Heritage NZ

A concise history of Kiwi roading

Richard Silcock explores the development and construction of the country’s first roads.

WHEN THE FIRST Europeans settled in New Zealand their attention was largely given to creating towns, with harbours and ports to service them.

Apart from the dirt roads in towns, travel to inland areas was mainly via horse drawn wagon along beaches, or via canoe or paddle steamer up rivers such as the Waikato and Wanganui, or via tracks originated by Maori.

Railways were given precedence in the mid-1800s over roads as they were seen as the most cost-effective way of ‘opening up’ the country and providing links between towns.

As ‘roads’ were slowly established, most were nothing more than widened bridle tracks and after heavy rain were subject to turning into muddy, rutted quagmires making travel extremely difficult. As time progressed, crushed stones and shells were spread as a top layer which helped to minimise wagons and carriages getting bogged down.

The Riwaka to Takaka road, which still follows the course of the one completed in 1900, still takes a good hour to drive over the winding and precipitous route.

By the later part of the 1800s more roads were being constructed around New Zealand particularly near blossoming towns and ports and in Otago following the discovery of gold. While some rudimentary stone roads were laid on private land, most road building was directly related to the prosperity of the district, as initially there was no central control. Otago was one of the first regions to see the creation of paved macadam style roads, with the Dunedin to Queenstown road being one of the first built.

The Great South Road in Auckland (then the capital) was constructed for the ‘rapid’ transportation of troops to the Waikato region to face the hostilities during the Waikato Land Wars, while in the Wellington area, roads that could cater for horse or bullock drawn wagons began to be built with the Paekakariki and the Rimutaka ‘tracks’ being built for the purpose of opening up new areas of land for farming.

However, it still took a bullock drawn and fully laden wagon a week to travel between Wellington and Greytown in the Wairarapa, a trip that today takes just an hour by car.

Julius Vogel is regarded as one of the first prime movers for getting roads built here, and during his time as colonial treasurer he was instrumental in setting up the Public Works Department (PWD), to administer the construction of roads, railways and other infrastructure on a national level.

Despite financial setbacks and poor administration, most roads were constructed using hard labour, barrows, pick and shovel, and in some cases explosives to loosen hillsides.

A lot of the work was done by contractors who employed unskilled foreign and local labour on low hourly rates.

However, as there was a shortage of qualified and experienced engineers and due to the rugged topography of the country, progress was extremely slow. There were also numerous cases where cavalier contractors often made huge profits at the expense of the subcontractors, suppliers and workmen who were often left unpaid.

The Featherston County Council purchased this tar-sealing machine in 1929 for sealing roads in the district. The first trial strip was laid on what is now known as SH53. Photo courtesy of Brian Baxter, Cobblestones Museum, Greytown

Some ‘entrepreneurial’ road builders invented equipment to assist in road construction. One such piece of equipment was the road scoop. Harnessed to bullocks or draft horses (and later steam-driven machines), road scoops were used like an excavator is today for earthworks and the formation of road alignments.

Scoops were also used to load crushed river stones onto bullock drawn wagons which would transport the load to a construction site. The scoop would remove the top layers of earth along an alignment and then place the metal to form the road.

When Richard Seddon became Minister of Public Works in 1891 he transformed the PWD from an administrative, planning and advisory body to what was to become the country’s largest construction agency with hundreds of workmen employed, resulting in roadbuilding being accelerated, rates of pay guaranteed and construction standards lifted.

Tar did not come into use in New Zealand until the late 1890s and early 1900s, but as road building methods improved it was used in conjunction with crushed stones, much the same way as bitumen and chip is today.

Rudimentary tar-sealing machines were ‘invented’ locally to spread the tar and there were a number of cases where the hot tar would often catch fire sending operators scurrying for safety.

Hand-in-hand with early road-building improvements came improvements in forms of travel, with carriages fitted with better springs and larger, wider wheels to give a smoother ride for passengers. Iron hoops were fitted around wooden wheels, like a tyre, to minimise wear and provide a better ‘connection’ with the road.

Cast iron ring plates, also known as hooping plates, were used by wheelwrights to shape the circular hoops, which were made slightly smaller than the circumference of the carriage/wagon wheel. To fit it, the wheelwright would first heat the hoop in a furnace to expand it before placing it around the wheel. It would then be doused with cold water to cool it, causing the ‘tyre’ to shrink and create a tight fit around the wheel, a process known as ‘shrink fitting’.

With the introduction of the motorcar to New Zealand in 1910-1920, roads were gradually improved. Whereas roads had been constructed to cater for bullock and horse-drawn traffic and generally followed the land contour, cars and trucks required wider, better surfaced roads.

Men at work on the Homer Tunnel, Southland.  www.IPENZ.org.nz

While many roads remained unsealed and prone to becoming muddy, resulting in cars becoming stuck, some regions were more inclined than others to seal ‘their’ roads. Taranaki was one of the first provinces to adopt a tar/bitumen sealing policy throughout the region, largely paid for by user tolls.

The government also took over the responsibility for the construction and maintenance of all main roads, with the introduction of a Main Highways Board, the prime responsibility of which was the allocation of funding. A ‘highway’ from Auckland to Wellington was completed around this time, which, with the exception of the Central Plateau and some other areas, was laid entirely with a bituminous pavement.

At the time of the 1930s Depression unemployed men were put to work to assist in the building of roads around the country. Conditions were tough with temporary work camps set up often in very remote places with very little other than basic food supplies and primitive accommodation facilities.

Some extraordinary feats of engineering and back-breaking labouring took place during this time with perhaps the most significant being the creation of the road through the Haast Pass to the West Coast and from Te Anau to Milford Sound, which included the construction of the Homer Tunnel.

As the economy improved so did the level of road making machinery, and in 1935 the PWD designed and built its own graders rather than import them from the US. This introduction of machinery such as the steam-driven excavator mounted on caterpillar tracks caused a dramatic reduction in the time taken to complete a project and in the cost.

With the outbreak of WW2, most road building was curtailed with work diverted to the building of military aerodromes both in NZ and several Pacific Islands. It wasn’t until 1943 during Bob Semple’s term as minister and the formation of the Ministry of Works (MoW) that planning took place on the future infrastructure needs of the country post war.

A Bill was passed in Parliament for the Ministry to “establish control for the execution of all major construction works”, under Commissioner of Works, Sir James Fletcher.

With a change of government in 1949 and the need for the urgent maintenance of roads that had been neglected during the war years, these controls were relaxed and local authorities were given once again responsibility for their local roads.

Opportunities again developed for private enterprise and the emergence of fledgling civil contracting companies. By the 50s and 60s, many of these contracting firms were obtaining work from MoW often for considerably large projects.

The allocation of the Ministry’s road funding increased from 14 percent to 21.5 percent of its budget and a roads division was set up. Some significant sections of road were built during this time and the 60s saw the completion of the original Southern Motorway and construction of the Newmarket Viaduct in Auckland (1965) and the Wellington Motorway (1969).

This evolution of roads has continued throughout the country since the 1970s with all main highways and most roads sealed, and four lane motorways and expressways being built to meet the demand of increasing traffic and associated safety.

The MoW was sold or dissolved in 1988 with private enterprise stepping in to design and construct roads, and the government, through its transport arm Transit (now NZTA) administering planning, development and funding.

Great South Road, nine metres wide, was pushed out to the Mangatawhiri River where a 100 square metre camp initially for 500 men, but later greatly expanded, was built of 100,000 linear feet (30,500 metres) of sawn timber and called the Queen’s Redoubt. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
This article first appeared in Contractor August 2017.

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