Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 55, September 2011
(By Graham Watton)
When several enthusiastic owners of historic boats decided to centre their activities on the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers near Paeroa in the mid-1970s they chose a site steeped in the history of the district.
In 1977 the owners of these vessels which were built up to 80-90 years previously and gave service around the coastal and inland waterways of the northern New Zealand, settled on the site of the old Te Puke Wharf as their headquarters. This was the focal point of the shipping industry from the early days of the district, when the only access to Paeroa and Ohinemuri goldfields was by water, that was until 1895 when the railway connected the district to the North Island Main Trunk Line at Hamilton.
The site chosen was also the site of the Public Works Department's (later renamed Ministry of Works) depot for the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers Improvement Scheme. This scheme was put in place by the 1910 Royal Commission of Inquiry to combat the continual devastating flooding of Paeroa and the surrounding farmland, including Netherton, Komata and Hikutaia.
The scheme was in response to the mining companies depositing many millions of tons of debris and tailings into the Ohinemuri River, from 1895 when the Government of the day passed legislation permitting the practice by creating the rivers sludge channels.
The two sheds, which stand within the park today close to the Ngahina Bridge (commonly known Puke Bridge) over the Waihou River, were erected by the Public Works Department in 1912-13 as its depot to undertake the scheme's stopbanking, dredging and widening the river channels.
The first suction dredge used in the river work was fabricated in Dunedin and shipped to the Puke depot, where it was assembled and launched in February, 1915. This steam-driven steel dredge was some 17m long, 9.14m wide with a draft of 900cm. In 1923 another smaller electrically-driven dredge was built by the same method at this location.
The dredges sucked the spoil from the bed of the rivers, pumped it onto the banks to form the stopbanks and these were then covered by a veneer a clay soil, taken from the Perenika Bend [Pereniki - E].
By 1913, owing to the build-up of the river bed, the Puke Wharf became unusable by the river boat traffic and a new wharf was built below the Ngahina Bridge on the Waihou River about 1911.
Alan Brimblecombe, who owned the historic "Settler", is credited as the first mover of the Historic Maritime Park on the "dead-end", part of the Waihou River which resulted from two channels being cut to straighten out the river's meandering in 1913-14." He was joined by another four owners and they, with help from several enthusiastic local residents, set about developing the area from the two sheds to the old Puke Wharf site.
The old sheds, which were by now in a bad state of repair, were patched up, and turned into workshops, while the adjacent slipway was made operational.
One of the most notable vessels on the river for some 40 years, the "ps Kopu", had sank in 1936 in the dead-end, near the old Puke Wharf. She not only carried cargo and passengers but also towed heavily loaded barges up and down the river to Thames and Auckland. Lying in about 4-5m of water and mud there had been an attempt to salvage the 18m long vessel shortly after it sank—vandals are credited with opening the sea-cocks—but it resisted the hauling power of a large bullock team.
It became the long-term objective of the park founders to raise the "Kopu", and restore her to her former glory. At the time an inspection revealed the vessel to be largely intact and was in reasonable condition. The only part of the vessel above water was the funnel.
By 1979 the Park had a membership of around 200, and was collecting an increasing amount of memorabilia from the early river boat days. A "home" was urgently needed.
Some years previously the Ministry of Works had moved from its Paeroa office building on the corner of Waihi Road and Johnson Street (where the L and P Bottle is today) into offices on the first floor of the new Government department building, around 1970, on the corner of Belmont Road and William Street and the works depot was moved to Grey Street.
The old office building, itself, had a very long and interesting history. It was built as the post office and postmaster's resident to serve the Waitekauri goldfields around 1880. When gold mines in the area closed and the population drifted away, the post office became vacant. It was moved in 1917, to Paeroa to become the administration centre of the Public Works Department for the 40-odd years.
Negotiations were commenced between the Park Board, the Ministry of Works and the Hauraki Catchment Board and as a result the building was donated to the Board. It was moved onto its present site to become the headquarters for the Park and was officially opened on June 28, 1980. Immediately the building gave the board storage and display space for the many small vintage engines, items of historical interest from the many river boats and other nautical objects, including photographs.
Over the next few years the park was the recipient of many items of interest, including some large old ferry steam engines and traction engines. The first Paeroa jail was recovered from a site in the Maratoto Valley, the Ngatea wharf shed was relocated to the park, while the original Public Works Department sheds were given a face lift.
In the mid-1980s a group of members decided it was time to raise the "ps Kopu". A coffer-dam was built into the nearest bank, and at low tide airtight drums were fitted to the vessel. As the tide rose so did the Kopu from her watery resting place for the last 50 years and she was floated some 50m to the new site.
However, that was all that was done, apart from an open car-port type roof building. The "Kopu" has now been exposed to the climatic elements for the past 25 years or so and, with no protection, has badly deteriorated. A scale model of the "Kopu" is now being made and will be presented to the park's museum to preserve the history of river transport.
Up until two years ago the Park struggled to attract volunteers to ensure the upkeep of both buildings and exhibits. It was left to a very few very dedicated people, who, while doing a great job, were not able to stay on top of the increasing work load.
Two years ago Paeroa businessman, Colin James took over as chairman of the park's board of directors, and with his wife Gloria, injected new life into the park. Gathering a group of willing volunteers around themselves, they set about tidying up the area, including having several old rusting hulks removed from the wharf area.
The museum building's roof has been replaced, and it has been painted inside and out. The unique collection of maritime historical artefacts and records have been cleaned and re-displayed. This collection is considered to be of great importance, both locally and nationally.
With Mr James' own paddle boat, the ps "Tamati", which is steeped in West Coast history from the early 1900s, available for charter trips on the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers, the park has taken on a new lease of life. The "Tamiti" has been joined by, the "Ariana", owned by Mr Peter van der Sloot, and is also available for charter work. There has been an increasing demand from various organisations and groups, both local and from further afield, for cruises on the rivers.
There are also owners of other historic boats interested in coming to the park for a stopover. Last April four such boats sailed up the Waihou River and spent four days before making their return trip to Auckland. These were the "Roanaki" (1914), "Sierra" (1917), "Lady Adelaide" (1925) and "Silen Z-37" (1912).
Now that the grounds have been cleared, there is a large mown area with shade trees and barbeque facilities, the park is very suitable for outdoor activities such as picnics, birthday parties and weddings. Last Christmas, several vocal groups and choirs, including the local Ohinemuri Singers, performed carols by candle light in the grounds for a large appreciative audience.
Over the next 12 months the board of directors plan three major projects. The first is to re-roof the two sheds to enable these buildings to become "working" workshops and tidy around them to make an attractive entrance for motorists and tourists coming into Paeroa. The second is to re-build the wharves so other historical vessels and boats can tie-up in the park and the third project is to repair the slipway to able boats to be removed from the water for repairs and refurbishing.
All three projects are seen to be essential to generate income so further upgrading work can be carried out.
The Historic Maritime Park has recently received excellent support from Paeroa district and Thames Valley businesses and communities. Extra volunteers are needed, especially those with mechanical, building or handyman experience.