Community Contributed

Foxton 1888-1988 - The Port and the Railway

Kete Horowhenua2020-03-23T17:00:52+00:00
By 1888 Foxton had become a transport centre of relative import­ance. A modern railway terminus served both the borough and its fast developing hinterland and the recently rebuilt and extended wharf played host to regular as well as diverse shipping services.


Foxton owes its location to the Manawatu River. The river provided access to a hinterland which contained resources of use first to the Maori and then later to the Europeans. The Maori plied its waters in his canoes, the white man came in small sailing vessels, whaleboats, cutters and schooners. Initially, both parties came to prospect. The Maori hapu then settled along river reaches most suitable for their needs and Euro­peans did likewise. There were differences in their aims, however. The Maori sought a complete way of life while Europeans looked for busi­ness openings. Trade was the prime motive - either in commodities that the Maoris could provide or in resources that could be taken and exported. The Maori soon became a party to the white man's en­deavours, mainly because of the financial and other rewards. Together they required means of transporting their products and thus evolved a flotilla of tiny trading vessels. Of between 10 and 40 tons, they plied river and coast in weather fair as well as foul, all the year round, for several decades. Some vessels were actually built on the banks of the river from local timber. The first recorded was American Captain Lew­is's 22 ton schooner "Catherine". Lewis had been a whaler on Kapiti but the industry's decline and the arrival of the New Zealand Company settlers at Wellington gave him the opportunity to engage in trading. Teaming up with a Wellington merchant and E.J. Wakefield he gathered a group of boatbuilders and sawmillers, and together with their Maori wives they established a boat building yard alongside the nearest ac­cessible stand of suitable timber which happened to be at Karikari, near the site of today's Shannon, on the Manawatu River.

The "Catherine" was launched either late 1840 or early 1841 and during the latter year a 70-ton schooner was reported loading saw milling machinery at Wellington for the Manawatu. Between 1842 and 1845 several sawmills and rope walks were established on the river and at one of the former two more schooners were built. These were the "Mary Jane" and the "Hannah" of 28.5 and 20 tons respectively. They were built for Thomas Cook, the trader at Paiaka not far downstream from Karikari, by F. Abel and George Nye. All three vessels were manned by former Kapiti whalers and maintained the trade of local products with Wellington. The "Mary Jane" served the Manawatu until 1863 when she was sold. The other two had much shorter associations with the river.

The settlement at Foxton dates from about 1856 when Cook moved there from Paiaka, established a store and had built a wharf. The first steamer to cross the Manawatu bar was the 75.9-ton vessel "Wonga Wonga" which in February, 1860, took a cargo 27 miles upstream - almost to the limits of navigation. In November, 1868, the river mouth was defined a port under the general title Port Manawatu and this included Cook's and Hartley's jetties.


The original tramway which linked Foxton with Palmerston, and spearheaded the opening up of the interior, ran on wooden tracks and had its terminus in Foxton's Main Street. From the station in Main Street it right angled to run down to the river bank and on to a wharf the government had built in 1873. The tramway was converted to an iron railway in 1875 and by 1879 the Main Street terminus had out­grown its capacity to admit further expansion. The Public Works De­partment's district engineer, J.T. Stewart, devised the bold plan of relocating the railway on a riverbank reclamation and facing most of the area with a completely new wharf. This simplified transhipment and paved the way for the transformation of Foxton to a through station on the proposed Wellington-Foxton railway. This new line, when added to the Foxton-Marton section already built, would form an integral part of the ultimate main trunk route to Auckland.

Work had actually started on the Wellington-Foxton railway in September 1879 but because of the acute shortage of funds it was put on a day-labour basis and really as relief work for Wellington's unem­ployed. A change of government and a Royal Commission which looked into the question of railway construction recommended the abandon­ment of the Wellington-Foxton railway in favour of a more vigorous prosecution of the Wairarapa route to Woodville and thence through the Manawatu Gorge to Palmerston. This, however, did not affect the re­building of the station at Foxton and the contract with J. Saunders was signed on 15 May, 1880.

In the meantime, however, Wellington businessmen, dissatisfied with the Government's abandonment of the Manawatu line, banded together and formed a company which they called the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company. After much persuasion the government supported the venture by handing over the work that had been done so far and by making generous land grants in the area to be served. In return the Crown reserved the right to take over the railway.

Above: This plan, taken from one prepared in 1908, shows the general arrangement
of the reclamation and the new station yard completed at Foxton in 1881.
An indication of the location of the original tramway is superimposed.

Above: Main Street, Foxton, looking south from Ihakara Gardens in the 1870s with
the railway running down the middle of Main Street. This followed the route of the
original railway. The station can be seen in the distance located in front of the
present day Post Office.

At first the venture was greeted with enthusiasm in Foxton but when the company eventually decided to junction with the Foxton-Wanganui railway at Longburn, and not at Foxton, joy turned to anger. There was much hard feeling in Foxton over this decision, which was purportedly made on economic grounds, for many could foresee the isolation of Foxton in the rail network. Shipping interests too could see the diver­sion of much of their trade to and from Wellington to the private railway.

Foxtonian's fears were well founded and once the WMR opened in 1886 there was a steady erosion of trade through Foxton. Passengers preferred the much quicker rail route and freight destined for Palmer­ston and points north often went by train. One inhibiting factor was the antagonism which grew out of competition between the WMR and the NZR. The latter ran and profited from the Foxton wharf and encour­aged, through its tariffs, its use for onward freight. It also unfairly penalised freight and passengers through booked from government to WMR stations. However, in spite of all this there was a diversion of traffic and had it not been for the South Island trade,' principally coal and timber, and also the movement of livestock and other bulk cargoes` by water, the demise of the port of Foxton could have been much earlier.

If, from Foxton, you wanted to go to Wellington you could catch the 3.35pm Wanganui train, change at Longburn to the 5.45 Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company's (WMR) mail train and reach the capital at 10pm. Or, you could take a cab or coach to Kereru (now Koputaroa) and join the same train at 6.33pm.

There was also an earlier train each day from Foxton. It gave connec­tions with the morning WMR train to Wellington from Longburn and the Palmerston-Wanganui service from Palmerston. On Tuesdays and Fri­days a portion of the Wanganui train went on to New Plymouth to connect with the Auckland steamers. Before the opening of the WMR, Wellington-Auckland passengers would travel as far as Foxton by either coach or sea, pick up the train to New Plymouth, and then again go to sea: for the final leg of their journey. Tedious as it seemed, this was faster than many of the coastal steamers which called at intermediate ports en route.

For those who still had both the time and inclination to travel by sea there was often an overnight passage to Wellington, but you had to be Prepared for snags in the river, and at the mouth because of tides and

the state of the bar. Of course, the weather governed all shipping movements: The small steamers that provided passenger accommoda­tion were around 100 tons, little more than 30 metres long on average and accommodated two or three dozen passengers. The "Huia" for example carried 49 passengers but could offer only 30 bunks. The "Jane Douglas", in a bid to attract more custom, provided as an afterthought a special ladies cabin for ten. However, the prime function of coastal shipping was to carry cargo but each vessel could carry only about as much as one modern container.

Foxtonians wishing to visit Sanson could also do so by train. They would take the afternoon train to Carnarvon, later named Himatangi, and there join the Manawatu County Council's Sanson tram. It was really a train, but, because the Council was able to obtain a subsidy for the building of the line by laying it alongside the road and calling it a tramway, it was dubbed "tram". Later in 1888 economic considerations reduced the tramway service to trice weekly (local wags called it try­-weekly) but then the NZR allowed the tram to run over its metals into Foxton. These running rights continued until passenger services were withdrawn on the Foxton branch on 20 August, 1932.

Compared with much of New Zealand in 1888 Foxton was well served by public transport but the year was hardly one for rejoicing. Only a few weeks before the borough was declared the splendid near new railway station building was completely destroyed by fire. The cause was never discovered and for the ensuing 14 years Foxtonians had to make do with a resurrection of the old Main Street station. Originally located in Main Street by the Post Office, this building - a leanto with open waiting room in the middle and an office at either end - was shifted on to the reclamation when the Main Street tracks were torn up. There it served as a station master's office cum customhouse. When the new station went up in flames on the night of 1-2 March, 1888, it was moved bodily on to the platform and with embellishments served until also destroyed by fire on 19 August, 1902. For the record a new station, not unlike the 1881 building, was put up in 1903-04 and this lasted, in part at least, until the line's closure in 1959. Previously, in 1947, it had suffered the indignity of having its veranda removed and of being chopped in half in order to save, no doubt, maintenance costs.

Above: Coach about to leave from northern end of Foxton Railway station in circa 1905.


The early Foxton jetties were adequate for private trading needs but quite unable to cope with the anticipated requirements of a developing hinterland. So in 1873 the government had built, by R. Menzies, a substantial wharf T-shaped and with a berthing face of 40 feet. On to the wharf ran tramlines connected to the tramway that was being built to link Foxton with Palmerston. Accommodation at the wharf face was limited to one vessel facing upstream and cargo could be unloaded directly into tramway wagons or carts. The 176 foot run of the wharf from face to shoreline was quite steeply graded and good horses were needed to cope with loaded wagons. There was a small receiving shed on the wharf and a much larger tramway shed where the wharf line turned on to the main tramline on Main Street. The tramway shed also included a lock-up night shed into which loaded wagons could be run overnight. The first vessel to discharge and load at the Government Wharf was the steamer "Napier". She crossed the bar on 13 September, 1873, and, after unloading a general cargo, took on timber and livestock. The previous month, on the 9th, the paddle steamer "Manawatu" had tied up briefly at the then incomplete structure. It was her first visit to the river which she was to work for several years. Another paddle steamer which worked the river later that decade was the "Osprey". Paddlers were very manoeuverable and generally of shallow draught making them very suitable for river work. They also made good tow boats. Most steamers at this time also carried sails because their engines were not very powerful and not always reliable. Their coal bunker capacity was also limited and sail could help eke out the coal supply in adverse conditions. The rig employed was usually schooner which meant that the booms could double as derricks.

The wooden rail tramway between Foxton and Palmerston was con­verted to a fully fledged iron railway during 1875-76 and at the same time the line was extended to Feilding. This brought a marked increase in freight as well as passengers passing through the port. With only the one forty foot berth available shipping congestion was inevitable. At times there were as many as seven or eight vessels waiting to load timber to say nothing of the inward traffic that had to be unloaded. Some had to wait up to a month to load because sailing ships had to give way to steamers. An attempt was made in 1878 to ease, if not solve, the problem by extending the outer face of the wharf another 120 feet downstream. This meant that all hatches of a berthed vessel could be worked simultaneously and that a smaller vessel could berth on the inside of the extension. This extension cost £842.

Although the Foxton Harbour Board was set up by Act of Parliament in 1876 it seemed to have very little say in the port's management which appeared to be the responsibility of the Marine Department assisted by the Public Works Department. The Public Works Depart­ment, besides building roads, railways, wharves and the like, also ran the railways (and some wharves) after the abolition of the provinces in 1876. In 1880 a Working Railways Department was set up to separate: operation from construction but again responsibility for railway running was still in PWD hands through its minister. At Foxton the Marine Department paid the pilot while Public Works collected the wharf re­venue.

It soon became obvious that the 1878 wharf extension-was merely a palliative to the problem of handling increasing traffic. The best solu­tion offered was a riverbank reclamation which created a completely new wharf 250 feet long as well as the repiling and refacing of the previous 120 foot extension and the original 40 foot berth. On 4 Febru­ary, 1879 Foxton was gazetted a port of entry and a customs house opened. This meant that vessels from overseas, principally Australia, could obtain clearances. In 1880 timber was still the main export and the number of wool bales was increasing. Servicing the various mills on the river and transshipping other commodities encouraged Liddell, Gibson and Howe of Foxton to buy the 28-ton paddle steamer "Osprey" for river work. Unfortunately the "Osprey" did not live up to expectations and she was soon put up for sale.

Although most people and the sawmills burnt wood at this time there was a growing demand for coal - initiated by the railway - and colliers began to take an increasing share of the inward trade. Later, when it became cheaper and easier to use coal for domestic purposes and when dairy factories opened and railway demands reached high, levels coal became the port's mainstay.

It would be easy to give an exaggerated impression of the flow of shipping through the port of Foxton at this stage, in fact at any stage. For example, after the conversion of the tramway to a railway, when the development of Palmerston and the opening up of Feilding, Hal­combe and their hinterlands was proceeding apace, the number of ves­sels using Foxton was listed in 1877 as 160, totalling 9030 tons, in 1878 as 136, totalling 9167 tons and in 1879 as 167 vessels totalling 13,202 tons. During November 1880, 19 vessels, including six sailing ships, used the port. These figures would, of course, include several return voyages by the same vessels such as the "Napier", "Jane Douglas" her sister "Tui" and the "Huia". Fifteen months after being declared so Foxton ceased to be a port of entry. The paucity of overseas traders made it not worthwhile maintaining this facility.


The rebuilding of the wharf and the laying out of the new station yard on the reclaimed foreshore occupied the late half of 1880 and the first half of 1881. It was a period on unprecedented activity, and the contract covered the building of 1 mile 25.21 chains of railway from a new terminus on reclaimed land just east of Te Awahou Creek and included the construction of all earthworks, ditches, cuttings and embankments to form a line of railway and the station ground ... all bridges, culverts, drains ... fencing, breastwork ... backing the present wharf ... remov­al of wharf damaged by recent floods ... the temporary erection of a turntable on its original site, the laying of a line of railway throughout the whole length of the work and sidings ... construction, removal and re-erecting or extending station buildings, turntable, platform, loading ramp, cattle pens ... outside engine pit, coal shed, water tanks with water supply, privies and urinals, a goods shed ... removing and taking up certain sidings and all other works indicated, described or implied etc. Twenty-three drawings gave details of the work specified. The order of construction specified that all the new work to the north of the old wharf be completed in eleven months, and that during this period nothing was to impede traffic to and from the old wharf. The railway connection with the main line would then be made under the resident engineer's supervision and, when rail traffic was diverted from Main Street to the reclamation, work on the old area would commence.

Above: Foxton Wharf in 1906. This view is taken from across the river on Matakarapa.

Originally it was intended to extend the existing wharf but recent floods had damaged a quarter of the structure and priority had to be given to rehabilitating this so that traffic could continue. Then the extension of 250 feet was built and the new face continued to front the old. In fact the old wharf was virtually rebuilt. In 1975 it was still possible to identify the piles of the original wharf, those of the 1878 extension and those marking the downstream extension of 1880-81. The original facing piles could be seen as a row behind those of the new facing.


During construction trade began to fall off markedly, particularly once all the materials needed were on site. The twice weekly visits of the "Jane Douglas" were cut back by including calls at Kaikoura and Lyttelton as well as Wellington, Foxton, Wanganui and sometimes Ran­gitikei. This was the run her sister ship "Tui" maintained. Foxtonians were pretty cross about this and there was talk about starting their own shipping service. Timber was the commodity that prevented the de­pression from being much worse. The clearing of the Manawatu was still going on and large quantities of lumber were being brought to Foxton by rail. Railway sleepers of totara also figured prominently in cargo manifests. A little flax was still being shipped but only at the rate of about one tenth of that which had passed through the port during the 1871-73 peak period.

When in 1882 work resumed on the abandoned Wellington-Foxton railway, Foxton people who had looked to this as the solution of their present growing difficulties were disappointed. At first there seemed no doubt that the private company which proposed building the line would follow the Government's plan in its entirety, but behind closed boardroom doors changes were discussed. The directors were aware of Foxton's hopes but they had less altruistic motives. They would float a company that promised shareholders a return on their money. Some of them had also landed interests they wanted served. So on 25 February 1881 at a meeting in Palmerston, W. Travers, on behalf of the provision­al directors of the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company, dis­closed that they would do their utmost to build the line by the shortest route to Palmerston, through the Fitzherbert. "It was a commercial undertaking," he said, "not aiming to run through unproductive country ... avoiding 30 miles of unproductive country by avoiding Foxton". The Evening Post in Wellington was careful to dodge the controversy it felt would blow up, and on 7 March in its leader stated that "Wellington people were not concerned whether the line went to Foxton or Palmer­ston. Their main concern was that the line be built". The Manawatu Herald immediately took issue by protesting at the decision, accusing the "Post" 'of impartiality and Travers of presenting a false view.

Argument over the issue continued for some time until the company cooled the situation by suggesting that a decision would come later. However, the die was already cast and the outcome was a junction in 1886 at Longburn and the complete avoidance of Foxton. This loss of prime position on what was to become the North Island main trunk railway was no doubt a contributing factor in Foxton's failure to match the growth of the other more important Manawatu towns. It wasn't by any means the only factor. The limitations of the river and port, the nature of the agricultural land in its vicinity and the problems of sand and flood, as well as the economy in general, all played a part. Foxton seemed to get caught up in short term bonanza-like developments which did little to build firm bases for future prosperity. Timber and flax were the two classic examples in this respect.

Above: This 1907 view taken from the railway yards shows cargo being uploaded
from S.S. Tamahine. Behind the Tamahine is moored the S.S. Queen of the South.

Much later attempts were made to have the main trunk railway re­routed through Foxton. The line of the Manawatu County Council's Sanson tramway from Himatangi to the Rangitikei River near Bulls was suggested and that with the additions of links from Levin to Foxton and Bulls to Greatford a much shorter and easier deviation could be obtained. The clamour for this became so insistent by World War I that the Government of the day included it in the terms of reference of a Royal Commission. The Commission was also given the task of looking into the control of the Foxton wharf – a topic that will be considered shortly. Palmerston interests, those of Feilding and other affected towns, as well as the very large vested interest of the Railways Department, convinced the commissioners that there was no case for Foxton’s inclusion on the trunk line so the last nail was driven in the coffin that buried the town's hopes.


As the 1880s drew to a close something unexpected happened which gave Foxton and district a respite from the all-pervading colonywide depression. Flax boomed again. Between 1888 and 1890 there was another shortage of manila fibre. This created a demand for New Zea­land flax fibre which gave rise to a spate of mill openings in the Manawatu. The upsurge in both river and rail traffic resulting was reflected in much better earnings and Foxton shipping, the Foxton branch railway and the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Co all bene­fited. The movement of workers into the area also increased passenger journeys. The usual port visitors such as the "Napier", "Huia" and "Jane Douglas" began to call more often and larger vessels like the "Moa", "Murray" and "Kennedy" joined them. Late in March 1889 the schooner "Clyde" arrived from Australia with best quality Newcastle coal and took back across the Tasman oats, chaff, potatoes and onions, items which were fetching high prices over there. On the 31 March three steamers were reported berthed at the wharf, and the newspaper added that two together were now a common sight. Craft plying the river also increased in number and at this time the steamer "Ivy" was added to the river fleet. She was fashioned out of red pine on alternate iron and wooden frames, by Jonson in his yard behind the Family Hotel on Main Street.

By October, 1889, the port was handling record tonnages and the larger vessel "Queen of the South" replaced the "Jane Douglas" on the Wellington run. The "Queen of the South" was to serve Foxton for many years. Of 198 tons gross and 121 tons net register she was much more than twice the size of the "Jane Douglas". Built in Scotland in 1877 for the Australian trade she was purchased by Captain Harvey for the Manawatu trade.

The largest vessel to come up to Foxton at this time was the 246/350 ton collier "Lawrence". She could carry up to 400 tons of coal but for her first visit to Foxton she carried from Westport only 200 tons. The Manawatu bar, with the increasing draughts of vessels using the port, was becoming more and more of a problem. Colliers took longer to discharge and their captains liked to back load with hemp or cattle if timber was not available. The smaller vessels could come in on one high tide and either go out on the next or on the next day's high. Larger ships, staying longer, ran the risk of weather changes, tidal differences and becoming bar-bound. The collapse of the second flax boom saw a decline in activity on both river and rail and the larger ships meant fewer visits statistically as well as fewer trains. The trains that did run, however, tended to be heavier.

When the Wellington and Manawatu Railway was completed in 1886 the Manawatu County Council obtained through an order in Council the powers of a harbour board and this was in effect a transfer of authority from the moribund Foxton Harbour Board. The latter had never been abolished but neither had it ever been really alive. Control of the harbour facilities was largely in the hands of the Working Railways Department which also held title to the wharf.

The advent of the third and much more lasting flax boom in 1898 saw a return of the town's prosperity and this was reflected in the increase in shipping and railway tonnages. Local people, particularly business men during the first decade of the new century, were becoming in­creasingly restive about the port's ability to handle the growing trade and their criticism focussed on the Railways Department. One solution, some felt, was to have the Harbour Board reconstituted then have it take over the wharf and apply all revenue to port improvements. There was a feeling, not unjustified, that the Railways were syphoning off Foxton revenue for other purposes. When confronted with this allega­tion the Railways pointed out that between 1900 and 1905 they had collected £7227 in shipping dues and wharfage, and had spent £4200 working and maintaining the wharf, and a further £1465 on dredging. This sounded very convincing but what the department failed to reveal was that much of the expenditure was of a one-off nature incurred by long overdue improvements carried out in 1902-3. During those two years the wharf was planked flush with the rails to make it easier for drays to reach the ships' sides, sidings were re-arranged and a new one laid, the goods shed was moved to a more central position opposite the wharf and a fourth berth at the downstream end of the wharf was dredged. Little else seems to have been spent since the wharf was built in 1881. In response to complaints about delays to ships using the port the department pointed out that, of the 225 vessels calling to 31 March 1905, only six were compelled to wait and in consequence to work cargoes at overtime rates.

Between 1886 and 1908, the lifespan of the Wellington and Manawatu Railway as a private company, there was intense competition between it, the shipping companies using Foxton, and the Railways Department. The shipping companies were fighting not only to maintain their ser­vices but in some instances to survive, and the Railways took advantage of this situation through its ownership of the Foxton wharf. In a memo to his Minister dated 11.6.1910, the General Manager of Railways stated

"... While the Manawatu Railway was in the hands of a private com­pany in competition with the Government Railways for traffic from and to the West Coast, Foxton was of considerable utility to this Department inasmuch as cheap sea freights induced traffic to be sent to Foxton whence it was railed to Palmerston and other up-country stations via the Government Railway which thus obtained freight for an additional 19 miles of carriage as compared with the amount that would have been accrued to the Government Railways had the traffic been sent via the Manawatu Railway".


The takeover of the WMR in 1908, which coincided with the opening of the North Island main trunk railway, gave the NZR a transport monopoly which could only be challenged on the sea. But coastal ship­ping was bypassing Foxton in spite of the Department's earlier claims, because the river channel was silting and vessels were being continual­ly stranded on the bar. Shipments were being delayed and sometimes markets lost. The pressure for port autonomy came to a head with a proposal by the Foxton Chamber of Commerce at a meeting it convened of local bodies representatives throughout the region on 4 June 1908. The eventual outcome was the appointment of a Harbour Board after appropriate legislation which included the endowment of "the foreshore on both sides of the river from the Heads to McGregor's Bend, but not including the existing wharf and appurtenances thereto". The exclusion of the wharf was a body blow to local interests but in spite of entreaties and a deputation to the Premier, Sir Joseph Ward, the Government would not budge. Later a subsidy of £500 per annum for ten years was offered the board, provided it took power to rate the district it served, but this was cold comfort.

The first annual report of the new Harbour Board covered the period from 1 April 1909 to 28.02.1910 and during this time the Minister of Railways visited Foxton to inspect the wharf among other facilities. The chairman lost no time pressing the matter of purchase - one of the principal aims of the new board - but secured only a promise to have the matter investigated. The outcome a few months later was yet another refusal to sell.

Early in 1910 G.W. Morgan, Levin & Co's Foxton manager, was re­placed by dynamic A.J. Kellow. Kellow was a key man in the company having managed the Blenheim and Nelson branches. Well known for his prowess in sport and military matters - he was a classmate of Bernard Freyberg at Wellington College - one of his briefs on taking over the Foxton branch was to get the shipping impasse sorted out. W.H. Levin was a hard man and if the Foxton run didn't pay he would have no hesitation withdrawing his ships. In fact, he did just this in the 1920s when depression loomed and motor transport became a serious threat.

Above: Loading flax out from the New Zealand Shipping Co. store.
Working from left to right are T. East, P. Cresswell, H. Hirini, A. East, K. Hurini.

Above: The suction dredge “Hennessey” under construction at Foxton 1920.
The Foxton Harbour Board undertook its building themselves.

Kellow wasted no time, nor did he mince words. After a couple of months assessing the situation he wrote to the Harbour Board –

"We beg to bring to your notice the most unsatisfactory state that shipping has reached during the last two or three months. Delays at a bar harbour and tidal port are inevitable but the present state of the bar is bad for everyone ... shipping, port and district. The "Himatangi" ar­rived on 26.3.1910, discharged and loaded on 27th but was unable to leave until 1 April. The "Queen of the South" drawing 6 feet 6 inches (c.2m) arrived at the bar on 2 April but stuck. Refloated next day and loaded on 4 April, a half load, but couldn't sail until the 7th. The "Gertie" arrived on 13 March, though loaded to about 7 feet was unable to cross bar outwards until 20th - seven days in port, three of which wind bound and four bar bound. The "Queen of the South" was stranded twice in April and once in March and each time salvage gear cost £20 to £25 ... No coal has been landed for six weeks and 1000 to 1500 tons could be taken if ships could be induced to call ... people instead paying 5 shillings more a ton than they should (for railed coal) ... the port is losing revenue ... the bar is so banked up that heavy rain would cause floods ..."

The letter was read at the Board's meeting on 4 May and was of sufficient moment to trigger a special meeting at Palmerston on 18 May. The meeting on the 18th resolved to send a deputation to Welling­ton to press for the purchase of the Foxton wharf. The Minister of Railways told the deputation on 14 June that his Department could not "subsidise the Board with Railway revenue" but it would sell the wharf to the Board for £23,000. Less than two years earlier the General Mana­ger of Railways had written to the Minister valuing the wharf at £1500! Then putting on his Minister of Marine hat he went on to say that he would ask Cabinet for an immediate grant but that a pre-condition would be an agreement to rate the whole district! Knowing the attitude of many ratepayers to 'pouring money down the river' the deputation returned to the Manawatu with little more than the loan of a dredge and the possibility of an endowment.


Undeterred, the board continued its fight until finally the Govern­ment resorted to that time honoured solution - the Royal Commission. The Commission sat in 1916 under the Chief Justice, Sir Robert Stout, and was to decide once and for all the future of the Foxton wharf. It was also to evaluate the proposal to upgrade and extend the Sanson tramway to join the main trunk in the north at Greatford or Marton and in the south at Levin. The Commission ruled against the tramway prop­osal but recommended that the Harbour Board be sold the wharf and an adjacent area with leasehold buildings for £5000. A condition of the concession was the creation of a rating district that would return at least £4000 per annum. The board was also to be authorised to raise a loan of £16,000 for capital expenditure.

By 1916 all Foxton shipping was in the hands of Levin & Co's two steamers, the "Queen of the South" which handled general cargo and the larger "Awahou" which carried mainly coal. After the 1908 WMR purchase by the NZR, the latter ceased shipping its coal through Foxton so the 5000 tons landed in 1915 was mainly for gasworks and private use. The "Awahou" carried 300 tons of coal from South Island west coast ports but invariably discharged 130 tons at Wanganui first and then drawing only eight feet brought the rest to Foxton. In spite of this she could only come in on spring tides to avoid stranding. Between 1913 and 1916 there had been 15 such strandings.

Levin & Co had their own wharf and shed at Foxton but the latter was destroyed by fire in 1922. Soon afterwards they withdrew completely from the shipping service. Undeterred, the Harbour Board built its own shed on the site of Levin's and continued to make the wharf available. Nearby upstream was the West Coast Shipping and Trading Company's wharf and shed. This company was formed in 1909 to take over the interests of McMurray & Co of Palmerston North who handled mainly coal. The new company planned to purchase a steamer that would, carry 300 tons of coal so that it could be assured of its own supply as well as regular shipments of cement. The company operated for some years but was not financially strong. Finally, when a bank formed in the river just off their wharf and collier captains refused to berth at any time but high water, they pulled out and both wharf and shed were left to rot.

Levin & Co lost the "Queen of the South" early in 1919, near Cape Campbell. She was en route from Wellington to Lyttelton after having relinquished her weekly calls at Foxton. To replace her they bought the "Kennedy" from the Anchor Company. The "Kennedy" was well-known on the Manawatu River having been with the Anchor Co since its inception in 1870. In 1905 she was converted from a single to a two hatch vessel, by having her passenger accommodation eliminated, and carried coal as well as cattle and general cargo. In 1921 Levins tried her on a weekly service to Foxton from Lyttelton which included Wel­lington but by the end of 1923 the Foxton Harbour Board was express­ing concern over the poor patronage of this service. In desperation, they attempted to save it by suggesting that it be reduced to a fort­nightly run and extended to take in ports south of Lyttelton. Besides competition from rail for Wellington cargoes, the problem was the bar. At least nine feet of water was needed if vessels of at least 500 tons were to be used, for anything smaller was considered uneconomic.

Above: Three of the small steamers which were used to tow loads of flax from the
upriver swamps to th mills on the riverbank at Foxton. The centre one of the three
is the "Planet", built by A.W. Baucham for levin and Co. in 1909.

Above: Loading cattle(2 views) by winch from the yards at the southern end
of the wharf. Operating the winch is Bill Bryant.

After Levin's withdrawal Holm & Co stepped in by backing a Welling­ton syndicate to purchase an Australian steamer called the "Coolebar". They called the vessel the "Himatangi" - not to be confused with Levin's vessel of the same name, purchased new in 1899 especially for, the Foxton trade.

The company called itself the Himatangi Shipping Co. In effect Holm & Co managed the vessel and it was Captain Mariner Holm who col­lected her at Sydney in 1929. Unfortunately the Canterbury Steam Ship­ping Co was also eyeing the Foxton trade at the same time and had specially built for it the motor vessel "Foxton". She too entered service in 1929 and so fierce was the competition that only one could survive. It was the "Foxton", and the Himatangi Co sold its vessel to the Anchor Co in 1930. As the depression deepened they laid her up in Wellington Harbour and in 1936 she was sold back to Australia.

The "Foxton" carried on until 1939 when she was sold to the South Taranaki Shipping Company. In the early 1930s several small motor vessels also participated in the Foxton trade. One was Oparara Shipping Company's "Kotiti". Only 61 tons she was actually lost on 10 October, 1931 en route from Westport to Foxton. Without wireless her fate was never ascertained but a body and wreckage eventually came ashore. Another small motor vessel was the "Huanui". Owned and commanded by Captain Chris Thompsen she survived until taken over for war service in 1940. Carrying cement from Tarakohe kept her in business.

The last vessel to use Foxton was the "Hokitika". Originally the Northern Company's "Waipu", she was renamed in 1936 when taken over by the Eclipse Shipping Co, a subsidiary of the KDV Box Com­pany. She began her Foxton run in 1937, bringing timber from Bruce Bay on the West Coast, and continued until sold to the Anchor Co on 16.10.1941. Her sojourn with Anchor was short-lived for she was taken over for war purposes exactly a year later.

By 1942 Foxton had ceased to function as a port. Towards the end of 1951 the old railway wharf was sold for removal and on 16 November, 1956 the Harbour Board was finally abolished.


No account of the Port of Foxton would be complete without mention of the small craft that provided essential services on the Manawatu River. Before the advent of steamers the small sailing craft that linked the river with the outside world also performed ancillary services with­in its confines. Apart from the pilot boat at the Heads which was a whaler equipped with a sail as well as oars, the first river steamer domiciled at Foxton was the paddler "Osprey". This vessel was purch­ased in 1879 by J. Liddell, a local merchant, for carting, towing and passenger carrying. Grossing 45.9 tons she was a shade over 45 feet long, had a 15 h.p. steam engine, was also rigged as a schooner, and could carry 58 passengers. There were high hopes for her but proving unsuitable she was sold to a Wanganui buyer the following year. For some months during 1879 the paddle steamer "Samson" was on the river ferrying salvaged cargo from the ship "Hydrabad" which had gone ashore on Hokio Beach. The "Hydrabad" was carrying Canterbury broad gauge locomotives and rolling stock to South Australia when she lost her canvas in a storm and beached. The "Samson" proved eminent­ly suitable for river work but attempts to secure her failed and she was wrecked two years later at the entrance to Waitara River.

When timber gave way to flax as Foxton's principal export a need for river tugs evolved. The sailing vessels so often engaged in the timber trade could load at the mill site but the steamers, which picked up bales of hemp, had to be fed their cargoes at the port itself. This meant a renewal of boatbuilding activity on the river for tugs were needed to help transport the bulky flax to mills around Foxton. From the mills the baled hemp then went to the wharf. Mills along the railway, of course, sent their bales down by train. The first of the tugs, or steam launches as they were called, was the 8-ton "Moto". Built by the Howe Brothers at Whirokiho in the mid to late 1880s, her career is shrouded in mys­tery. Better known were the "Ivy" and "Speedwell", built about 1888 and 1898 respectively, for Andrew Jonson, a Swede, who had seafaring experience, but who had settled in Foxton as a cabinetmaker and storekeeper. Both were substantial vessels, the "Ivy" having an eight horsepower steam engine. Jonson ran her in partnership with Samuel Howan and later sold his share to Captain Sawyers. The "Speedwell" was a sternwheeler of 42 tons with a beam of 25 feet. She was built for Levin & Co and was equipped with a derrick and winches. Both sur­vived in active service until the 1920s and were eventually broken up on the river. The fourth steam launch was the "Sunbeam". Built at Foxton by Balcombe in 1897, she was accidentally swamped up at Sim­monds mill soon after completion. She was raised but on her way down river for repairs sank, and could not be salvaged.

The success of the "Speedwell" encouraged Levin & Co to build up a small fleet of river steamers and their chief engineer, William Signal, was sent to Foxton to supervise it. The firm's next acquisition was the 45 foot "Taihoa" purchased in Auckland in February, 1907. She was built the previous year, had a 33 h.p. oil engine, and could carry 40 passengers. To reach Foxton she had to come by rail as far as Taumar­unui, by river down the Wanganui and then by sea, in tow, to the Manawatu Heads. Another oil launch, purchased at the same time, was the "Peninsular". She was an 18½ footer, had a 3½ h.p. engine and could carry 12 passengers. Other steamers on the river were the "Flow­er of Kent", "Planet", "Matara", "Battler", "Tuna" and "Nile". The last­ named was bought by Captains Kemp and Judd but proved too big for the river. Her paddles were notorious for their violent threshing so she was soon sold to Nelson interests.

The steamers were used in the main to propel punts laden high with flax. One would be secured on each side and two men would ride on each. Punt building was another local industry and the first was built by Jonson. Others were built by E. Bauchum. For survey and maintenance the river vessels and punts were slipped downstream from the wharf, and as recently as the 1940s the remains of several could be seen half hidden by tall grass on the rotting slips.

In 1908 Levin & Co lost two of their steamers, the "Planet" and "Matara", by fire. Arson was suspected. Fortunately engines and boilers were salvaged and a new "Planet" was built by A.W. Bauchum the following year. She was 50 feet long and was 14 tons gross. In 1919 she was laid up, and her boiler was transferred to another vessel, the "Merlin", in 1923. In 1938 a flood claimed the "Planet's" hull and it sank. The "Merlin" was an open steam launch 48 feet long built by Bailey of Auckland in 1898. Formerly called the "Alert", she was a single screw vessel which had at one time belonged to the Auckland Naval Artillery Volunteers. She had a crew of three and carried 40 passengers. The last vessel to ply the river was the "Maidi". Owned by Chalmers, she had been a 15-18 ton sea-going yacht with living accommodation below decks and a deck house above. Her original petrol engines had been replaced by steam. Unfortunately her arrival on the Manawatu coin­cided with the ultimate decline of the river trade and she was bought to take pleasure parties of up to 90 on fishing expeditions. The depression of the '30s put paid to this venture and her hull lies rotting on the banks of the river she never really served.




Church, Ian, LITTLE SHIPS OF PATEA (1977)


Church, Ian, N.Z. SHIPS AND MARINE NEWS: Vol. 31, No 1. Shipbuilding in the Manawa­tu. Vol. 34, Nos 3 and 4, Vol. 35, No. 1. The Port of Rangitikei.

Furniss, Cliff, SERVANTS OF THE NORTH (1977)

Holcroft, M.H., THE LINE OF THE ROAD (1977)

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Ingram & Wheatley, NEW ZEALAND SHIPWRECKS 1795-1960

Matheson, I.R., THE FORTUNES OF FLAX MILLING 1869-1969. Article in FLAX THROUGH THE CENTURY (1969)


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Manawatu Herald (Foxton)

Manawatu Daily Times (Palmerston North)

Manawatu Standard (Palmerston North)

Evening Post (Wellington)