Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 14, October 1970


The greater part of the early history of the Kauaeranga Valley and surrounding hills is closely associated with the kauri timber industry. Whilst timber was milled from many other parts of the Coromandel Peninsula at some time in the past, milling achievements have in other areas been largely overshadowed by the gold mining industry; however, very little mining took place in the Kauaeranga Valley. The Thames Goldfield was officially opened as from the first of August 1867 and by 1871 the hills immediately behind Thames were rapidly becoming bare of large trees, the timber of which was needed for various mining operations. Timber from further afield had to be considered and the trees on hills in the Kauaeranga Valley commenced to be milled.

Mr. C.J. Stone, after securing the rights to large areas of timber in the Kauaeranga Valley, built a sawmill of considerable size at Shortland, near the mouth of the Kauaeranga river. The booms to catch the logs floated down the river, were built near the position of the present racecourse. These booms cost £6,000 (1870 values). I have no figures of the total cost of the mill but the booms were only a small part of the total cost. Booms are a heavy floating barrier built across a river at which the logs were made into rafts and towed to the mill. Attached to the mill was a shipbuilding yard, managed by C.J. Stone's brother, Robert, who had previously been operating a shipbuilding yard in Auckland and had built New Zealand's first locally made steamer, the "Governor Wynyard" in 1851.

After 1872, for a time, the demand for timber slackened but there was some demand from tramway builders and for the long water-race from the Kauaeranga to Thames. The water-race was started in 1873 and completed by 1876, costing £160,000. It remained in use until 1945, since when much of the town's supply has been. piped from tributaries of the Kauaeranga, the Mangarehu and Mangakirikiri streams.

Ships built by Robert Stone included the ketches: Lizette, Oak, the steamers Ruby, Blanche, Pearl; steam tugs Huia and Black Diamond and many other boats. On 16 February 1885 Robert Stone launched his last ship, the ketch Elsie The enterprise was financially weak after J.C. [C.J. – E] Stone's death in April 1885 and their mill, together with 27 others was taken over by the Kauri Timber Company. In a year the new company had milled 42 million super feet of timber of all kinds, but mostly Kauri. Not all of this timber however came from the Kauaeranga. From 2nd November 1888, Mr. Blair, the new manager at the Shortland Mill opened the Piraunui tributary in order to remove 6 million feet of Kauri timber.

Kauri timber from the valley served many uses locally, apart from the vast amount exported. Uses included tramways, timber in mines, houses and shipbuilding. In 1897 the Queen of Beauty mine installations at Thames required Kauri timber baulks 65 feet long, 30" x 30" at one end and 20" x 20" at the other. The largest piece of heart Kauri now in existence, is at the Auckland Town Hall. It came from a tree at Kauaeranga, the log of which was towed to Auckland in 1915. The Kauri piece is 13 ft. 10 inches in length, 5 ft. 4¾ inches wide and 2 inches thick. It was presented to the city by George Saunders in 1950. After a large Kauri was sawn down it would be cut into logs. The logs were then jacked into suitable creeks in order that they would be driven down stream to the booms when water from specially constructed darns was released. In very steep terrain such as the Kauaeranga the system of driving timber out by this means was much used. Dams for driving timber were used from the 1870's until the 1920's when their cost became uneconomic. These dams were constructed in such a manner that all the water held behind them could be released suddenly through a large gate. Dams would be built in many tributaries and if possible would be released in timing so as to have the water and logs from all, racing down the main stream together until the logs were halted at the boom.

Approximately 60 dams were built in the Kauaeranga area, the remains of some of which can still be seen. The best preserved is the Tarawaere Stream. The Main Dam, in the Kauaeranga Gorge was the largest but only the dam floor remains and access today is difficult. Over 12,000,000 feet of logs passed through this dam. The gate of the dam was 38" wide and 15" high. At one time a stump stuck in the opening and 2 feet had to be chopped off the stump to free it. The remains of another dam is in the Tauharankau Stream [Tauranikau Stream ? – E]. Some logs were brought to the river via the "Billy Goat" Tramway, the remains of which can be seen. Access to the area above the Kauaeranga Gorge was difficult and at Webb Creek steps were cut out in rock to enable pack horses to climb up to the main camp. They were in use as early as 1894 and can easily be followed today.

With more settlement in the lower parts of the valley, the old style of timber drives were becoming unpopular with residents whose property was damaged, fences in particular which deteriorated after being hit by a few logs. Sometimes logs were left stranded so far from the river that bullock teams had to drag them back across the paddocks to the river. One resident had his washhouse filled with shingle and a court case followed. In 1915 the Kauri Timber Company built a tramway from the head of the valley, at first to the old booms but later (1921) extended to Kopu. The distance from the old Parawai booms to the Kauaeranga Gorge was 14 miles. Much of the formation of this tramway is visible today, e.g. the cuttings and also the raised approaches to the Whangaiterenga River crossing. As far as the Hotoritori Stream the tramway ran on the river's eastern bank before crossing to the western side which is the side the road follows today. As the dams continued to be the principal method of getting timber out of the bush to the main river, a new set of booms was built to halt the logs just above the Whangaiterenga Stream.

In 1878, the year the building of the Thames Valley Railway commenced, there were 67 residents at the Kauaeranga Valley settlement. Around this time the valley was much used by gumdiggers. 200 tons at £60 - £120 per ton were being removed annually.

The year 1887 was a bad year, great fires destroyed many kauri trees around the Table Mountain. At another nearby sawmill on the Waihou River the booms broke and 500 logs swept out to sea, most of which were recovered. In the same year the price of kauri gum fell.

Regardless of precautions taken, timber falling and milling was a risky occupation and there were many accidents in the bush. Twenty or more bushmen are said to have drowned in the Kauaeranga River whilst trying to cross it when it was in flood. The driving creeks and dams were a source of many accidents. A number of men have been drawn through the dam gates together with the logs and the survival rate was low. Men could also be caught by the avalanche of logs and water if crossing or working in the creek below. It was not unknown for dams to "trip" themselves, sending the logs thundering down stream at the most unexpected moment.

With the depletion of kauri, attention was turned to rimu, totara, tawa and other native timbers. The coming of the bulldozer meant that expensive tramways were no longer required and during the 1940's and '50s considerable milling was done in more remote areas. In recent times pines have been planted in some areas in the upper valley. Planting of pinus radiata was commenced in 1940 by the New Zealand Forest Service and although no clear felling has yet been done some thinning for production was done in 1964, 1965 and 1968. It is intended to replant the forest when it is felled and the present area of pines, 1,122 acres may be enlarged. This planting, together with the regeneration of kauri will mean a continuation of milling in the future.


I wish to thank the N.Z. Forest Service, Thames for information supplied and Miss Jenny Martin, Te Aroha for assistance in preparing the manuscript.


A.H. Reed

The Story of the Kauri.

W.M. Kelly

Thames, the first 100 years.

N.Z. Forest Service

Coromandel Forest Park.

A.M. Isdale

History of "The River Thames"