It was a day littered with pomp and ceremony. Authorities declared Thursday, August 21, 1873 a public holiday to mark the turning of the first sod of the proposed New Plymouth- Waitara (Waitara was actually called Raleigh at that time) railway.
A midday blast from a gun signalled the start of the occasion as hundreds of spectators gathered to watch.
Construction began the next day. Immigrant settlers desperately seeking work were used to build the rail link from Sentry Hill at Brixton to Waitara.
Most signed on for the work as they waited for blocks of bush land to be offered for sale so they could begin breaking it in to farmland.
Those workers had sailed to Taranaki from Europe from around 1872-73.
Accommodation was provided at the Waitara Flax mill site and the former military barracks overlooking West Beach but the conditions were cramped and that confinement caused frustration which led to bickering and petty arguments. Court reports show one woman was stabbed with a kitchen knife.
But work progressed despite it all and during 1874 tenders were let for the building of goods sheds, passenger stations and engine sheds at New Plymouth and Waitara.
Late in 1874 and early 1875 a passenger station at Sentry Hill was built, and building of the Waiwhakaiho and Henui railway bridges started. By the end of September 1875 the link was just about finished.
The unexpected need to import all the timber for the railway sleepers and bridges delayed the completion and it was not officially opened for passenger traffic until October 25, 1875.
This was also marked with a public holiday. A large group congregated at New Plymouth to watch as a bottle of champagne was cracked against the engine. With that act a flag draped over the train was removed to reveal its name "The Fox" emblazoned in black letters on a red background.
The women invited on the trip to Waitara were ushered to their carriages.
"The Fox" was decorated with flowers, nikau palms, ferns and flags and there was a rousing welcome.
In May of 1876 Sunday trains began a run from New Plymouth to Waitara and back. Reverend Breach of the Presbyterian Church assailed his congregation with the foreboding words: "pleasure parties going out on Sundays were the devils travellers". The many protests were eventually dismissed and the trains continued to run.
A new railway wharf was built on the Waitara waterfront near the road bridge. The original purpose of the line was to link New Plymouth to Waitara, the nearest sheltered port. By 1884 when the New Plymouth breakwater was sufficiently advanced to allow the berthing of coastal vessels, the situation reversed.
The decline of Waitara as a mail and passenger port dates from that time. Freight would have gone the same way had it not been for the opening of the Waitara freezing works in 1885. This saved the town as a river port, which in turn saved the railway, as it was needed to bring stock to the works.
Shortly after the New Plymouth- Waitara railway was opened, a steam locomotive was stationed at Waitara and it only went to New Plymouth for mechanical repairs and washouts. The locomotive worked the Waitara- Lepperton-Waitara goods trains.
Several months before steam locomotives were replaced by diesel locomotives, the loco depot was closed down and the train was stationed at New Plymouth.
Heated exchanges between the Raleigh Town board and the NZ railways during the 1880s-90s proved fruitless but the station remained until its demolition in the early 1980s.
The original Waitara station burnt down in June 1893. Only a table and the contents of a safe were saved.
A new station was up and running with much improved facilities by October of the same year.
In the very early 1880s, pressure mounted on NZR to link Waitara with Te Awamutu, on what was proposed to be the Northern Trunk railway. In 1884, the Minister of Public Works, Edwin Mitchelson, and surveyors travelled from Auckland to Kihikihi by train and then pack horse to study this western route.
It was stated it would take a month to complete the journey through Stratford, Ohura and Tangarakau so the party opted for the Mokau route.
They struck the Mokau River about 60 miles from the sea, and on arriving at Mokau, spent a day inspecting the area, deciding on the best route to be followed. They expected to take nine days to reach Waitara.
The distance from Te Awamutu to Stratford was estimated at 135 miles, and that was the extent of railway line required to be made, in order to connect Wellington and Auckland by rail. Surveyors estimated the railway line would cost [PndStlg]8000 per mile to construct, requiring a total of over [PndStlg]1 million for the whole job.
It was not to be.
Back in Waitara once the works were built the train system was not only used for inwards and outwards stock and goods, but special trains ran for the many festivities in the town, such as circuses, the many river regattas and the general carriage of passengers, mail and freight.
During the 1880s a rather large Maori lady entered the passenger carriage with quite a family of children with her.
Passengers shuffled to accommodate the children, but the lady was left standing, as the carriage was full to the brim.
The guard being the character he was, asked her, "if she'd like to sit in the guards van at the rear?", to which she replied "I'm not baggage! I want to stay with my children".
There was a very quiet period for the railways during the depression of the late 1920s-early 1930s. The freezing workers strike in 1932 brought a prolonged halt to the "stock train" and only the mail and storekeeper's goods arrived.
The works buyers were away looking for stock despite the strike and were also mustering a new workforce in the King Country and South Taranaki to replace the striking workers.
When the townspeople heard the steam train coming down the hill into Waitara, with its whistle blowing over and over, they all rushed to the station to see what the commotion was about.
It was full to the brim with desperate men seeking work - but they received a bitter welcome from the striking workers who hurled abuse and made violent threats to those scrambling off the train.
The last steam locomotive in Waitara, the "Ab" 708, left Waitara on November 8, 1966.
Several days later, "Abs" 707 and 711 ran as light engines from Stratford to New Plymouth but they were the last of the steam engines to operate on a regular basis in Taranaki.
Early in January 1967, 707 was towed south to Christchurch for further use, while 708, 709, 711, 748 and 817 were towed north to Otahuhu for scrapping. These were the last steam locomotives in Taranaki.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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