Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 51, September 2007
(by C. A. Furniss)
Halley's Comet, dominating the night sky in 1910, filled most viewers with awe. The crew of the Northern Steam Ship Company's little ss Kotiti, gazed up at the spectacle from the lonely wastes of the Piako Swamp, found it eerie.
After all, the swamp was an odd sort of a place for a steamer to be, even in daylight, without the added strangeness of the fiery trail in the heavens after dark.
The flat, dreary morass stretched away for mile after empty mile on either side of the river towards the distant hills. Much of it was covered with pale yellow reeds, with dark clumps of manuka scattered about, mingled with raupo, flax and willows.
The surveyors had struggled waist deep through the watery jungle running their lines, and now an ambitious drainage scheme was under way to transform a wilderness into rich farmlands in the years ahead.
The Northern Company, always alert for new trade, decided that the area was worth looking into. The company's Waihou River service was thriving with ss Taniwha and ss Waimarie plying daily between Auckland and Paeroa and with the coming development of the Piako Swamp, who knew what the future might hold.
So the ss Kotiti was sent to find out if a regular passenger and cargo service up the Piako River was a practical and reasonable profitable proposition.
The ss Kotiti nosed her way up-river towards Tahuna. She avoided sandbanks, but found another hazard that had grown—the willow trees that fringed the banks. The massive branches of the trees, sprawling across the river, entangled the little steamer many times, punching a hole in one of her boats and damaging the woodwork that protected the helmsman from some of the weather.
No doubt the marine superintendent pulled a long face about this, but the company was sufficiently encouraged by the results of the trip to begin a regular twice-weekly service.
After a trial period, the ss Kotiti was replaced by the tiny ss Kapuni, relieved at times by the auxiliary schooners Wave and Victory. Following the sale of the ss Kapuni in 1915 there was a period of chopping and changing to find a suitable vessel to replace her.
The ss Hautiti, the ss Gael and the ss Orewa had a turn, until the company settled for the Gael for the Piako run. Increasing trade brought the larger ss Waipu onto the river in 1924, with the Hauioti relieving during the slack winter months.
About this time the river terminus was moved down-river from Patetonga to Kerepehi. Passengers and cargo were transhipped at this wharf by the launch Karewa.
The steamers left Auckland on Mondays and Thursdays, usually sailing at night if the tide served, to work the river early in the morning on the first of the flood.
First, a long plume of dark brown coal smoke would appear down-river, drifting above the morning haze. Then a brown mast would be seen gliding smoothly along behind the willows, and the steamer would come swinging round a bend in the river, lights still burning and brass work catching the first rays of the sun.
The water swirled under the ship's counter stern as the engines went astern, and she would come gently alongside the river landing, with its black-and-white name board on the front of the corrugated iron goods shed.
The ship's gear would be swinging slings of cargo ashore almost before the lines were fast, clouds of steam from the winch drifting across the fore part of the vessel.
A couple of passengers might clamour ashore to be driven slowly along the yellow clay road in a buggy, with excited dogs prancing about in front of the horse.
The mate would stand on the wharf supervising the discharge, a harassed figure clutching a clipboard of dockets and arguing with a farmer whose fencing wire had not been shipped.
The captain would be standing somewhere by the wheel, chatting with the local storekeeper or factory manager, outwardly oblivious to the working of the ship, but in fact not missing a thing.
In about half an hour all would be finished, shore lines let go and with a jangle of telegraph gongs, the ship would draw away and disappear round the next bend of the river. The passengers would gather at the saloon breakfast table, and the little river settlement would go back to sleep until next boat day.
It was usual to discharge cargo on the way up-river and to load—mostly flax, butter and cheese—coming down.
Traffic on the Piako was quite heavy in those days. Kirby's passenger launches ran daily between Patetonga and Thames. Captain Sorensen's little ss Iranui carried flax from Torehape, tugs, barges, scows and the Lands Department launches shuttled up and down the river and dredges were always at work somewhere.
Between 1921 and 1924 the Piako Shipping Company challenged the supremacy of the Northern Steam Ship Company trying lure passengers and cargo away with the ss Oneroa (once the well-known ss Pitoitoi of Bradney and Binns). The small company went to the wall in the end.
With all this activity minor mishaps were inevitable, though no serious accidents occurred. On June 9, 1924 the ss Waipu, a very difficult ship to handle, was coming down from Kerepehi to Ngatea for a consignment of butter. Slowly the lifting span of the Ngatea Bridge creaked up to allow her through, heavy counter-weights rumbling down in their curved iron channels.
The steamer was towing a drag astern to steady her, but as she approached the open bridge she shied away across the river and came to rest squarely against the bridge, broadside on. There she stayed, pinned by the current.
Her embarrassed crew got the ship away by running a line to the bridge wing and hauling her through the gap by her steam winch. In the excitement the ineffective drag was overlooked until it picked up and severed telephone and telegraph cables across the river, disrupting communications for some time between Auckland and much of the Thames Valley.
The master of the auxiliary craft Torea decided on a more dashing approach to the awkward bridge. He rang "Full Ahead". The Torea bounded forward and slewed off-course knocking the bridge timbers about and starting some of her planks as she blundered through.
In June 1931, the ss Hauiti collided with a barge. The ss Gael had a couple of fires among the bales of flax in her hold, damaging the hold lining and hatch slabs.
The steamers held an indefinable charm for the men who served in them and the settlers whose needs they supplied. The passenger steamers withdrew from service in the early 1930s when service-cars came lumbering over the newly metalled roads.
The auxiliary schooner Pono carried the flag for a time, running cargo only service up to Ngatea via Thames, until old age and competition from trucks forced her out in 1948.
All that remains today are some weathered, grey timbers by the river bank at Pipiroa, the remnants of a wharf which long ago felt the wash of steamers coming in with the tide.
Editor's Note: Other steamers, launches and scows seen on the Piako River were Omana, Karewa, Kaipara, Kapua, Rimu and Victoria (formerly Victory).