Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 23, June 1979

By: Henry Rawle

Motorists interested in ancient boats can glimpse the historic "Settler" as they cross the Puke Bridge just north of Paeroa.

Better still, pull in and take a closer look at the 70-year-old packet steamer which plied the local water-ways until 1936, was burned out at Kawau Island in 1960 and redecked at Tauranga 10 years later.

Now the "Settler" is one of five old vessels owned by local enthusiasts and, when not cruising down the Waihou to Thames or Auckland, is berthed at Paeroa's Maritime Park at Puke Bridge.

It was there that the Northern Steamship Company had its depot in the 1890's, but the area has other associations with the past. A stone's throw from the park site a roadside memorial stone marks the spot where the first white settler took up land in 1842. Governor George Grey called on Joshua Thorp while visiting the district in the summer of 1849 and afterwards described him as "a settler of a very fine type". The memory of this early pioneer is further perpetuated by the naming of Paeroa's main street as Belmont Road after the Thorp homestead. Many Thorp descendants still live in the area.

It is interesting to recall that as the Settler heads for her Puke berth after one of her many cruises to Thames she is following in the wake of Captain Cook who explored the Waihou in what was to be his deepest penetration into New Zealand territory. He had anchored the "Endeavour" at Kopu and on a clear day in November 1769, found the inlet to a "fine, broad river." Cook wrote in his log: "Proceeded up the river until near noon when, finding the face of the country to continue pretty much the same and no alteration in the course or stream of the river or the least probability of seeing the end of it, we landed on the west side in order to take a view of the lofty trees which adorn its banks, being at this time 12 or 14 miles within the entrance, and here the tide of flood runs as strong as it does in the River Thames below bridge."

Samuel Marsden ventured farther in 1820 when he left his launch at Paeroa and continued up the Ohinemuri River in a borrowed canoe and by 1833 English missionaries had sailed the Waihou as far as Matamata, befriending many Maori tribes along the way. Later that year they built three raupo huts at Puriri, the beginnings of the first mission in the area. The station was later moved to Kauaeranga because of unhygienic conditions at the original site.

Cook's expedition up the Waihou took him as far as Netherton. His point of return is now marked by a stone cairn on the river bank and the trees he admired were the vast kahikatea forests which spread for many miles upstream from Turua. Now a quiet backwater bypassed by State Highway 2, Turua was once famous for its thriving timber industry, with miles of tramlines radiating through the surrounding bush. In 1875 the Bagnall brothers took over the old Hauraki Saw Mills and from that time the Waihou became a major artery for the shipment of sawn timber throughout the country and across the Tasman.

In those days tall threemasted sailing barques from Melbourne were a familiar sight, children crossed the river on the great rafts of logs which reached from bank to bank and regattas were a regular feature with whaleboat races and rowing contests for the younger women. The swamps abounded with wild pigs, droves of horses roamed the higher ground and colonies of shags came in from the sea at dusk to spend the night in the forests.

Today nothing remains of the once bustling mills or the vast groves of kahikatea which towered above the flax and raupo along the river banks. An attempt to clear the Waihou for larger boats was made in the 1870s by Josiah Firth who owned a farm at Matamata. The project took seven years and cost him $150,000. He had a steamer built to ship his wheat to Paeroa but the venture failed, mainly because of willow planting along the banks. Meant to prevent erosion, the roots were to cause more serious problems in later years.

The cairn built by Josiah Firth in memory of his friend Waharoa, chief of the local Ngatihaua tribe, can still be seen at Matamata. Another monument to those colourful days is the Firth tower in the historical reserve, erected in 1880 as a lookout from which hostile Maori canoes could be seen coming up the Waihou from the north. Firth' s herculean efforts to clear the waterway benefited later voyagers, but it was not until the 1890s that the Northern Steamship Company launched a successful passenger cargo service with the river steamers "Waimarie" and "Taniwha". Records show the fare from Auckland to Paeroa was two shillings and sixpence - sometimes including meals.

In those days river transport was the cheapest and most convenient mode of travel. It was not until the 1930's when roads improved and cars became more popular that the packet boats vanished from the scene.

The Waihou narrows as the "Settler" heads for its Puke landfall just north of Paeroa, once the gateway to the Ohinemuri goldfields. It was there that river freight was transferred to horse-drawn wagons for the long haul through Karangahake Gorge to the Waihi mines. Today the frequent voyages of Maritime Park vessels are pointing the way to future use of the Waihou by commercial shipping. Interest has widened since the "Settler" recently piloted a tug and barge carrying a 60 ft dragline up the river, saving a transport company nearly $2000 in road handling costs. Increasing use of the Waihou will mean more regular usage of the navigation span of the Kopu Bridge at Thames, with the resultant interruption to road traffic.

While many motorists and their families welcome the opportunity of watching the opening of one of the few navigation spans still operating in New Zealand, concern at the occasional traffic holdups has been voiced at recent Roads Board meetings. It has been decided that, while river traffic traditionally has precedence over road transport, use of the swinging arm would be restricted to off-peak traffic periods. At the same time it was recognised that increasing use of the Waihou by river boats would involve a new look at design requirements when a new bridge was planned. Now road authorities, aware of the inadequacy of the present structure not only for river boats but for the current volume of road traffic are advocating the replacement of the old one-way bridge, built in 1928 at a cost of $105,000.

The owner of the "Settler", Alan Brimblecombe, of Paeroa, first conceived the idea of transforming a desolate stretch of river at Puke into a maritime park. Long-term plans include a reconstruction of the old Northern Steamship Company depot which stood on the site at the turn of the century complete with landing stage, slipway, marine repair sheds and a replica of the old coal hoppers. From small beginnings two years ago the Paeroa Maritime Park Society now owns five veteran vessels and has a membership of 220.

Other ancient boats at the park are the gaff-rigged cutter "Undine", launched in 1886 and first used on the famous Bay of Islands "cream run", "Puke", recently salvaged from the mudflats of the Tamaki River. Now fitted with a new boiler and engine the 90-year-old vessel is the first steam-powered boat to ply the Waihou for nearly 40 years. A priority for the Society is the recovery of the double-paddle steamer "Kopu", which sank near the park site in 1936. Built at Thames in 1897 and once used for towing barges on the Waihou and Piako rivers, the vessel now lies in 14 ft of mud and water. The prow and funnel are visible at low tide. While the sinking has been termed mysterious, the mishap is now attributed to vandals opening the sea-cocks while the "Kopu" was unattended at her moorings. Earlier attempts to haul the 60 ft vessel up the river bank by bullock teams were abandoned, but it is expected that new efforts under the direction of marine expert Captain W. Dunsford will result in a successful salvage. Recent inspection of the hull has found the timbers virtually undamaged and Park Director Alan Brimblecombe is confident that while the project will be costly it is only a matter of time before the "PS Kopu" is lifted from her watery grave. Redecked and fitted with new engines there is every possibility the ancient vessel will join the "Settler" and the "Puke" on their frequent cruises on the historic Waihou River.