Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 52, September 2008

(Abridged from a report by the Commissioner of Crown Lands, Lands and Survey Department, Hamilton for the Paeroa and District Historical Society in 1983. The report is held by the Paeroa and District Museum).

In early pre-historic times, Ohinemuri was submerged beneath the sea and during this period the lowlands swamps were formed by the deposition of sea mud and river silts.

Later the mountains were uplifted as the result of volcanic upheavals. At the same time, the gold-bearing quartz of the region was created when extremely hot fluids containing gold and silver in solution ascended through the cracks in the rocks.

The Ohinemuri River came into existence when a large lake on the Waihi Plains overflowed to the west. Both the Ohinemuri and the Waitawheta Rivers cut gorges through the hilly country and the cutting down process continues today.

Maori Settlement

The Hauraki region was inhabitated by Polynesian people from about 1300 onwards. The various cultures which superseded each other included Moa hunters, the Ngati Kui, the Tutu Maiao, the Turehu, the Maui people and the descendants of Kupe.

About 1350 the great Maori migration to New Zealand began. The Arawa people settled in the Hauraki area, although the Tainui tribe passed through on their way to Kawhia, where they lived for some years.

About 1575, possibly for revenge motives, the Tainui invaded the area and drove out the Arawa. They then established various tribes who were collectively known as the Marutuahu after a common ancestor.

In 1821, after the Ngapuhi tribe from Northland sacked the Totara Pa, near Thames, most of the Marutuahu fled down into the Waikato. They did not return to Hauraki until the 1830s, by which time some Europeans missionaries and settlers had arrived in the area.

Of the local pa sites, of most interest is that on Tapu Ariki Hill, near Mackaytown. There is also a sacred burial ground in this vicinity.

Some important place names are: Waihi, still water; Hauraki, north wind; Te Paeroa-o-Toi or Paeroa, the long ridge of Toi; Rotokohu, lake of mist; Karangahake, the meeting of the hunchbacks; Waikino, bad weather; Owharoa, four long ways or food for journey.

There is a story attached to the place name Ohinemuri, which means " the maiden left behind". By the road at the top of Turner's Hill, near Mackaytown, there is a depression which is thought to be the entrance to a tunnel, running down to the Ohinemuri River. A taniwha lived in the tunnel, and a Maori tribe lived nearby.

When an enemy tribe invaded the pa, the inhabitants fled, leaving behind a tribesman's daughter. The taniwha took care of the girl until the conquered tribe returned, at which time he left the district forever.

European Settlement

The European contact with Hauraki Maori came in 1769 when Captain Cook anchored of Mercury Bay and then sailed around Cape Colville and up the Firth of Thames. He then took his pinnance and sailed up the Thames (Waihou) River to Netherton.

Later in the 18th century, whalers and traders visited the area with timber being the main commodity sought. The first Europeans to explore and settle Ohinemuri were missionaries who arrived from 1820 onwards. They were followed by farm settlers and traders.

The search for gold began after the first success of the Californian and Australian gold rushes. A Reward Committee was set up in Auckland in 1852 and it offered £500 ($1000) to the discoverer of a payable goldfield in the northern district.

Gold was discovered at Coromandel in 1852 and in 1867 the Thames goldfield was opened up. Neither of these goldfields was entirely satisfactory and there was pressure to open up the Ohinemuri region.

However it was Maori land and the owners resisted the idea of leasing it for gold mining purposes. Many Hauraki tribes had fought alongside the Waikato tribes in Anglo-Maori wars and were reluctant to co-operate with the Europeans, although some were willing to lease their land.

The acquisition of the Ohinemuri block for gold mining came about largely through the efforts of one man, James Mackay, the Civil Commissioner for the Hauraki District. When negotiations failed, Mackay used methods which he had employed to open up the Thames fields: He lent money to the chiefs, and then demanded repayment through cession of land.

On 18 February, 1875, the Deed of Cession was signed and on 3 March, 1875, the Ohinemuri goldfields were declared open at Mackaytown, where hundreds of prospectors took part in a genuine "gold rush".

First results were disappointing. The gold in Ohinemuri was not alluvial, but rather contained in quartz reefs. Capital and machinery were needed to recover it, and realising this most of the prospectors shifted on.

In spite of this anti-climax, the access to Ohinemuri was valuable to the Government, partly because it provided a transport link, and partly because it opened up more land for agricultural use.

The Agricultural Lease system was set up and in the following years much of the land was bought from the Maori owners by the Crown.

Development of the Ohinemuri Mines

The Ohinemuri Goldfield was a part of the Hauraki Gold Mining District, which consisted of the Thames, Coromandel, Tapu and Te Aroha goldfields. The Ohinemuri goldfield was divided into sub-districts, which in 1897 were Maratoto, Komata, Karangahake, Owharoa, Waitekauri and Waihi.

The development of the gold mines in the Ohinemuri region was due to various factors acting in conjunction with each other. Initially, the success of operations depended on the willingness of the gold seekers to adopt appropriate technology, and on the level of investment in mining.

Government aid came in the form of legislation, regulations, subsidies for goldfields public works and prospecting and technical advice through official publications and Schools of Mines.

Some small concerns came into existence at Karangahake, Owharoa and Waitekauri during the 1870s, but worsening economic conditions and transport problems inhibited growth.

During the 1880s the level of mining activity increased. In their attempts to find a better way of extracting gold from the refractory system local Ohinemuri miners tried various smelting and mercury amalgamation processes. All were inefficient and expensive, and it was not until 1889, when the MacArthur-Forrest cyanide process was tried at the Crown's company's first battery up the Waitawheta River at Karangahake that a breakthrough came.

Also at the end of 1880s many of the small concerns, especially those at Karangahake and Waihi, amalgamated to form companies.

Waikino township and battery

Waikino's main street with the Waihi Gold Mining Co.'s huge Victoria Battery in the mid-ground. c 1900 [August 1909 -E].

Ohinemuri From Way Back
Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 52, September 2008
Waikino township and battery

The application of the new cyanide process and an increase in English investment led to general prosperity in the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century. Assistance from the Liberal Government and a buoyant economy contributed to this state of affairs.

As large concerns consolidated their workings and acquired more ground, more small claims were staked and operations to work the discarded tailings in the Ohinemuri River were set up. By 1896 Waihi's operations had grown to a point where it was necessary to build the large Victoria battery at Waikino. During these years, the North Island goldfields surpassed those of the South Island in gold production.

However, by about 1914 a large number of operations were in danger of closing down. There were many reasons for this. The Waihi miners' strike in 1912 followed by the Huntly coal miners' strike adversely affected production.

In many areas, such as Karangahake, there was a decline in the amount of payable ore found. Generally, the cost of technology needed to run the mines began to outweigh the returns from gold production. The outbreak of World War One led to a sharp decrease in the work force.

The continuation of full-scale mining after World War One at places such as Waihi was due to the richness and quality of the ore, and the efficiency and capital outlay of companies. Nevertheless, small companies and prospectors worked abandoned mines at Karangahake, Owharoa and Waitekauri between the two World Wars. During the Depression of the early 1930s the Unemployment Board assisted many of these small operations with subsidies.

The Waihi company kept going during World War Two despite predictions to the contrary, but finally closed down in 1952. The expiry of long-term lease and mining privileges on Martha Hill and at Waikino led several companies to carry out cleaning-up and prospecting operations during the 1950s and 1960s.

At the beginning of the 1970s the escalating price of gold made it economic to work previously mined areas. During this decade, mining and prospecting were carried at Karangahake, Waikino and Waihi and the trend continues in the 1980s.

Road Transport

Road making in the Ohinemuri was vital to the growth of the mines and mining settlements. It was always a difficult process because of the high rainfall and rugged terrain. After the opening of the goldfield, construction and maintenance of the roads was very poor, mainly because of the apathy of Provincial Council.

When the provinces were abolished in 1876, and the Thames County Council came into existence, roading was extended to open up areas such as Karangahake. Both the Thames County Council and the Ohinemuri County Council, which came into existence in 1886, received large sums in gold revenue, but much of this was spent in keeping the roads passable.

The first road linking Paeroa with the mining centres was the Rahu Road. This bypassed both Karangahake and the gorge. It was a tortuous and hilly route, but was so essential for the transport of supplies that repairs to it were made at night.

Work on the gorge road was begun in 1889, the first stage being the completion of the road to Karangahake. The construction process was very slow and dangerous—workmen suspended in cages from the cliffs to blast the rock into the river. The road was completed in 1901, but for years was for one-way traffic. During the Depression the road was widened and sealed by relief labour and became a State Highway.

The Armed Constabulary did much of the initial work, but later out-of-work miners or settlers were employed. They were supervised by surveyors, who themselves made a great contribution to the opening up of the area. Early work was done by the pick-and-shovel and wheelbarrow method. It was not until 1916 that the County Council acquired a steam roller and scarifier.

Paeroa was a vital transport centre. Supplies for the mines and mining settlements were brought up the Waihou River by steamer and off-loaded onto wagons at wharves near Paeroa. The wagons were then hauled by teams of up to 20 horses to the mines. The rough roads were also travelled by mail and passenger coaches and gold convoys.

Carriers were operating between Paeroa and the mine settlements from 1875 onwards. The coming of the railway in 1905 made most of the horse-drawn road transport obsolete. With the improvement in the roads, motorised transport, which was rare prior to early 1920s, horses and shipping gradually faded away.

The Railway

The construction of the Paeroa-Waihi line was delayed until various connecting lines including the Paeroa-Te Aroha (1895) and Thames-Paeroa (1897) were completed. The idea of a railway link to Waihi was suggested to the Minister of Public Works by a deputation of local residents in 1895, but initial survey work was not undertaken until 1897 and 1898.

The survey showed that a tunnel on the line would be necessary and the Minister baulked at the expense. Private enterprise offered to build the line, but the Government reconsidered its first decision on the basis of likely returns on the investment. The Waihi Gold Mining Company gave a loan to the Government for the purpose of construction and guaranteed a minimum annual haulage.

Construction began in 1900 and proceeded slowly, partly because ballast for the line had to be specially crushed and partly because of slips and washouts. There were also some disputes with the local community about the siting of the track.

Work on the tunnel started in 1900 or 1901 and was not finalised until 1905. Much water and heavy ground was met with during the course of tunnelling. When completed, the tunnel was 1188 yards long and treble brick lined.

Steel railway bridges at the west and east portals of the tunnel were constructed by Anderson of Christchurch in 1901 and 1903 respectively. The line was used for goods traffic from April 1905 but was not officially opened until 9 November, 1905.

The Paeroa-Waihi line was 12½ miles (20.1kms) in length and the train journey took about 55 minutes. Karangahake and Waikino had stations with station masters; there was a side station at Mackaytown and a flag station at Owharoa. Mackaytown's side station closed in about 1925 and Waikino and Karangahake stations in the 1950s.

For many years the line operated on a tablet system, with a tablet station at Karangahake and tablet-locked sidings at Waikino, Owharoa and a "tunnel relief siding" as the eastern portal of the tunnel.

The first trains to travel the line were steam locomotives of the F, Fa, C, D and L classes. Later A, Ab and Df locomotives were used. These were superseded by diesel engines and railcars. After 1971 only goods traffic was carried by rail. Before this time passenger services were much used and school children were dependent on the rail service.

During the prohibition years, 1909 to 1925, a special "grog" train ran from Waihi to Hikutaia, which the nearest place that liquor could be legally bought.

In 1963 the Kaimai deviation was approved. The entailed the eventual closure of the east Coast line, including, of course, the Paeroa-Waihi section. After the opening of the Kaimai Tunnel on 12 September, 1978, trains ceased to run through the gorge.


Timber milling was an important industry in the Hauraki area from the late eighteenth century, when English and French timber ships visited the area. It began to grow in importance after the advent of European settlement, when various local sawmills came into being.

Kauri logging was particularly important in the Whitianga, Tairua and Kauaeranga Valley areas, but there were also vast stands of kauri in the vicinity of the Waitawheta River.

Timber was sought after by milling companies for export and by miners for fuel and structural work. Settlers also had licence to cut down trees on their land for buildings and domestic purposes. There was some hostility between mining and logging interests in the late nineteenth century because of their conflicting needs.

Kauri logs near Junction Wharf

Kauri logs from the Waitawheta Valley were taken by tramway to a railway siding at Owharoa, by train to Paeroa, then by tramway to the Junction Wharf. They are shown here being formed into rafts to be towed the Great Barrier Island where the Kauri Timber Company had its sawmill. c 1917.

Ohinemuri From Way Back
Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 52, September 2008
Kauri logs near Junction Wharf

Much of the forest was logged and vast areas were burnt by prospectors in search of reef outcrops. In spite of this, some trees were conserved: For instance, a grove of young kauri on the top of Crown Hill, Karangahake, was regarded as protected for many years before it was gazetted as a reserve in the early 1970s.

The Kauri Timber Company, an Australian-owned concern which brought up most of the forest in the Hauraki area after 1888, operated for many years in the forest beyond Owharoa. It built a tram line from the head of the Waitawheta River to Owharoa, and in 1905-06 extended it to link up with the Paeroa-Waihi railway line.

Kauri logs were brought on horse-drawn trucks down the tramline, railed to Paeroa, taken by tramway to the Junction, and then rafted to the company's sawmills on Great Barrier Island. The Waihi Gold Company used the timber company's tramway to bring fuel and building timber to the Victoria battery at Waikino. A branch line was built from Owharoa Falls to the battery's sawmill.[The Waihi Gold Mining Company in fact were the initial builders of the tramway in to the Waitawheta Valley, not the reverse as suggested above - E]

The Kauri Timber Company was still using the tramline about 1913 although kauri was becoming scarce.

During the mining years most of the land around the settlement was bare of any bush cover. These days, native and exotics are regenerating in the Kaimai-Mamaku and Coromandel Forest Parks.


The first farming in the Hauraki was carried out by the Maori, who grew potatoes to trade with the visiting timber ships. In the 1840s settlers and Maori grew crops to supply the settlement of Auckland. Large-scale mixed farming was first practised by large estates in the Thames Valley, on land leased or bought from the Maori.

After the opening of the Ohinemuri Goldfields in 1875, many acres of land between Karangahake and Waihi were opened up for settlement under the Goldfields Agricultural Leasing regulations. Fifty-acre blocks were available at a small annual rent. Some years later the opportunity to acquire the freehold became available. The land was variable in quality and the task of breaking it in was massive.

The land around Thames became a rich dairying region after the subdivision of the big estates in the 1890s and the draining and subdivision of the Hauraki Plains after the turn of the century. These developments offset the decline in mining in Thames.

Land around the Karangahake Gorge was less suitable for dairying. It was difficult hilly country, plagued with noxious weeds. However, farming in the area became increasingly important after the closure of the Karangahake and (later) the Waihi mines. Farming improvements were assisted by good management, scientific methods and aerial topdressing.

Frequent flooding was a major problem for farms near the Ohinemuri River. One cause of the flooding was the silting up of the river by mine tailings. The Ohinemuri River had been gazetted a mining sludge channel in 1895 and since that time there had been several devastating floods. On some occasions flood waters actually poured through the railway tunnel.

At the initiation of a Silting Commission of 1910, the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers Improvement Act was passed. Under this Act mining companies were levied to pay for dredging and stopbanking work.

Drainage work was also carried out in the swampy Tirohia and Rotokohu areas until about 1928, but the benefits were negligible: Flood waters were often trapped in the drainage system designed to release them. Work continues today under the Waihou Valley Catchment Control Scheme.

Local and National Politics

Ohinemuri was part of the Thames County from 1876 to 1886, when it became a county in its own right. It spent its first years paying off £2000 ($4000) compensation to the Thames County for the loss of valuable gold revenues. Local bodies tended to be contentious because of the conflict between mining companies and farming interests on the council.

Ohinemuri County was divided into ridings, the names and numbers of which changed over the years. The Karangahake area was a separate riding from 1886 to 1936 and the Waikino area from 1916 to 1936. Waihi became a borough in 1902 and Paeroa followed suit in 1915.

In 1907 Karangahake riding petitioned the Governor to be granted borough status. One of the reasons was that Ohinemuri County Council was not spending enough money in their area. The petition was refused, because although the riding had a population of about 3000 at the time, it was scattered over a wide area. By way of compensation the County Council built a band rotunda at Karangahake in 1908. It was later shifted to Paeroa where it still stands on the Railway Reserve.

From 1905 to 1925 the Ohinemuri electorate supported the Liberals, probably because of that party's pledges to assist miners and small farmers. After the Liberal era, political interests became more sharply differentiated and there was also a local decline in the mining vote.

Maori Settlement

Census figures reveal that from 1875 onwards there was a proportionately low number of Maori in the Ohinemuri County. The Nagti Maru and sub-tribes were dominant.

Some Maori were opposed to the opening of the goldfield. During the 1870s and 1880s tribes and individuals obstructed surveys, river dredging and road making. These protests were at first tolerated and later suppressed by the European authorities.

There were also inter-tribal disagreements about the ownership of land, which was being leased and in some case sold to the Crown. Arguments between tribes reached a stage where three fighting pa were set up for defensive purposes, one at the Ohinemuri-Waihou junction, one at Rotokohu and one at the approaches to Te Aroha.

As the land was gradually settled and sold, the issue became less openly disputed and Maori participated in gold prospecting and mining.

After the turn of the century some Maori communities went through a stage of social transition. While many traditions were abandoned or modified, communal living was still accepted.

Also at this time disease threatened a number of Maori. Many fell victims to Tb and the influenza epidemic of 1918 also had a devastating effect. However, improved health measures reversed the trend and after the 1920s there was a spasmodic increase in population.