A 75-metre section of what is believed to be part of Northland’s oldest road, along with the remains of an old river landing, were recently ‘rediscovered’ under dense and overgrown native bush by a team from Heritage NZ who were involved in an archaeology project. By Richard Silcock.
The road is believed to date back to early 1842 and was built by Gilbert Mair, an early Scottish settler who had immigrated to New Zealand in 1824 after a short stay in Sydney. It is known Mair, who had moved from running a successful trading station in the Bay of Islands, acquired a large block of land containing significant stands of kauri alongside the Hatea River, 100 metres upstream from the fledgling settlement of Whangarei. To house his wife and growing family of 12, he built a large house (named Deveron, after the family home back in Scotland) on the property along with a timber mill on the western bank of the navigable reaches of the tidal river.
Showing entrepreneurial flair he constructed a rock landing (now known as Mair’s Landing) on the river bank for the purpose of loading and unloading building materials, food and trading materials (kauri gum, flax, kumara and sawn logs) which were transported by scow to and from the wharf at Whangarei for ongoing shipment to Australia and the UK.
The landing was built using large, locally sourced volcanic rocks which were placed and stacked-up in layers from the bed of the river and mortared together. Stone steps were also built and the remnants of these can be seen to descend from the river bank down to the landing and the river.
To enable easier access to the property for his family and horse drawn dray he and his older sons then went on to construct a 100-metre ‘coach’ road from the river landing to the house and mill.
The road was formed by clearing bush and excavating earth using pick and shovel and then laying crushed cockle shells and cobblestones to form a rough ‘pavement’. The road was bordered on both sides by a low volcanic rock wall, parts of which can still be seen today under the overgrowing vegetation.
Early survey maps from around the 1860s and 1870s show both the landing and the road (part of which is now named Mill Road) clearly marked, indicating that both had become part of Whangarei’s early established transportation infrastructure.
The road and the landing are, according to Heritage New Zealand, an integral part of early European history in the north and are probably one of the earliest most significant European structures in the area.
Further evidence of the early days of settlement at Whangarei can still be found throughout the city today, as a lot of land was vested to local government ownership. This includes a number of large reserves, one of which is named after Gilbert’s eldest son, Robert Mair, who gifted the family land to the people of Whangarei in 1914 and is now known as Mair Park.