Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 26, November 1982

By Henry Rawle

LONG before white men set foot in the district the Maoris were familiar with the long low hill which rose from the river flats and straddled the marshland east of the confluence of the Waihou and Ohinemuri rivers.

Because the hill looked like an upturned canoe they named it Paeroa, a combination of the Maori words "pae", meaning a ridge of that appearance, and "roa" which translates as "long". Imaginative though they were they could not have dreamt the settlement that grew around the "long ridge" was to become a bustling frontier town; a major river port and the gateway to the Ohinemuri goldfields.

The Maoris built a village where the rivers met, made eel traps and canoes, snared rats and wildfowl and grew their kumeras. For hundreds of years the Maori was lord of all he surveyed until, early in the nineteenth century, the pale men came from an unknown land on the other side of the world. The English missionary Samuel Marsden visited Paeroa in 1820, having left the "Coromandel" in the Firth of Thames where Capt. Downie was loading kauri spars. Marsden delivered the first Christian sermon at Raupa pa which was "situated at the Junction of the two rivers" and later described the natives' dwellings as "much larger and better built than any I have seen in New Zealand".

The first white settler was Joshua Thorp who, in 1842, sailed up the Waihou and bought land at Puke, a stone's throw from the river landing where the Northern Steamship Company was later to establish its Paeroa depot. Up till the 1890s the river was the only highway and Thorp used his boat, the "Scotch Lass" 'to transport his farm produce to Thames and Auckland. It is recorded that in rough weather the longer voyage could take the best part of a week. Other settlers followed, most of them landing near the present Criterion Bridge and in 1869 the first trading post was set up in a raupo whare on the river bank at the end of what is now Cadman Road. Rumours of gold at Karangahake attracted itinerant fortune hunters and by February 1875 some 370 people had settled in the embryo town, most of them living in tents or lean-to shacks.

At this time a Matamata farmer, Josiah Firth, was spending a small fortune on a vast river clearance scheme which was to take seven years. He had a steamer built to ship his wheat to Paeroa but the venture failed, resulting in the loss of his Matamata estates. It is recorded that this resourceful pioneer lost what little money he had left gold-mining at Te Aroha. Apart from his other exploits Firth earned a place in history when unarmed, he confronted the formidable Te Kooti and gained a promise of better treatment for women and children.

It was the opening of the Ohinemuri goldfield that saw the emergence of Paeroa as a thriving frontier town. The Deed of Cession signed in 1875 by the paramount chiefs of the Ngati Tamatera gave access to 132,175 acres of gold-bearing land stretching from Waihi to the eastern seaboard of the Coromandel Peninsula. On the first day of the "gold rush" 800 miners' rights were issued but none of these early prospectors struck it rich. The lodes were there but it was several years before deep mining operations brought the rich, gold-bearing quartz to the surface.

The growth of Paeroa pointed the need for town planning, an early development being the surveying of the main street. Little by little the "long ridge" was sliced away, clearing the ground for shops, hotels and offices the puggy soil used for stopbanks or as filling for low-lying areas of swamp. In 1889 the Ohinemuri County Council ordered the removal of 1205 yards at a cost of £87 [in Journal 27: Errata, CW Malcolm says: Read 1225 yards and ₤48.9.0. - E] but it was many years before the last of the hill was shovelled away. Today the road is 12 feet below the level of the old footpath which used to run along the ridge.

The "stranded canoe" which gave Paeroa its name has passed into history but traces of the long hill can still be seen behind the Fathers Tavern and at the northern end of the town near the Domain. By the mid 1880s Paeroa had become a busy river port and transport centre for the cartage of a variety of freight to the Waihi and Karangahake mines. Steamers arrived daily from Thames and Auckland, their cargoes transferred to horse-drawn waggons usually with a capacity of five tons. Packet boats brought passengers and heavy mine machinery and a barge service from Paeroa to Te Aroha handled 40,000 tons of cargo annually.

In the peak years a local carrier stabled 130 horses and moved 110 tons of coal daily from river wharves to the mine batteries. Ancillary industries started up, including engineering workshops, a flax mill and a timber company which hauled kauri logs from the Waitawheta forest and rafted them down the Waihou to the Kopu mills.

While the main street was surveyed as early as 1875 it was many years before the highway was put through. The difference in the width of the two roads which form Paeroa's main thoroughfare has been attributed to an argument between the two surveyors commissioned to lay out the township. Eventually, the story goes, each laid out his portion of the road according to his own convictions. True or false, the generous width of the southern section gained the approval of the eight horse waggon teams of the goldmining era, while the narrow canyon of Belmont Road has always proved a bottleneck for northbound traffic. The town's development followed the direction of the retreating wharf sites resulting from the silting of the river bed. The original landing-stage was moved to Arney Street and then to Wharf Street which for many years was regarded as the hub of Paeroa.

Later still the landing-place was moved to the confluence of the two rivers, whence Junction Road led straight as an arrow to the main street and the railway. A horse-drawn tramway ran the length of the boggy, mile-long road, unmetalled until local waggon-masters convinced the council of the need to improve the road to cope with the increasing volume of traffic from the wharf to the railway station.

The station was built in 1895 on land now occupied by the recreation reserve and the Paeroa Hotel across the road was moved from its former site by an enterprising publican who planned to take advantage of the railway trade. Passengers stepped out of the train into the street and for many years the spacious area between the station and the hotel was the focal centre of the town and a popular venue for the Salvation Army band which provided "lively and tuneful music" on Sunday afternoons [in Journal 27: Errata, CW Malcolm says: "evening" never "afternoon" - E]. The loss of the railway station was a matter of deep concern to the community when, in 1925, it was dismantled to make way for stopbank extensions and rebuilt north of the town.

In 1902 the wharf was again resited, this time at the Puke landing where coal from Northern Steamship Company Vessels was unloaded into 600 ton hoppers, later to be hauled by horse drays to the hungry mines. In the meantime new industries had mushroomed, amongst them an abattoir and a brewery to serve the many hotels. Paeroa's first theatre was erected in 1895, a water supply loan poll was carried by 131 votes to nil and part of the main street footpath was sealed. Three years later gas lighting came to Paeroa and at the turn of the century the Thames Valley Dairy Company opened its first depot with 67 suppliers.

Long before the establishment of an early cordial factory, local children had discovered that mineral water from a nearby spring made a refreshing drink when mixed with lemon crystals. The process was later developed by a soft drinks manufacturer who, in 1907, brought the property containing the spring and commenced production of the cordial which was to become a household name. Today, water from the original spring is piped to a hand pump in the recreation reserve where visitors can sample natural "Paeroa water" straight from the source.

It was in 1912 that the townsfolk of Paeroa feted a youthful swimmer after his 15 mile swim down the Waihou from Te Aroha. Three years later the same young man made history when he swam ashore from a destroyer at Gallipoli, towing flare-rafts to illuminate the beaches for the assault troops [in Journal 27: Errata, CW Malcolm says: Freyberg towed his flares far away from the landing beaches to distract the Turk and not to illuminate the landing - E]. Unknown at the time, the 25 year old Bernard Freyberg was to command the New Zealand forces in world war two and later became Governor General of this country.

By a strange coincidence the veteran paddle steamer which escorted Freyberg down the Waihou 68 years ago can today be seen in the same river not 100 yards from the spot where the young swimmer climbed out of the water. The old "Kopu" sank near Puke Bridge in 1936, its prow and funnel still clearly visible above the mud and water of its shallow grave. [in Journal 27: Errata, CW Malcolm says: Freyberg ended his Waihou swim at the Junction not at the Puke - E]

By 1917 the Karangahake mines were closing down, resulting in a mass exodus from the goldmining settlements which in their heyday supported a population of 2,000, with 480 pupils attending the Karangahake School.

In the ensuing years Paeroa brushed off the gold dust from its boots and settled down to the more enduring industry of farming for which the district is well known today.

The town celebrated its centenary in 1975 when plans for the new Centennial Park were well under way. Today, the $200,000 complex with its striking sports pavillion and extensive playing fields is a fitting monument to a community which treasures its historic past and looks with confidence to a more settled future. The gold mines have long gone, the miners too, but the town has vivid memories of the days when Paeroa was a frontier settlement and the gateway to the Ohinemuri goldfields.