Birds eye view of working port

MIKE CREAN
Last updated 15:49 22/06/2014

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Some blokes are building a boat shed. No ordinary boat shed. No ordinary blokes.

One calls me a "cheeky young b....." when I label them "last of the summer wine".

They are volunteers, all with maritime backgrounds, working on an extension to the Port Chalmers Museum. It is to be known as The Boat Shed. They are proud of its mezzanine viewing deck with a wide window on the wharves of Port Otago.

In this age of closed and secured wharf areas, this is probably the closest and best view of a working port anywhere in the world, John Moodie says.

The museum occupies the former Post Office building. It stands opposite the library, which is in the former borough council building. "Recycling" of buildings is common in Port Chalmers, where old banks and hotels have been adapted to new uses. It makes the town centre a museum itself. Coming from Christchurch, where many heritage buildings were ruined by earthquakes, I gaze in awe and envy at the stately facades.

But Port Chalmers' history is more than elegant edifices. It is woven into the story of New Zealand's development as an importer of people and an exporter of produce.

Here, at Koputai (Maori name for Port Chalmers, referring to a high tide that washed away a canoe), Kai Tahu leaders negotiated the sale of the Otago land block to the NZ Land Company. Surveyors quickly followed. They were joined by sundry settlers to form a small village before the first organised shiploads of Scottish Free Church immigrants arrived in 1848.

Next to the library the Surveyors Arms Hotel opened in 1846. It was rebuilt as the Port Chalmers Hotel and still stands, bearing the name Tunnel Hotel and claiming to be the oldest continually operating hotel south of Nelson. From the railway tunnel beside it a train that left Dunedin 20 minutes ago emerges, bearing freight for ships to carry to the world.

The port grew to become Dunedin's deepwater port and an important centre for ship repairs and boatbuilding. The first of its two dry docks opened in 1872. The Union Steamship Co was established and based here soon after. By the 1880s it was the largest shipping line in the Southern Hemisphere.

Two plaques on the 1877 stone wall at the port entrance proclaim two of the most significant developments in New Zealand trade. From here, in 1882, Albion Line's sailing ship Dunedin departed with the first cargo of frozen meat for the British market - "pioneering a revolution in transport methods and making possible the start of a major New Zealand industry".

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Nearly 90 years later the Columbus Line vessel, Columbus NZ, left the wharf bound for East Coast American ports - "inaugurating the first cellular container ship service from New Zealand and pioneering a further revolution in the transport of NZ produce".

A large area of sea was reclaimed for stacking containers. Today hundreds of containers, a score of mobile loaders buzzing about and three giant cranes shipside make this a hive of activity. It even overshadows the nearby area where truck and trailer units streaming from Otago forests converge with export logs for stacking and loading.

Museum volunteer worker Harold Woods treasures the port and its past. He started work here in 1957, after asking for a job and being sent away because he was not a member of the union. Memory of the infamous 1951 waterside lockout was still fresh. Woods went straight to the union office to enlist and was taken on as a sheetmetal worker the same day. He later trained as a diver and was among the early exponents of underwater welders, repairing hull plates of ships that could not afford the time to go into dry dock.

Seven naval minesweepers were built here in World War II, Woods says. They served in the Pacific theatre. American ships supporting Operation Deep Freeze bases in the Antarctic were repaired here. A large Russian deepsea trawler was repaired here. Three trawlers for the National Mortgage and Agency's fishing interests were built here. Local firms built penstocks for the Benmore hydro project and heavy engineering components for the Manapouri power scheme.

Woods rattles off names of Port Chalmers engineering firms as if listing the wonders of the world.

Much of that is in the past, though maritime engineering at Port Chalmers remains important to the Otago economy.

Three roads lead out of Port Chalmers. Ahead is Aramoana and the head of Otago Harbour. Over the hill are Purakanui and Broad Beach. I return through the series of small bay suburbs to Dunedin. I can't help feeling the city wears Port Chalmers like a jewelled pendant.

- The Press

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