Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Canal That Was Never Dug

(Left) Sketch drawn in 1907 for the "Waitemata-Manukau Canal Promotion Company", showing a coastal steamer passing through the biggest cut, 130 feet deep, between Karaka Bay and the Whau estuary. From NZ Herald, 24 January 1956.

For the better part of 50 years, from the mid 19th century to the dawn of the 20th, Auckland men of influence seriously considered the benefits and practicality of a canal linking the Waitemata and Manukau Harbours. As the New Zealand Herald in 1956, a century after the first musings on the scheme put it, this was “The Canal That Was Never Dug.”

Of the two routes, one other discussed as going through the Tamaki Isthmus via Otahuhu, the Whau River proposal off-and-on occupied the minds of Avondale’s businessmen, land agents and industrialists up until the late 20th century.

The distance between the tides of the Waitemata and Manukau Harbours by this route was estimated (in 1903) as being only a mile and a half, making the steaming distance from Karaka Bay to Queen St only 12 miles, while from Manukau Heads it was 25 miles.

“If the canal were made it would be a most pleasant ending to the sea journey to Auckland, via the West Coast, for the Whau River is very pretty in parts, and when it is utilised as a canal there would probably arise a demand for residential sites.” (NZ Herald, 1903).

By the early 20th century, whereas businessmen wanted to cut down the cost of carting grain and agricultural products from the Waikato in the previous century, it was now a need for the raw products of industrialisation that drove interested financiers and businessmen to form their committees and seek the easiest route from the south to Auckland. By 1903, they wanted better transport for King Coal, both from the Waikato (Huntly fields alongside the Waikato River) and from the West Coast.

A survey of the suggested line of the Whau canal was undertaken in the late 1850s. Captain Drury of H.M.S. Pandora then estimated the total cost at one million pounds sterling. The “only serious engineering difficulty on the route” involved “a cutting of a third of a mile through the hill, where Manukau blockhouse is situated, and which rises over 400 feet above sea level.” (NZ Herald, 11/2/1883). In 1869, Auckland businessmen were still pressing for the scheme, trying to persuade shipping companies to bring ships direct to Onehunga from Melbourne.

In 1883 the Auckland Weekly News reported a suggestion that instead of following the Whau, the route could be moved east to go through the Avondale flats, perhaps joining the Waitemata near the end of Eastdale Road. Another Weekly News article can be found here.

In his presidential address to the Chamber of Commerce in 1900, Samuel Vaile “deplored the Government’s apathy6 about the canal. ‘It is difficult to understand why this important work has been so long neglected,’ he said. ‘Certain it is that if it were made it would bring in a large increase of trade to our port and city.” (NZ Herald 24/1/1956, on the centenary of the Chamber of Commerce)

The New Zealand Herald of 16/7/1903 reported that “The committee and subscribers to the Waitemata-Manukau Canal scheme, together with a large number of gentlemen interested, made a visit of inspection yesterday along the route of the proposed canal, which is intended to link the Manukau and Waitemata harbours, and materially shorten the sea distance between Auckland and the West Coast ports.

"The party were taken by the launch Ruru to the mouth of the Whau River and beyond to Archibald’s brickworks, where Mr Archibald came on board, kindly piloting the steamer to Keane’s brickworks. Here a landing was effected. It had been arranged to get up as far as the Whau River bridge, but the tide was falling when the steamer reached Keane’s. Brakes were in waiting at the bridge, and the party were driven as far as Astley’s tannery, where most of them alighted, proceeding on foot over the selected route to the highest point along it. Here Mr Atkinson, who was in charge of the party, pointed out the principal engineering difficulties and the cutting which would have to be made.

"The party then descended through Mr W. H. Smith’s property at Karaka Bay, where it is proposed to make the Manukau entrance to the canal. After a brief inspection of the geological features of the bay and some further explanations by Mr Atkinson, and also be Mr Hamer, who appeared to be thoroughly convinced of the practicability of the scheme, the party rejoined the brakes and returned to town.”

In the next few years three shafts and a large number of exploratory bores were sunk in the New Lynn-Avondale district, but nothing more was done.

J. W. Harrison, in a 1905 report, suggested that two locks should be constructed. He estimated the total cost of a canal at £788,00. In 1907 a Mr Hamer produced for the Waitemata-Manukau Canal Promotion Company a further set of plans. In 1913 Mr David Russell proposed a canal scheme that included a number of locks and pumping stations together with some deppening of the river and its approaches. He suggested that dredgings could be used to create an artificial island on which could be built playing fields and a multi-storeyed hotel. The total cost of the project was estimated at over £2,000,000.

However, when the Main Trunk Railway was opened in 1908, the canal proposal lost its previous status as a high priority public works project. The last known suggestion to build canals in the Auckland Region, including at the Whau, was in 1982, when Auckland City Council’s resources and organisation committee agreed to reopen discussion “on the construction of five canals linking the Waitemata, Nanukau and Kaipara harbours, and the Waikato River.” (NZ Herald, 10/12/1982)

Then, it was suggested, the renewed canals proposal would provide an alternative to a roading-based transport system (long since the successor to rail, and the cause of many headaches for local politicians in the region). This idea was probably sparked off by the “Think Big” development projects of the Sir Robert Muldoon government era of the 1970s to early 1980s. A Mr L J Johnstone even went so far as to prepare a 23-page report on the scheme, which did not come to pass.

The 1903 party from the Waitemata-Manukau Canal Promotion Scheme, alighting from the steamer at Keane's Brickworks, during the 1903 inspection of the proposed canal route. From The New Zealand Graphic, 25 July 1903.

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