with ladies a plate and men rolling out the barrel!
One night when we were holding a dance something odd happened which had its funny side. Alongside the single men's quarters was a long building which was their mess-room. A very nice couple with their children lived in part of the building because the husband was the cook for the camp. This night he disgraced himself at the dance by getting drunk and his wife was very angry, so angry that she went home and threw all his bottles of home-brew into the river. Fortunately the bottles floated until they were caught in the protective screens at the power station where the man on duty saw them bobbing up and down in the river. He had a great time. When his duty was over and he came up to the dance to tell of his wonderful find, he was a very drunk but happy man.
I am quite sure our small local paper would have enjoyed that bit of gossip - if it was in production then. It was called "Horahora Kingfisher" and No. 1 of Volume 1 was published on 27th July 1929 by the "Horahora Power Club" and was priced at sixpence. It was all very amateurish I suppose but it showed the spirit of fun and companionship that permeated the village.
I think the reason we got on so well together was that we were all in much the same financial position and no one had more money or property than the others. We were all saving hard to buy some kind of vehicle to rid ourselves of the 'cut off' feeling. Next we saved towards a home after retirement. Our pleasures were inexpensive, rent was low with power charges included, but with the 1930 wages we still had little to spare. But by the time we left what alot about life I had learnt!
Looking back to our Horahora days makes me think how unprepared I was for the first New Year's Eve I spent in there, and the complicated feelings experienced. That evening started in the hall. We danced until 12 o'clock then did the rounds, calling at each home for a glass of wine and a piece of Christmas Cake. At each house we sang and made merry, then went on to the next; by the time we had called at all of them it was daylight and some folks were rather unsteady on their feet.
That is my memory of my first country New Year's Eve.
I do not think any of us realised what all these things had meant to us; this electricity village life where we could, to some extent, organise things to suit ourselves; Until the terrible happening in April 1947,when Karapiro Lake was allowed to fill and Horahora Power Station was drowned. People gathered in the power-house to watch quietly as the water crept higher, covering the places where the men had worked; higher to stop one turbine after another although one wheel kept working long after it was expected to stop. By now the workmen had to use a boat to retrieve anything from the building and soon the water was up to the ledge walkway where visitors had gathered to see this power plant; soon it was up to the ceiling beams and a boat could no longer get inside: it had happened too quickly to recover all that it had been hoped to retrieve and later divers were required to bring out a quantity of copper and other machinery parts.
Photographs taken at various stages of the drowning are the only way of appreciating what it meant to those whose work there had been their life for years. At the same time the disintergration of that village of ours was taking place too. We had moved to Mangakino, a much larger town and a very different life where we missed old friends and made few new ones.
Horahora power-house is now away down under the water and the drivers of the power boats racing around the upper part of Karapiro Lake seldom think about it being there and the terrace above has an old worn road which was once a village street; that and the trees are all that is left: and our memories.