Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 50, September 2006
(by Graham Watton)
CELEBRATIONS WERE held last Easter weekend to mark the centenary of the rail link between Paeroa and Waihi being opened on November 9, 1905, with Prime Minister Helen Clark attending, and many former railway enthusiasts.
The Goldfields Steam Train Society did themselves proud in organising a most successful weekend. With the co-operation of the Auckland Museum of Transport and Technology lending some equipment the Society members had their machinery up to a high standard and the train trips between Waihi and Waikino were extremely popular, as to was the museums at both Waikino and Waihi together with the Victoria Battery Society.
Prior to the railway being constructed from Paeroa to Waihi, everything from heavy mining machinery, up to 30 tons a piece, more than 100 tons of coal a day, passengers and the residents supplies, were hauled to Waihi by teams of horses up to 20 or more in each team, along a narrow winding road through the gorge.
Before this road was blasted through the solid rock, one wagon wide and under overhanging rock, there was a long and tortuous route by the Rahu Road from Mackaytown over the Coromandel Range and down to Owharoa.
By 1897 the railway from Hamilton had reached Paeroa and two years later extended to Thames. As the Ohinemuri Goldfields developed at Karangahake, Waitekauri and Waihi pressure was mounted by all involved for a rail link through the Karangahake Gorge to Waihi.
In March, 1897, an Auckland firm, New Zealand Exploration Company approached the Ohinemuri County Council with a proposal to construct a steam tramway on 2ft (600mm) gauge rails from Paeroa through the gorge to Waihi.
The proposal was to have the Paeroa terminal at the Junction Wharf, Paeroa, and the route was to followed, Junction Road, George Street, Railway Street, crossing the railway line at the William Street intersection then along Francis Street, Wharf Street, into the main street, Normanby Road. From there the track was to follow the main road to Mackaytown.
There was a bridge over the Ohinemuri River about opposite Albert Street to the lower Raratu township, past the Crown battery, then crossing the river again about halfway between the present bridge and the entrance to the reserve. A spur line went into Karangahake to a town depot about the entrance the present reserve.
The tramway then went by tunnel under the Karangahake town, came out below the school, and then went into another tunnel to come out and cross the river in vicinity of the eastern portal of the present tunnel.
The line then wound its way up the south bank of the Ohinemuri River to Owharoa to Waikino where a branch line was proposed up to the Golden Cross and the mines in the upper Waitekauri Valley. The route then continued on into Waihi terminating at the corner of Seddon and Hasards Streets.
The total length was some 20 miles (32.18kms) and the cost was estimated at 40,000 pounds ($80,000). The company proposed to meet the full cost and there would be no Government input. While the project was called a steam tramway, it was a light railway, similar to that developed in other countries.
A further meeting in May between the council and company discussed some councillors' objections of the rail line using county roads. The company was requested to deposit a substantial sum to guarantee that the roads would be returned to an acceptable standard should the venture conclude.
The company's representative, Mr Hunter, said it was proposed to meet all the mining companies along the route for a contribution to the cost. He sought six months from the council's approval date to raise the necessary finance.
The councillors were hesitate to grant approval and required more information on the funding of the scheme to ensure it was a viable project.
The Government was also lurking in the background as was revealed at an Auckland meeting of the Chamber of Commerce and the Auckland members of the House of Representatives called to discuss matter affecting the Auckland Province.
Mr Hunter raised the question of light rail being used to service the province. He gave details of the Paeroa-Waihi project, which included a 2ft (600mm) gauge for 15 miles (24.12kms) costing 2500 pounds ($5000) per mile (1.6kms) including rolling stock, other accessories and included four crossings of the Ohinemuri River. The meeting was told that the Government stopped a company from opening up a light rail line, stating that it intended laying down the line. The survey had been done but the line was never done.
The meeting passed a resolution calling on the Government to open up the country with light rail, preferably done by the State or Government but offering every facility to private enterprise to carry out the work.
In December, 1897, the Public Works Department's annual report called for a costing of an alternative 3ft 6in (1.06m) or 2ft (600mm) gauge rail link between Paeroa and Waihi and a possible route from Waihi to the Katikati Harbour. The only real problem was the abrupt angle around the sheer cliff in middle of the Karangahake Gorge. No further expenditure was provided and the project was held over.
In January, 1898, the New Zealand Exploration Company informed the Ohinemuri County Council that it had withdrawn from the Paeroa-Waihi light rail proposal.
The annual report for the Public Works Department, tabled in October, 1898, stated that a survey of the Paeroa-Waihi rail link had been completed and the 12 ½ mile (21.15kms) route would cost 80,000 pounds ($160,000). The only major construction was a 1180yds (1.16kms) tunnel. An alternative line to avoid the tunnel would interfere so largely with the existing road, water races and other mining works it was not economical.
The Minister recommended no start at present owing to the pressure to complete other rail works. The Minister expected that private enterprise could be interested under the terms of existing law.
By February 1899 the Government and the Waihi Gold Company had entered an arrangement to construct a railway between Paeroa and Waihi.
In September, 1899, the Public Works Department's annual report stated that the Government considered it was not advisable to allow a private company to make the railway. On October 21, 1899, the House of Representatives voted 37 to 15 that 6000 pounds ($12,000) be placed in the estimates for the Paeroa-Waihi rail link.
Early in 1900 survey work and preliminary construction commenced on the rail link. In Paeroa a public meeting expressed support for the line route to be along the eastern bank of the Ohinemuri River (Paeroa side) as there were no curves less than seven chains (47.6m) and the grade was perfect, less than the Government proposal.
When the Karangahake railway station was laid out some distance west of the Crown Battery local residents objected. They wanted the station in the centre and at the rear of their town centre. This would have meant two tunnels and they produced plans for a slightly longer but cheaper route.
However, the Government had their plans firmly fixed. By mid-way through 1900 a start had been made on laying the new permanent way from adjacent the Old Te Aroha Road (now Rotokohu Road) towards Te Moananui Hill. Excavations for the tunnel were started from both ends and the route of the Paeroa-Waihi rail link had been set in concrete.
It took some four years before the tunnel was completed and the track laid to Waihi for the grand opening in November, 1905.