Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 42, September 1998
During the weekend of 23-24 May 1998 Te Aroha celebrated the centenary of the opening of the Cadman Bath House. Around 4000 people attended the festivities, which included a street parade and a re-enactment of the opening of the bath house at the Te Aroha Domain. The following article outlines the history of the Te Aroha Springs.
Waiwera was developed as the first spa in New Zealand and although Rotorua was generally considered the most important spa town, Te Aroha was the first to be visited by a very large numbers of bathers each year. For a number of years last century it received more visitors than Rotorua.
Te Aroha's setting was almost as important as its water resources. The springs emerged from the side of Mt Te Aroha, the highest peak in the district. The Waihou River flowed at the foot of the mountain and the sheltered slope in between was ideal for growing trees and for laying out a town. There was native forest nearby and the scarp face of the Kaimai Range contrasted remarkably with the flatness of the Thames or Piako lowlands.
Before Te Aroha was developed, the local Maori people valued the use of the springs for bathing. When he visited the area, Sir George Grey was led to the springs in 1849.
The original bath was made in the early 1880's after gold was discovered in the adjacent Waiorongomai Valley in 1881 and after the Hot Springs Hotel was built in 1882. (This first bath was a zinc-lined packing case sunk into the depression of a spring.) Gold was responsible for the immediate introduction of a coach service, which in turn helped develop a settlement that became a town district in 1887 and a borough in 1898. The arrival of the railway had a great deal to do with this expansion. For the first time in New Zealand it was easy for travellers to get to a hot springs area. After March 1886 visitors could travel by train from the centre of Auckland to within a few hundred metres of hot springs.
Before the railway reached Te Aroha work had begun on the springs area. A reserve of eight ha. had been gazetted in December 1882 and the construction of bathhouses began the following year. A 1884 Government vote of £200 meant that a woman's bathhouse could be completed so that when the Te Aroha Hot Springs Domain Board was formed that same year there were three bathhouses on the reserve. Fencing and tree planting began, and J A Pond analyzed the water of three springs in February 1885. All contained a considerable proportion of sodium bicarbonate. There were seven bath houses at Te Aroha by 1886 which each had various functions.
From 1885 Te Aroha was advertised in newspaper articles and tourist literature and this quickly brought an increase in the number of visitors. Travellers could reach Te Aroha directly by rail, whereas Rotorua was a 64 Km coach journey from Tirau, and the difference showed up in the number of baths taken at each spa. From January to May 1886 18,686 baths were taken at Te Aroha, but Rotorua's total was only 5314 for the nine months from October 1885 to June 1886. Even before the railway, however, Te Aroha was ahead. Not only was it much closer to Auckland but the journey could be made by boat; the small vessel "Kotuku" steamed up the Waihou River from Thames. It was much more comfortable than travelling the coach roads to Rotorua. Many visiting the spa travelled on the steamships "Rotomahana" and "Enterprise", through the sheltered waters of the Hauraki Gulf from Auckland. The river steamers from Thames berthed at Turua, Hikutaia and Paeroa, on their way up the Waihou to Te Aroha.
Several comfortable hotels were build at Te Aroha during the 1880s. The Club hotel (later known as the Grand), opposite the Domain, was famous for its long (19 x 3 m) balcony which gave an extensive view of the scarp wall of the Kaimai - Cape Colville Range. The dances or concerts held on the balcony on summer evenings came the closest to recreating in New Zealand a European spa atmosphere. From the hotel's rear balcony guests could see the distant smoke of trains from Auckland. When not puffing on their cigars gentlemen would often be downstairs in the billiard room while the women were frequently found upstairs in one of three sitting rooms containing "a first class piano".
The Hot Springs Hotel, too, had a "splendid piano" and those gathered on its first floor verandah could watch the small steamers plying the Waihou. The Palace Hotel was noted for its prize billiard room table, and even the Waverley Private Hotel boasted something never found in modern hotels - a reading room. Outside these establishments there were various attractions for visitors, including walks along the river, through the Domain (containing the springs and baths) and above it, to the Spur, with a view over the immediate countryside. For the more energetic the top of Mt Te Aroha was a challenge; from the summit climbers could see from the sea to the Waikato and from Auckland to Ruapehu.
Another walk took tourists to the gold workings in the Waiorongomai Valley, while picnics and gypsy parties were held in the ravines of the scarp slope running north and south of the town. Buggies and brakes took groups to Lake Waikare and the most adventurous walked over the divide to Katikati. For the more sedentary the public library was open 10am to 9pm and stocked the leading Home and colonial newspapers and periodicals, while the pubic hall was the venue for Soirées, theatrical performances and concerts. Te Aroha in 1887 outshone Rotorua as a social centre.
It was important that the spa be developed as rapidly as possible. As Rotorua became better known it affected the number of bathers at Te Aroha, although the latter stayed ahead into the 1890s. It wasn't until the railway reached Rotorua at the end of 1894 that the Volcanic Plateau centre began to draw ahead. Only after 1902, however, with extensive advertising by the new Department of Tourist and Health Resorts, did Rotorua's revenue exceed Te Aroha's.
Because of the limited finances of the Domain Board, the rate of development slowed down, but one of the two 1894 improvements was an important element of a successful spa. A tiny ticket office was replaced by a library, reading room and a waiting room. The other improvement was not a success. Without an engineer to oversee operations the base of the new concrete swimming bath cracked so it had very limited use. Some of the other structures built by the Domain Board were criticised for their simplicity.
The largest single development of Te Aroha was carried out in 1897 and 1898. The bath house constructed during these years was probably the most attractive in the country until the Blue Baths were opened in Rotorua in 1933. Named after the Member for Ohinemuri, Mines and Railway Minister A J Cadman, the new Te Aroha building was sited on a terrace above the entrance to the Domain. With 19 tiled private bathrooms containing porcelain baths, the Cadman Baths, opened in May 1898. provided an attractive atmosphere for 60 years. Without the problem of acidic waters, the building cost a small fraction of the upkeep of the Rotorua bathhouse and was vastly more appealing than any bathhouse there until 1908 when the main Rotorua bath building was opened.
The Lands Department, as overseer for the Domain Board, thought that Te Aroha did and should provide for "people in good circumstances and precisely the class of people who ought to be attracted and encouraged to come". Wealthy tourists made a spa a financial success. The Cadman Baths meant an increase in bath fees for Te Aroha, from £769 in 1894 to £954 in 1899.
The Department of Tourist and Health Resorts took over the control in September 1901, and the Domain Board ceased to exist at the beginning of 1903.
The Domain at Te Aroha was made more attractive, in the same way as Rotorua's Government Gardens. Tennis courts, bowling and croquet greens were provided, the Brass Band played in the rotunda and Chinese lanterns lit the walks on summer evenings. Te Aroha retained some advantages over Rotorua. There was a library at the Domain and hill walks up to the bush-covered spurs of the mountain.
Although a smaller establishment, Te Aroha was allocated the same sized tea house as Rotorua and Hanmer. The building closed in 1923, the same year which saw the demise of the No. 3 bathhouse. This had been the massage building since 1905, but had become "absolutely untenable because of the dilapidation due to the borer". Massage rooms were then built onto the rear of the Cadman Baths.
Te Aroha's great problem was lack of water. Not only was the hot water supply limited but there was also insufficient cold water. Apart from the fact that the cold swimming bath leaked many thousands of litres a week, and that hardly anyone wanted to swim in it, it sometimes could not be filled in the summer because of town water requirements. In 1924 someone suggested that the cold bath could be heated by water from the newly discovered spring. It was found, however, that it would take a fortnight to fill the bath and then it would be stone cold.
There were 22 springs in the Domain area, 15 of which were hot, but some of them were extremely small. As early as 1898 a unique method was used to try and supplement the natural supply. Instead of boring, a horizontal tunnel was driven 45 m into a spur and two new springs were caught.
Two of the most useful springs to Te Aroha were Numbers 8 and 15, the ones which provided water for bottling. The original lease with the Te Aroha Soda and Mineral Water Company, which sold bottles of mineral water, from a shilling a time, at its Grand Hotel in Rotorua. When Rotorua's bathhouse opened the water was sold, at a penny a cup, from a cubicle in the foyer.
Hancock's bottles were advertised as the "autocrat of the dinner table", and a well-known advertisement from the 1904-24 period read "Don't forget your Te Aroha". For many years Innes and Co. was a rival firm, bottling Wai Te Aroha and Lemon and Te Aroha. A third firm offered other rivals to Lemon and Paeroa, and finally, during the Second world War, a fourth firm, C. A. Clarke of Rotorua, entered the market with Te Aroha water mixed with other flavourings.
The bathing waters had a more problematic history. After repeated entreaties for a warm swimming pool, the Government rebuilt a 1897 open bath which had never been used because it leaked. The old pool was covered by a building similar in style to the small bathhouses. Because of the popularity of the mixed bathing available at nearby Matamata it was decided to have costumed mixed bathing at the Te Aroha pool, which was opened in November 1928. To make sufficient water available, the No. 6 and the No. 4 bathhouses were closed. The latter was demolished in 1931; the No. 6 survived until 1936 as a reserve when the swimming bath had to be repaired.
The attempt to provide more water continued for 20 years from 1936, when the first bore was sunk in this geothermal field. As well as increasing the flow, the bore provided a tourist attraction in the artificial Mokena Geyser. A second bore failed to produce enough water for a full sized swimming bath and the search was abandoned after a DSIR investigation in 1956.
The Cadman Baths were closed in 1961 and the seldom used 1894 cold swimming bath was filled in. The Hot Springs Hotel closed the same year, so 1961 was, to a great extent, the end of the Te Aroha Spa. The Government gave up control of the area in 1978 and the Domain is now administered by the local authority.