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Heritage Hub: Skinner Road
Tuapeka Mouth,
Otago, NEW ZEALAND

Tuapeka Ferry: Ferry Road
Tuapeka Mouth,
Otago, NEW ZEALAND

BUILDING THE HIGHWAY

Constructing the Balclutha – Tuapeka Mouth Highway

Some notes compiled by W J Cowan, July 2018

 

For about three decades Tuapeka Mouth and the surrounding district fought long

and hard for a railway to serve the area. The story of this protracted battle needs

to be told some day as it is closely related to the construction of the above

highway.

During a visit to the area by the Hon. J G Coates, Minister of Public Works, (photo above) and

entourage in February 1924 for the purpose of viewing the country, which could

be served by a railway up the Clutha Valley, the alternative of a suitable road was

raised by the Minister. At a well-attended meeting at Tuapeka Mouth Mr Coates

asked the settlers if they would be satisfied with ‘a good road for motors’. He was

far from optimistic that a Tuapeka Mouth railway would earn its keep. The

Minister explained that it cost 13s 4d per mile to run a train and if the return

amounted to only 4s per mile this was far from satisfactory economics.

According to the Minister such was the loss on some branch lines that services

were sometimes reduced to the degree that they were unsatisfactory to their

customers. The costs of construction was another factor to be considered: a

railway would cost £15 000 a mile and a first class road £5 000 a mile.

Furthermore, a road could be built in about one-third of a time.

Before we move on it might be worthwhile to survey the delivery of services

provided to Tuapeka Mouth over the years until the 1920s. Medical services,

mail and provisions originated from Lawrence via a steep, sixteen mile road

through Tuapeka Flat and Tuapeka West. Balclutha was 22 miles away via a

reasonably flat road except for the climb up to Hillend. (It seems that a bridle

track was the only access via the cliffs beyond Moores Flat; the route of the new

highway). There was an irregular shipping service to Tuapeka Mouth by river

steamer but this was mainly for the transport of farm produce, fertiliser and

farming supplies.

District sentiment must have moved in significantly behind the Minister’s

suggestion that they should think in terms of an improved road via the cliffs

rather than an underused railway. A year later in February 1925, the Minister, on

another ‘swing’ through the district, re-affirmed his promise of constructing a

good road between Tuapeka Mouth and Balclutha to cost about £30 000. (At the

time there was agitation from settlers on the west bank of the Clutha for a new

direct road from Clydevale to Balclutha but this didn’t proceed).

Authorisation for the new highway must have been approved during 1925. A

progress report from the District Engineer to his superior in Wellington during

May 1926 provides some details of the new road which, for much of its route,

would have followed existing roads except for a new route at the base of the cliffs

near Manuka Island and across the Barnego Flats.. A survey had been completed

to the bridge over the Tuapeka Stream at Tuapeka Mouth, a distance of 21 miles

20 chains. The timber for 200 tent frames had been ordered and 50 erected. All
the workers at present employed were lodging in and around Balclutha. Sixty

three labourers and eight carpenters were being employed. Fifty additional

married men were to be added shortly. By the end of May it was anticipated that

180 men would be employed. A coal store, smithy and main store were in

process of erection. A quarry had been opened-up at 2 mile 65 chains.

In September 1926 it was estimated that the project would take two years

though it would be less if extra unemployed men were taken on. The road was

actually completed about April 1928 with Bruce County taking over maintenance

of the road, officially Highway No. 151, from October the following year. (It is

assumed that Tuapeka County took over maintenance of the stretch from the

County boundary at the Crookburn to the Tuapeka Mouth bridge).

 

It is of some interest to note the various items of plant used in the 1920s.

Obviously with upwards of 200 people employed there was much manual labour

involved in the highway’s construction. In 1926 use of a Dennis truck was

mentioned. But a major item was the siting and use of the Sauerman Bros

dragline excavator at the six mile peg on Moores Flat.

This thirteen tons excavator belonged to the P.W.D. and was brought south from

Tauranga in June 1927. Its operator, H T Johnson, also came south being paid

wages of 2/2 an hour. (In the Plant file relating to this project and held by

National Archives in Dunedin there are twelve pages of instructions relating to

the erection of this steam-powered machine). In November Captain Tsukigawa of

Clutha River steamer fame drove the excavator piles further into the bed of the

Clutha using a 30 cwt. ‘monkey’. When it had completed its work of hauling

gravel out of the Clutha the Sauerman dragline was dismantled in September

1928 and despatched to the Waitaki Valley where it was used in the construction

of the first Waitaki Valley Hydro Scheme.

 

Other machinery in used during this time included Wallis and Stevens and

Marshall steam road rollers. In early 1927 a Garrett traction engine was brought

south from the Arapuni hydro scheme. There is also mention of a Wehr grader.

(According to Google the Wehr grader was a light, one man machine made in

Milwaukee, U.S.A. and powered by a Fordson tractor engine).

A progress report in June 1927 listed the following major items of plant:

Collett crusher

Garratt steam tractor

Ford Grader (Wehr?)

3x Dennis lorries

Wallis and Stevens road roller

Marshall “ “

Chev car

Ford car

These service buildings had been erected:

Store

Office

 

Magazine

Coal shed

Oil store

Overseer’s office

The following estimates of costs for widening and regrading the road were:

Buildings and Accommodation: £2 765

Formation: 8 125

Crushing and Metalling: 2 725

Gravelling: 13 993

Contingencies, Supervision & Surveys

10% 2 811

Interest and Depreciation on plant;

assume 8% for 12 months on £10 000

800

___________________

£31 219

 

By this time most of the heavy realignment work had been done with the

exception of work at Burns Creek, 8m 20ch, a large gully, 11m 60ch and the

Waitahuna River gully, 12m 30ch. Regrading had been completed to 7m 20ch.

Metalling had been completed on various stretches nearer Balclutha. Gravelling

was also completed on some of these early stretches. Gravel was being sourced

from the town side of the traffic bridge and at 6m 40ch where the Clutha had

deposited some first class gravel. (The steam dragline was located at this spot).

This highway project, which extended over about two years, not only provided a

first class road to Balclutha but also created much-needed employment at a

period when jobs were scarce. Behind the scenes, however, the situation was not

so rosy. There was some acrimonious correspondence between the P.W.D. H.Q in

Wellington and the local office over how the project was being managed and

expenditure being controlled.

An early matter of contention was the number of people to be employed. The

Main Highways Board, through the P.W.D., intended the project to extend over at

least two years and did not regard it as a high priority. It was only given some

urgency when work was needed for Dunedin and Invercargill unemployed. Even

then it was envisaged that the work force would not exceed 100. Yet in a return

to H.Q. it was stated that 109 ordinary and 78 relief workers were employed on

this work. There was also a dispute over rates of pay being offered.

The situation didn’t improve. A strongly worded letter from the P.W.D. H.Q in

August 1927 to the District Engineer made it clear that there was considerable

concern over the project’s management particularly with cost over-runs. At this

point it appeared that the project would cost in the region of £66 000 – 67 000,

more than double the original estimate.

 

Instead of creating a road to a suitable standard the final result was a finished

road that ’is to railway standard of grade and alignment’. One sentence in this

letter said it all: ‘The costs that you give are staggering and indicate expenditure

uncontrolled either as to standard or supervision or costs’.

It would be interesting to learn if any heads rolled as a result of this gross over

expenditure and mis-management. The Main Highways Board, the P.W.D. and the

Minister responsible would have all been acutely embarrassed by the over

expenditure. What is known is that one of the P.W.D. engineers associated with

the project left the Department in 1928. There is a certain irony in that Tuapeka

Mouth finally received their railway formation but that it was in the form of a

super highway!