Town Bridge

The Wanganui Town Bridge Cog

This is one of the larger items in the Museum’s collection – a large cog which was attached to the first Wanganui Town Bridge. Measuring 110 cm across the base and 180 cm high, it is part of the turning mechanism that allowed a section of the bridge to swing open and let ships through.

1. Wanganui Town Bridge cog

The cast iron cog – part of the turning mechanism for the Whanganui Town Bridge. WRM Ref: TH.1252.

A swing span was a common feature of early bridges in New Zealand when shipping was still the best form of transportation of goods and people. Once the span opened, the ships would sail up to the sheltered basin near Shakespeare Bluff to discharge cargo.

Although not built until 1871, the structure had been in development since 1857 when a petition requesting a bridge was submitted to the Provincial Superintendent.  The first pile was driven into the riverbed in 1859, but the project met continuous halts due to failed contracts and arguments over the location.

The turbulence of the 1860s also halted work on the bridge, with fraught land purchases and the resulting wars causing tension and bringing threats to the area.  Despite not having a permanent bridge, Whanganui was a prime transport location and became a major military site during this time.

As the region began to calm and peace was resuming, the bridge project was raised again. A plan by Mr Henry McNeil was accepted at a cost of £30,000 (around four million dollars in 2019). The bridge was formally opened by Governor Sir George Ferguson Bowen on 28 November 1871.

Tolls were introduced to help pay for the bridge: A penny for pedestrians, sixpence for horseback riders, nine pence for two-wheeled carriages with springs and a shilling for those without, and two shillings for four-wheeled carriages. Stock were charged by the head. The first toll was paid by pedestrian Mr George Ross. Mr Tom Jones was the first to cross on horseback, riding backwards for the occasion.

Prior to construction, all people, stock and goods were transferred across the river by small boats or by pulley bridges, but a permanent bridge made access much easier. After it opened, the bridge became the main link between the coast and the hinterland, and the port boomed with the increased ease of access to trade routes.

2. Bridge with open span

Whanganui Town Bridge with the swing span opened to allow a ship through. WRM Ref: 1967.8

Coaches had already made their way north but the bridge helped to open up transport routes to Whangaehu, Turakina, Marton, Bulls and Palmerston North.  These routes from town to town spurred the development of rural roads, and more farms became established. A significant proportion of the Whanganui economy came from this fertile farming hinterland.

Whanganui became New Zealand’s second most important town and port. The European population advanced at a great rate and by 1886 was around 15,000. At the same time, the Māori population was 1,770, having halved within 15 years.

As technology developed, gas and water pipes and telephone lines were fitted to the bridge but these proved to be cumbersome as they had to be disconnected every time the span opened, resulting in a half hour delay for those waiting to cross. The span last opened in 1902 when the SS Huia passed through carrying materials to fix the Aramoho Rail Bridge which had opened in 1877. In 1914 the span on the Town Bridge was closed up permanently, meaning it was no longer a swinging structure. It was finally demolished in 1969.

The River Rises Again

Looking up Victoria Avenue with the Post Office tower in the centre.  Unknown photographer, 1904 (W-F-053)

Looking up Victoria Avenue with the Post Office tower in the centre. Unknown photographer, 1904 (W-F-053)

As Whanganui recovers from the largest flood in recorded history, we are again reminded of the immense and untameable power of the mighty awa. There have been several events in the recorded past when the river has burst its banks and invaded the township, and even more before recorded history.

The first flood of note occurred in 1891 when rain fell continuously from Thursday 12 February until midday the following day. The river rose rapidly and was reported to have smelled of sulphur and carried a variety of detritus including timber, trees, waka, household furniture, grain and even sheep.

Whanganui River looking from Durie Hill towards Moutoa Gardens. Photographer: A Martin, 13 February 1891 (W-F-018)

Whanganui River looking from Durie Hill towards Moutoa Gardens. Photographer: A Martin, 13 February 1891 (W-F-018)

By 10.00am on Friday 13 February, the river water had invaded the boat sheds on Taupō Quay.  Hotels, which stored their wares in the cellar, and shop owners, had to remove their stock by boat to prevent loss. A growing crowd of residents gathered to watch the salvage work and the swelling river, and even observed some unlucky people attempting to get to their houses by boat, only to be capsized. By 2.00pm the river was only six inches from the town wharf and four feet below the deck of the Town Bridge.

Many boats and waka were washed out to sea, but the rowing clubs emptied their sheds to limit the loss. The Wanganui Harbour Board lost a dredge and a punt, and the steam launch Moutoa also came adrift, although it was later rescued at Pipiriki.

Flood water from Paul's Corner, Yarrows Fish Shop and Restaurant, Steam Packet Hotel, Prince of Wales Hotel, A Mason's Store. Photographer: A Martin, 13 February 1891 (W-F-011)

Flood water from Paul’s Corner, Yarrows Fish Shop and Restaurant, Steam Packet Hotel, Prince of Wales Hotel, A Mason’s Store. Photographer: A Martin, 13 February 1891 (W-F-011)

Residents recalled the earlier floods they had witnessed in 1858, 1864, and 1875, and Māori remembered earlier ones still, but this one was agreed to be the largest in living memory.

By 11.00pm on Saturday night Taupō Quay was dry, but the roaring river had left behind a lot of mud and a huge amount of clean-up work. The flood damaged the roads in the town, closed several rural roads, caused damage to the river bank, washed away sections of the railway and left others underwater, lifted telegraph poles and disrupted communications, and left parts of the Whangaehu Valley waist-deep in places.

Thirteen years later in 1904, the rain again fell for several days, and the unseasonable warmth of the rain melted the early snow upstream. The Whanganui River began to swell, and by 9.30pm on Wednesday 25 May, the water was on the road by the rowing sheds on Taupō Quay. An hour later the roads between the Metropolitan Hotel and Moutoa Gardens were submerged and people were canoeing in the flood waters.

Looking towards the Victoria Avenue and Taupō Quay intersection, James Thain & Co to the right Photographer: Unknown, 1904 (W-F-055)

Looking towards the Victoria Avenue and Taupō Quay intersection, James Thain & Co to the right
Photographer: Unknown, 1904 (W-F-055)

Despite the late hour, a crowd gathered to watch the drama unfold. Observers on the Town Bridge could feel it vibrating with the force of the water flowing beneath, and the police were called in to dissuade loiterers, for fear the bridge would be washed away and take them with it.

By dawn the next day the river was over a foot above the 1891 flood lines and almost three times its usual width. The massive and powerful flow washed some riverside houses away, invaded many more, and left streets underwater.

Flood waters near the Union Bank of Australia Co. Ltd on Victoria Avenue Photographer: Possibly W H T Partington, 1904 (W-F-063a)

Flood waters near the Union Bank of Australia Co. Ltd on Victoria Avenue
Photographer: Possibly W H T Partington, 1904 (W-F-063a)

Those who owned carts and boats made the most of the situation by charging a nominal fee to ferry passengers to the best spots to witness the flood, although those not licensed to carry passengers were later fined by the police. This was a time when amateur photography was really starting to take off, so those with portable cameras took the opportunity to capture the event. Water began to subside at 11.30am on Sunday morning, again leaving a huge amount of mud and silt behind.

On Friday 23 and Saturday 24 February 1940 the rain fell heavily in the back country causing the river to flood again. The hardest hit areas in the town included Taupō Quay, Wanganui East, Aramoho, and Pūtiki. In Anzac Parade the water was up to three feet deep, covering gardens and entering houses and drowning the rides in Kōwhai Park. Residents were given plenty of warning to evacuate their houses and try to salvage what they could before the waters hit.

Spectators watching rowers outside the rowing clubs on Taupō Quay. Photographer: C F Newham & Co, 1940 (W-F-080)

Spectators watching rowers outside the rowing clubs on Taupō Quay. Photographer: C F Newham & Co, 1940 (W-F-080)

The Wanganui–Wellington road was blocked at Whangaehu, and the Parapara and Pipirīkī roads were blocked by slips. Rural bridges were swept away and witnesses recalled the Whangaehu Valley looking like an inland lake.  A dredge broke free near Wanganui East and smashed into the Dublin Street Bridge, then passed under the Town Bridge before crashing into the Imlay Wharf. And at the peak of the flood at midday on Saturday, the waters on Taupō Quay were over two feet deep; however, damage to stock and premises was not as bad as first feared.

Then on Saturday 10 March 1990, 30 hours of solid rain caused the river to burst its banks again. Kōwhai Park and Anzac Parade went underwater and Civil Defence evacuated many residents. Some tried to protect their houses with sandbags but the waters flowed over them, and the flow was strong enough to rearrange the furniture in several homes. Although high enough to submerge Corliss Island, the river only just managed to touch the road behind the old Chronicle buildings on Taupō Quay, sparing the business district from too much damage.

A car is stranded in flood waters. Photographer: Unknown, 1940 (W-F-134)

A car is stranded in flood waters. Photographer: Unknown, 1940 (W-F-134)

Part of the job of the Whanganui Regional Museum is documenting our community. In 100 years, people will want to know what the great flood of 2015 was like. We have archival photos of the flooding in 1904 and 1940, but many of the photos and videos created over the last 10 days might end up being lost or deleted or locked away in Facebook. We would like to add some to our digital collection.

If you have photos or videos of the flood that you would like to donate to the Museum for future generations, email them to the Archivist on sandib@wrm.org.nz. Remember to include in the email:

  1. Date, time and place it was taken, as best you can remember
  2. The (full) names of anyone shown
  3. What is important or significant about the photo/video; imagine you’re explaining it to your grandkids.

Sandi will contact you with any paperwork required, and the images will be accessioned into the Museum’s database with you noted as the donor. Help us record this event for posterity.