Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 52, September 2008
(by Ollie Richardson, BA, Dip Jnl, Waihi)
Today life without electricity is almost unthinkable. There would be no quality lighting at night, no microwave cooking, electric blankets or heating, no computers, televisions or radios, no automatic opening garage doors or milking machines, no continuous hot water or washing machines and a raft of other things which form part of our daily lives.
Less than 100 years ago Waihi coped without electricity, as did most towns and cities in New Zealand. So how did electricity come to New Zealand and when, why and how did it come to Waihi? Did you know it was the gold mining company who brought it here?
Electricity generation began in New Zealand late last century and the first public electricity supply started in 1887.
Reefton, a gold mining town lying inland half way between Greymouth and Westport on the West Coast of the South Island, was the first town in the Southern Hemisphere to be lit by hydro-electric power with a dam and dynamo organised by a public company.
The town's electric lights were shining only six years after Thomas Edison's company had first begun to light the streets of New York.
Walter Prince, a British engineer, had been brought to New Zealand by a Dunedin firm and had supervised the construction of a hydro-electric plant for a mining claim on the Shotover River before he brought his one kilowatt demonstration dynamo to Reefton in 1886.
Here he installed it in Dawson's Hotel to make it the first building in the southern hemisphere to be permanently illuminated by electricity.
Public interest soon quickened into action; a public utility company was registered and early in 1888 Reefton was being fed by hydro-electric power.
Electricity, or 'bottled lightning' as it was sometimes called, was enjoyed immediately by Reefton people, who up to then, had been used to only candles and kerosene lamps.
At that time Reefton (Reef Town) was a boom town. Alluvial gold had been discovered in 1866 and gold-bearing quartz reefs in 1870.
Today only the foundations of the early powerhouse building and parts of the plant remain.
Local plans and dreams
As early as 1896 Josiah Firth, a Matamata landowner and a director on the board of the Waihi Gold Mining Company planned to harness the Huka Falls near Taupo to generate electricity and build transmission lines to carry the power to the Thames Valley/Coromandel goldfields as well as to the newly developed farming areas there.
Prime Minister Richard Seddon was not in favour of privatised electricity generation companies which utilised national waterways and Firth's plans were stymied by the Electrical Motive Power Act of 1896 which gave the government authority to control the generation and transmission of electricity from national waterways.
Mr Firth was aware that the profitability of the Waihi Gold Mining Company was declining and a cheap source of power was needed to crush the ore, thus raising profits.
Waihi Gold Mining Company superintendent, Mr H. P. Barry, with the same problem on his mind, was a recreational Waikato River fisherman. A skilled engineer with previous mining experience in South Africa, Barry saw the Horahora rapids as an electrical power source and tentative negotiations with the Government for a licence began in 1903.
At first results were not encouraging but the unexpected death of Sir Richard Seddon from a heart attack in 1906 saw Sir Joseph Ward take over the helm of Government.
Success at last
In 1908, under the Public Works Amendment Act of that year, Ward granted a licence to the mining company to build a hydro power station at Horahora rapids plus transmission lines of around 80 kilometres to bring the power to Waihi and Waikino.
However the Government included a clause in the licence that it had the right to take over the project at some later date at an agreed valuation provided that sufficient power was set aside for use in the company's mining operations.
The Horahora power station could generate up to 10,000 hp and the annual rental for the water right was £1200 ($2400).
Henry Roch [Roche – E], who had been appointed engineer to the mining company in 1896 and had played his part in the construction period of the mine and their battery at Waikino, was put in charge of the design, layout and construction of the power station.
Construction began in 1910 and by 1913 it began producing power. The whole scheme, including the transmission lines from Horahora to Waihi cost the company £212,500 ($425,000), a very considerable capital outlay at the time.
The transmission line was the longest in the country at that stage and great difficulties had to be overcome to bring the power over the Kaimai ranges. Three 10mm thick solid copper wires on large brown glazed insulators carried a current of 50,000 volts and these were supported on a total of 469 steel towers (photo right) erected between Horahora and Waihi [Waikino. This is made clear in Journal 21: Life at the Hydro-Electric Power Project at Horahora. c.80km for the whole line to Waihi is correct. The Museum tower has sign No.487 attached - E].
Each tower had an enamelled plate attached showing the tower number, a skull and crossbones, and the words "Fatal to touch wires".
A telephone line was installed below the power lines for communicating between Horahora and Waihi, and 12 telephone huts were built at intervals along the power lines for quick communication when trouble arose, usually through insulator failure or bad weather.
The line passed through the Hinuera Valley, Matamata, Turanga-o-moana and then crossing the Kaimai ranges through Wairongomai [Waiorongomai - E] and Waitawheta Valleys to Waikino. There the voltage was stepped down to 11,000 volts.
During 1911, work at the crusher and the mine at Waihi was going ahead to convert the plant to electricity.
The powerhouse was largely finished in 1912 and by October, 1913, with the scheme's completion, virtually all the machinery in the stamping mills and mine were electrified. Horahora power drove 2350 hp of electric motors at the mine and lit 1000 lights,
Electricity was used for driving air compressors, pump motors, hoisting gears, winding engines, fans, underground lighting, pumping stations and for domestic supply to company houses.
Waihi Gold Mining Company's heyday was 1909 which saw largest production and greatest return to investors, and by the time the power station was commissioned, ore reserves were already declining.
As a result the company never fully utilised Horahora's full capacity and the Government would not grant the mining company a licence to supply power to the surrounding districts.
Instead in 1919 it took up its option to buy the scheme at the original cost of £212,500 on a deferred payment plan, falling due in 1931. This was a lot less than it would have cost to build the facility at that time.
By 1921 the Government-owned station was supplying electricity to Paeroa, the first rural town in New Zealand to be reticulated by hydro-electricity, Cambridge and Hamilton and much of the developing dairy farming of the Waikato and Thames Valley.
By 1925 more than 1000 milking machines and six dairy factories were using electricity. In 1924 work was begun to increase the plant's output and transmission lines were built to Auckland. This work was completed in 1926 and the supply now extended to Franklin County, Auckland, and later, until the Arapuni power station was built, to supply the Bay of Plenty and Rotorua.
Exchange rate shenanigans
In 1935 the mining company's Chairman's report included the following interesting comments:
"In 1931 the amount was due for repayment: We requested payment at the due date but eventually agreed to postpone the payment for three years to avoid embarrassing the Government. At the time the exchange rate was £100 sterling to NZ£110 and the sterling equivalent of £212,000 was £NZ233,200. Shortly afterwards the Government further devalued the £NZ and the exchange rate stood at £100 sterling to £NZ125. Last November the New Zealand Treasury insisted on paying off the debt in NZ currency which realised £NZ170,682. We instructed our attorney to accept the money as payment on account, reserving all our rights, and we published the information."
Horahora's days numbered
Power consumption increased and in the 1930s it became evident that a new plant needed to be built. It was decided to site it on the Waikato, 15 miles downstream from Horahora, even though this meant that the lake formed behind the new dam would completely submerge the Horahora station.
Construction started in 1941 and was not competed until 1947 because of World War Two and the shortages that it created both in materials, machinery and manpower.
The delay created power shortages with cuts to some areas at peak load periods. So it became necessary to run the Horahora station for as long as possible until Karapiro started to produce power. It was only a few days between the flooding of the old and the commissioning of the new power station and consequently very little was salvaged at that stage.
It was not until 1971 that the Hamilton office of the Electricity Department called for tenders for the salvage of the station's copper generator windings. Copper was then reaching 45-50c per pound but by the time the salvage began the price had dropped to 18 cents. Although a substantial amount of copper was recovered, the more valuable salvaged material turned out to be cast iron, then in short supply around the country.
I acknowledge the following sources:
The Horahora Power Station compiled by Stan Row & Barry McKey 1997.
www.reefton.school.nz/reefton.html and www.reefcottage.co.nz/41_History.htm