Crossing the Waitara

GRAEME DUCKETT
Last updated 10:45 23/06/2012

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Crossing the lower reaches of the Waitara River was the greatest obstacle to immediate progress and development of the North Taranaki town.

Ways and means were quickly developed to overcome this, and in the town's infancy, two crossings were established - a punt which operated at the mouth of the river and a ford on the Karaka flats close to a mile up river.

From 1867, the punt was operated by a ferryman, who laboriously wound his vessel to and fro across the lower reaches at the whim of the tide.

Mercifully, for both the traveller and the ferryman, the punt was replaced by Waitara's first bridge, which was built at the foot of Manukorihi Hill in 1872.

The early settlers struggled with the ford crossings, and it wasn't long before farmers from Tikorangi became agitated with the delays as they sought to get their produce to the ships at Port Taranaki.

Levi Sarten was one such farmer. He was granted a farm next to the Waitara River as part of a settlement package for volunteers who had served with the militia during the Taranaki Land Wars. He battled with little initial success to get a swing bridge established in his area. Then, finally, in 1896 tenders were called for the construction of the Bertrand Rd suspension bridge.

Harry George's [PndStlg]695 tender was successful, and he began work that August.

The deck of the new bridge spanned 210 feet (64 metres) across the waters and was 14ft (4.3m) wide. The suspension towers stood 20ft (6.1m) above the deck and strung from them were four heavy-gauged cables, each supporting 396 straight wires designed to take a working load of 66 tons.

The concrete anchor blocks measured 10ft (3.05m) by 10ft by 5ft (1.53m). Each weighed 32 tons, and was covered with 20 tons of earth. The weight of the bridge between the piers was estimated at 40 tons, leaving about 27 tons to be supported by the cables.

The impressive construction opened with much fanfare in July 1897 and created great excitement in the Tikorangi and Huirangi districts.

Residents banded together to organise the celebrations, and their spirits weren't dampened by the pouring rain, which made the river run high and muddy. Hundreds from both districts walked across the new planking and met in the middle to congratulate each other.

A huge picnic was organised, and a committee of women provided a luncheon in the Tikorangi Rowing Club's boatshed, which was decorated with ferns and evergreens.

The settlers of both districts provided a generous variety of meat and vegetables, and sweets.

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Among the dignitaries at the opening were the Minister of Public Works, the Hon Hall-Jones and Messrs W Symes, F Lawry, Henry Brown, and New Plymouth's mayor, Mr J B Roy.

Members of the New Plymouth Borough Council, Raleigh Town Board, Waitara Harbours' Board, the chief surveyor, a Crown Lands ranger and a number of well-known settlers from the surrounding districts also attended.

All were greeted by Levi Sarten, who had at last seen his dream realised.

After luncheon and obligatory photographs - taken by Mr W A Collis, the gathering moved to the bridge, where a bottle of wine was duly broken on the structure and Mr Hall-Jones heralded its official opening.

Mr Sarten called for three cheers for the minister, and, in turn, the crowd offered hearty cheers in recognition of Mr Sarten's part in the project.

Colonel Stapp, from the militia, told the crowd "a bridge was promised 32 years earlier" when he was sent to the Tikorangi block with 34 men to occupy the block. The bridge promised at that time was to be Waitara's first and was to be at Tikorangi.

In the 1920s, the original bridge was dismantled to make way for the new suspension bridge.

Farmers snapped up the scrap from the original bridge and used the No 9 wire for fencing.

A flying fox was set up across the river by bridge workers to transport people and their materials across the water.

The second bridge, built in 1927 used planks and some of the steel work from the original bridge. It was designed by Mr N C Fookes, the Clifton County engineer.

He designed the bridge with the hangars sloping inwards from the transoms, not straight down like most suspension bridges. This gave it more stability in the wind, as well as a more dynamic appearance.

During the 1935 flood that hit the region, there were fears the bridge would be swept away by the raging waters that sent large logs and debris roaring down the river. It stood the test.

Those fears reared again in 1965, when the largest flood in living memory struck. Anxious residents of Huirangi and Tikorangi hurried to the swing bridge to watch as rising water levels once again reached deck level.

During the peak of the deluge, water lapped across the deck and large logs whiplashed against the bridge. Incredibly, it survived.

Eventually, deterioration of the timberwork was such that it was deemed unsafe, and the bridge was closed to traffic in 1985, which meant a 16-kilometre detour for regular users.

The bridge was still open to foot traffic and recreational use, but was closed to all users in 2004.

A trust was set up to reopen the bridge, with a community fundraising scheme which included a "buy a plank" initiative. Further funding was received from the TSB Community Trust, and the New Zealand Lottery Environment and Heritage Committee.

Using as much of the old design as possible, and after raising $630,000, the bridge was reopened to all traffic in June 2006. It is well worth a drive to catch a glimpse of the bridge and the scenic stretch of the upper reaches of the mighty Waitara.

- Taranaki Daily News

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