Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 34, September 1990
By Hazel P Harris (Written in 1959)
Wharves and terminals are fascinating places at any time.
But imagine the pageantry, excitement and incident of the Waihou River landings of the days which the people now call the "old times".
When New Zealand's history had hardly begun, the Waihou commenced to play a dramatic part in the development of thousands of acres of land, stretching from the sea coast at Thames to an area bordering on the wonderland at Rotorua.
Ngahina Wharf was the landing of importance at Paeroa and three miles further up river was Puke Wharf. For some time the steamers went only as far as Paeroa, so goods and people had to be transferred - trans-shipped to smaller vessels that could negotiate shallower and more difficult waterways.
There would be miners with their swags, intent on reaching the hills in search of a fortune; men from all walks of life and many parts of the world, most of them sporting the whiskers that were then so fashionable.
The ladies too, still dressed as well as they could to the dictates of what was the "latest" in their long voluminous skirts and becoming bonnets - an outfit that as often as not required a parasol to make it complete.
All the way upriver impromptu landings existed where settlers could meet the boat to receive their stores, all where manure or seeds for their farms could be dumped. At Te Aroha as early as 1879 one could get off at Dibsell's Landing. William Dibsell set up an establishment to serve traveller and settler alike, on a point on the bank opposite the town, but it must have been a mile down river. Dibsell's place offered the public the services of a general store, a licensed house, accommodation and a bakery. An old friend told of the excellent bread he bought there at daybreak one morning when he was travelling by foot through the district. Could anyone buy bread at that hour anywhere today?
Prospectors, surveyors, ditch diggers, small farmers and capitalists for blocks of land came this way. Agents for land purchase, officers of the native land courts and the natives themselves all passed through the port, all aided and equipped by William Dibsell's service.
Stanley Landing was the last one up the river, situated on the west bank of the Waihou at Firth's Estate, a few miles from Matamata. Here was built an import store, 15 feet above the level of the river. In it could be stored manure and seed, machinery and household supplies needed for distribution on the estate that stretched for at least 23 miles. The wharf was large, even in those early times, and equipped with what must have been the first telephone so that ship's masters could inform the manager of the head station about cargoes, arrivals and departures.
There was also an export store, well constructed, being 130 feet by 30 feet and 20 feet high. It was capable of holding 60,000 bushels of grain and was rat and mouse proof.
Not only cargo, but romance too, floated on this waterway. Te Aroha was a popular thermal area, and pleasure boats catered for the enjoyment of young people and visitors. A passenger launch owned by W Belcher took parties of tourists for excursions upriver to a farmhouse for afternoon tea. The river and surroundings were considered beautiful, and Mr Everitt had rowing boats that could be hired by those wanting an outing on the river. There are still folk today who blush with pleasure at the remembrance of delightful evening cruises downriver in a barge towed by the Mataku, and the moonlight supper parties on the shore. When the first Methodist Church was built in Te Aroha some of the money was raised by using the Mataku for voyages on the river.
If there was a king of the Waihou River it must have been Mr J C Firth of Matamata. He loved the river, its beauty and its many moods, but although it was to become the lifeline for the thousands of acres he owned it did, on one occasion, nearly cause his death. One day, while waiting for the cargo of the Caroline to be shifted into canoes, all hands went swimming. Firth was caught in an under-current, and only the help of two Maoris, diving from the bank, saved his life.
The Waihou provided the most economical method of transporting produce from his holdings to the Auckland market, but above Te Aroha it was dangerous and not navigable in parts, even to the native canoe. There were sandbanks, rapids, snags and rock obstructions. Cargo had to be carried by Maori canoe, but even then it was perilous business, and frequently all goods had to be unloaded, carried overland and laboriously reloaded to circumvent the obstacles. Often, too, the skilful canoeist found his craft upside down or holed.
Firth tried to make a road over the ranges lying between Matamata and Cambridge, but it was a failure, so once again he attacked the river. There were many obstacles. The Maoris were suspicious and unwilling, but he had as a friend William Thompson, a Maori chief, and after wordy struggles with other powerful chiefs, gained consent to begin work.
This groundwork was almost undone, however, by the old Maori woman who refused to let snags be taken from the river, because it was there the largest and most numerous eels were caught. Perhaps Firth thought that the eels would not really be missed, as he undertook the work of supplying the river with salmon ova that had been presented to the colony by the Fish Commissioner of the United States.
Captain Tizard was put in charge of the dangerous work of clearing the river. Using a whaleboat and the crew of a Maori canoe, he began below Te Aroha. He employed cross-cut saws, gun-powder and other tackle. No sooner was one obstacle removed than another took its place. What a heart of courage this man must have had. One ton of dynamite alone was used to remove "Te-Au-0-Tonga" (The Terror), a formidable barrier caused by a great quartz reef.
There were other things like the tremendous posts that formed parts of the native eel weirs. There were regrettable things too like the removal of the old fallen forest giants that had served Maoris for many years as a bridge. Eventually a narrow channel was made upstream as far as Pakopako, later called Stanley, the northern boundary of Firth's land.
Firth built a steamer which he called Kotuku (White Crane), and a punt of shallow draft, and so the work went on. He ran a regular service for outward cargo and an inward one for freight. The waterway prospered, and even the natives were not slow to appreciate the new benefits.
They were towed downriver, taken through the Waiheke Channel, then up the Tamaki River to Buckland's farm, which was a short distance from the Auckland market. Racehorses, too, found themselves sailing gaily up and down the river between meetings.
Over a period of seven years Mr Firth spent more than £10,000 of his own money on this great river-clearing project, but he felt every penny was worth it.
So commerce flowed merrily along the river. From Auckland it reached as far as Rotorua and many other farming districts on either side. The Waihou was the life-giver to the whole of the Thames Valley, and most of the Waikato, when traffic was at its peak.
Unnoticed at first, activity steadily began to decline. There were many contributing factors, but the most important was the building of roads and railways. A road was put through from Thames to Te Aroha and, with the construction of bridges, stopbanks and floodgates, it at last became a passable highway. Tracts of peat land held up the progress of road making.
The railway from Hamilton to Te Aroha was opened in 1886, but even though it found its way as far as Thames, Rotorua and Cambridge, for a long time river transport was cheaper. The cost of sheep was 6d a head against 10d by rail. Wool was taken by traction engines, the cost being 1s 6d a bale against 6s 6d by rail. Cheese and dairy produce continued to be shipped away by sea until 1930.
Firth's Estate was sold and cut into smaller farms. To hold the banks of the river against the wash of the steamers he planted thousands of beautiful willows but unattended they encroached upon the waters and now closed the upper reaches of the channel he had so arduously opened.
By 1947 the Northern Steamship Company ceased operating after 36 years splendid service. Except for a few scows, Taniwha was the last ship to sail the winding waterway. The Waihou River has returned to sleep, quieter by far than the days when canoe song and battle cry quivered over its length.
EDITORS NOTE: The Paeroa Gazette of March 15 1990 reported "A Waihou River festival to celebrate the river's historical and present day importance is being planned for November 1990.
Maori canoes and a steamboat will be the focal point of the event, with each carrying messages of goodwill amongst the townson the Waihou River, Thames, Paeroa, Matamata and Te Aroha."