Waipori was a little town that has almost completely vanished from the landscape, but, although leaving few physical footprints, has cast a lasting imprint on those connected to the people who settled here. The past of this little town remains a small jewel in the history of Otago, and New Zealand.
Waipori Had Chequered – And Damp – History
Otago Daily Times
Tuapeka Centennial Supplement
Wed Jan 12 1977
The redoubtable Gabriel Read first prospected the Waipori River, but the truly auriferous nature of the district was discovered by a man called O’Hara, one of an endless procession of miners on their way over the shorter but more mountainous route to the new El Dorado at Tuapeka.
The date was December 1861, the place Post Office Creek, a tributary of the Waipori River. Waipori (Dark Water) had been born. The new settlement was a “humming hive of industry by day and revelry by night.” Thirteen hotels provide plenty of scope for the lucky to carouse, and for the less fortunate to find solace. Later, dredging proved just as productive.
And all the time, hovering spirit-like over the destiny of the community was the dominating presence of Robert Cotton, runholder, hotel-keeper, bullocky, miner, dredgemaster, county councilor. Whether fighting to promote his own interests at Waipori, or the interests of Waipori in the wider community, he conducted his case with a pugnacious individuality that marked him out as a man to be remembered.
GOLD AND WOOL
If gold was the dominating influence in the development of the town, so too must a place be found for wool, most of it grown by the Cottons. Another family – the Knights – provided the services – a store, a bakery, a hotel, a Post Office, and, of course, a commitment to mining. To the end Knights and Cottons typified the spirit, the separateness of old Waipori.
Ironically the town was cast into its present watery grave by an idea derived from the needs of the industry that gave it sustenance.
The Waipori Electric Power Scheme originated in the idea of a local miner to use the Waipori river to generate electricity for the gold dredges of the district.
The miner – probably John Lawson- held the water rights for the vicinity of Waipori Falls, but sold these to a flour miller who was successful in arousing the interest of a syndicate of Dunedin businessmen in a scheme to supply electricity on a commercial basis to consumers of Taieri and Dunedin. The Waipori Electric Power Co., formed in 1902, was the outcome.
Meanwhile, W. G. T. Goodman had been assigned by another company to report for the Dunedin City Council in 1900 on the electrification of the city’s tramways, and to recommend a system of power generation with a view to supplying the metropolitan area with electricity “for lighting and motive power”.
Consideration was given to gas and steam generation systems, but eventually the choice was narrowed down to hydro electricity derived from one of three sources – the Taieri River, Lee Stream, or the Waipori River. The DCC chose to dam the Taieri, but was denied by Government the authority to proceed. The Corporation then adopted the Lee Stream proposal, involving the construction of a tunnel 1 ½ miles long.
With the establishment of the Waipori Company, a new problem arose. The City Council realized that if the company secured powers to reticulate in Dunedin, the Corporation’s own scheme would be in jeopardy. Consequently the city in October 1904 bought out the rights of the Waipori Company for £12,500 and abandoned the scheme at Lee Stream, on which £18,000 had already been spent in constructing the tunnel then two-thirds completed.
The total area of the watershed is 123 square miles, covered mainly by tussock. As this area is at times subject to heavy rain or prolonged drought, it became evident that considerable storage would be necessary. Consequently, as early as 1907 a small earthfilled dam was built on a tributary of the river close to the intake.
In 1900 a small concrete dam was built on another tributary to further supplement storage capacity. The most obvious solution, of course, was to dam the river itself; this, however, would have flooded mining claims, which were still considerable.
In 1918 demands (especially by a resurgent industry) for more power resulted in a survey being taken to ascertain the future prospects of mining on the waipori Flat, with a view to securing the approval of the Minister of Mines for the erection of a dam on the river. The results were favourable to the city, and in 1923 work began on a 38ft storage dam which was later increased to 60ft.
Thus was created Mahinerangi, Daughter of the Skies. This is how the Otago Witness described the event in its issue of November2, 1926;
“The waipori of today is a tiny town on the mountain top, with nothing about it but the sky, 14 miles from Lawrence by the new road, longer by the old original steep road, the bridle track still clealy outlined sinding up past the old Wetherstones school.
“Sapphire sky kissed by range upon range of billowing mountains as far as the eye can see. The little town, its one street winding like a silver ribbon, drowsing in the golden sunshine; mines in the middle distance, and Cotton’s sheep run smiling almost everywhere. The rare mountain air exhilarates one like champagne; the nights are clear and cold, and the days sunny and warm; earth, air and sky are in blessed amity.
“The schoolhouse and orchards are prettily situation in the sun at the end of the street next to the school, which is an ideal training place for the happy, healthy, well-mannered children one meets.
“Now Waipori is to give to the province of Otago what is ever more precious than gold – its power for electricity for the City of Dunedin and the province. Once again Waipori will lead the way.
“Waipori Mining Township will pass, and the great Waipori Dam, two miles wide, 16 miles long and 40ft to 116ft deep, will arise. The happy homes must go, and church and sheep run pass away; but Waipori comes again. This is an epoch and Waipori makes history once more. Advance waipori and forwards Otago!”
This piece of pretentious journalese is patently little more than an attempt to soft-soap the disgruntled inhabitants of the submerged township; the last sentence might more truthfully have read: Advance Dunedin and scuttle Waipori! Nevertheless the Witness was correct on one score – an era had passed.
In 1930 the present Waipori No. 1 station was completed, adding 3000kW to the 6000kW capacity of the No. 2 station, which had been operational since 1907 (and later extended). No. 3 station commenced generating in 1954 as the result of the construction in 1946 of a new 113ft dam, erected downstream from the old one and completely submerging it. No. 4 station followed in 1955, when both ere officially opened.
In 1965 work began on No.2A station, which began generating in 1968, but which was not completed to full capacity until 1976. Waipori Falls Township services the scheme, a staff of 40 and their families being resident there. A shop, a school and a Post Office are provided, as well as recreational facilities.
Two other industries in the area deserve mention. The Dunedin City Corporation has planted a pine plantation of the shores of Mahinerangi; logging of mature trees for export has been under way for some years.
In another field, the Department of Lands and Survey under the Land Settlement Board has, over the years been responsible for the development of Crown land and freehold land required for settlement purposes.
We’ve divided Waipori’s history into the following ‘clickable’ sections:
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