There were wild pigs aplenty up the top of the Shag Valley, but it was the mud that gave Otago’s SH85 the nickname by which it is known today: The Pigroot. HUGH DE LACY REPORTS.
A COUPLE OF OLD MATES, an American and an Irishman, walked into a bank in Dunedin in August 1862, slapped an 87-pound (39.5kg) bag on the counter, and said it was gold they’d panned from the Clutha River.
So it was, and had someone produced such a hoard in this day and age it would be worth well over US$1.5 million, even at the current middling global price of around US$1200/ounce (NZ$1600/oz).
The American was the grandly named Horatio Hartley and his mate was the Dublin-born – perhaps Trinity College-educated – Christopher Reilly, and they were veterans of the California and Victorian rushes alerted to Otago’s possibilities by Gabriel Read’s discovery of gold in the Tuapeka River in May of the previous year.
Read went on to become synonymous with the Otago gold boom of the 1860s, while Hartley and Reilly faded into a lesser role in the region’s history. But what their discovery led to was a new 220 kilometre road into the Otago goldfields.
It was one of three such routes, and it headed west up the Shag Valley from Palmerston, over The Pigroot pass onto the Maniototo Plain, then cutting across the plain and down the Manuherikia Valley to Alexandra.
As such it more or less replaced the trail to Tuapeka blazed by Read up the Clutha River, and a third that had taken a supposedly easier route up the Taieri Valley and over the Rock and Pillar Range.
Quickly tiring of Gabriel’s Gully after reaching it by way of the Old Dunstan Road up the Taieri, Hartley and Reilly headed north looking for a new goldfield that might win them the $4000 government reward for a new field to rival Read’s.
Not only did that winter intensify the freezing misery of the miners desperately trying to rush Gabriel’s Gully by way of Middlemarch and the Old Dunstan Road, but the ice build-up in the Southern Alps greatly lowered the level of the Clutha River, temporarily exposing the beach on which Hartley and Reilly were to pan their bonanza.
The site of their discovery, just south of Cromwell and the junction of the Clutha and Kawerau Rivers, is today marked by a memorial.
Hartley and Reilly returned to civilisation by way of the Shag Valley trail which had originally been blazed in 1855 by three sheep farmers, Peter Napier, Walter Pearson and James Saunders.
Two years later two other would-be farmers, brothers William and James Murison, pushed a bullock track through to the Maniototo Plain with funding from Waikouaiti whaler, farmer and merchant Johnny Jones, and the physical help of Jones’ own bullock-driver A Petrie and employee Sam Ogilvie.
The Murisons stayed on to pioneer sheep farming on the plain, and in that year the first regular horse-borne mail started to get through The Pigroot.
The land along the way was already being taken up by sheep-runs, and the high, cold, treeless “Plain of Blood”, as the Maori called the Maniototo after an ancient battle there with northern invaders, was becoming a farming destination in its own right.
Initially Hartley and Reilly’s claim on the government reward was turned down because the government had shifted the goalposts: it now required the new field to yield 16,000 ounces of gold in three months before the prize would be paid out.
In fact, no less than 70,000 ounces was carted out to Dunedin over the last four months of that year by the gold escort alone, with individual miners bringing thousands more out on their backs.
After Hartley and Reilly’s discovery, the track became the main supply route to the Otago diggings, with the pass at the head of the Shag Valley quickly earning the name The Pigroot, because the bullock-drawn supply wagons churned up the countryside so much that it looked like wild pigs had been rooting it up.
The name stuck like mud to the entire road, even though the Palmerston-based Waihemo County Council grumbled for the next 75 years that it sounded ugly, and would have preferred it be called Ohinemaru, the Maori name for the main saddle.
Within a year of Hartley and Reilly’s discovery the goldfields population reached 24,000, but it took weeks for wagon trains to reach the goldfields by way of The Pigroot, with the journey made harder by the absence of timber for cooking on the tussock-covered hills.
Instead, for heating the wagoneers had to resort to burning dried ox-dung, called buffalo chips, and flax flower heads that they called kaladdies.
In the wake of the alluvial goldminers came the quartz miners with their vast inventories of ever-heavier drilling and extraction machinery, but the road continued to be a quagmire in places because the mud was so deep it took endless applications of metal to stabilise.
In wet weather the wagoneers sometimes had to hook up two or three teams of 10 or a dozen bullocks each – double-banking or treble-banking they called it – to get a single wagon and its four-tonne load over the pass.
The strain on draught animals was reflected in the names given to the most difficult parts of the route: The Black Pinch for the first hill up the Shag Valley, and Dead Horse Pinch a little further along where more than one animal had expired in the effort to traverse it, and its carcase heaved over the nearest bank.
After Waihemo County was formed in 1883, efforts to improve the road by metalling redoubled, making things easier not only for the wagoneers, but for Cobb and Co which ran a twice-weekly service out of Palmerston and Ranfurly, meeting and exchanging passengers at The Pigroot Hotel.
The county employed about 10 fulltime surfacemen, as they were called, working to keep the roads open, for which they used stone-breaking hammers called knappers and spallers, as well as wheelbarrows and shovels, and by 1890 they were being paid 60 cents an hour for it.
With the county too came better regulation of the traffic itself, heavy bullock wagons being required to have steel tyres at least six inches (10cm) wide to minimise rutting and pugging.
By 1885 nearly the whole of the road had been metalled, though the stretch from the Shag River to The Pigroot Hotel was still causing problems, and most of the multiple crossings of the Shag River – seven in the approaches to the Waihemo Hotel alone, for example – had been bridged.
After the gold rushes ended, traffic along The Pigroot settled down to a steady traffic of supplies going up to the inland townships and sheep-runs, and gold from the quartz mines, grain and livestock coming back down.
The road continued to be steadily improved, and during the Great Depression of the early 1930s, there was an unemployed men’s camp at The Pigroot that provided labour for the road and for local runholders.
Waihemo County’s patronage of the eastern parts of The Pigroot came to an end in 1948 when the road was proclaimed a state highway and transferred to the Main Highways Board, replaced in 1954 by the National Roads Board.
The economic expansion that followed World War Two, and reached its peak in the 1952 Korean War wool boom, saw a flood of road-upgrade funds applied to The Pigroot, as well as to the wider state roading network.
Today the road that once sucked in wagons to their axles is a handsome sealed highway, still carrying out the gold from the likes of Oceana Gold’s Macraes mines a wee way down SH87 from the junction at Kyeburn, and the few mines still operating in inland Otago.
But where Hartley and Reilly first staggered along under their huge load of yellow metal, now tourists cruise through to the winter playgrounds of Alexandra and Queenstown, and fruit, wool and livestock pour out through Palmerston to the export markets of the world.