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.

(Updated 20 December 2018. A book The Canal Promoter is due to be published in 2019.)

For the better part of 60 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, more than a century after the first musings on the scheme put it, this was “The Canal That Was Never Dug.”

There were two main routes through the isthmus in contention from the 1850s -- the Tamaki option, via a canal reserve dedicated as such in 1850 out of the Fairburn Claim, and the Whau option, first surveyed in 1857 along a route from New Lynn just north of the Whau Bridge to Blockhouse Bay (Endeavour Street). Most of this failed to be properly dedicated, and so much of the route was sold to private owners and vanished from the maps.

In 1901, a new route was proposed to link the Whau River with the Manukau Harbout, via straightening and channelising of the Avondale Stream, with an outlet now at Green Bay. 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 Green 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.

 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, 17/2/1883). 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 the 1890s, John Edward Taylor from Mangere began his own campaign, in support of the Tamaki option.

In his presidential address to the Chamber of Commerce in 1900, Samuel Vaile “deplored the Government’s apathy 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.” This was one of a number of visits made by supporters of the Waitemata and Manukau Canal Promotion Company's scheme to survey, plan, and eventually construct a canal on the Whau route. 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, primarily because the company had no finance to construct the canal itself. The company wound up in 1907. That year Auckland Harbour Board engineer W H Hamer produced a set of plans for the Promotion Company and estimated the cost of the work at £788,000.

In 1912 David B Russell proposed a canal scheme that included a number of locks and pumping stations together with some deepening 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 eventually estimated at over £2,000,000. The Russell scheme failed as well; the Tamaki option was preferred by a Royal Commission in the early 1920s, Russell's promises of American finance for the project never eventuated, and he was unsuccessful in obtaining a concession from either the Harbour Board or the Government which would have included taking private land under the Public Works Act and allowing his company to have a 50 year monopoly.

When the Main Trunk Railway was opened in 1908, and when roads improved in the roads improved in the 1920s and the 1930s 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, Manukau 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 1908 Auckland and Manukau Canal Act, last regulatory vestige of Auckland's canal dreams which gave the Auckland Harbour Board the power to take land under the Public Works Act for canal construction, was repealed in 2010.

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.


  1. Is the book "The Canal Promoter" available to purchase?
    Very interesting articles. Wayne

  2. Which booksellers are carrying stock of the book, please ?

    1. None -- I just self-publish. Copies of The Canal Promoter are available from me at, $15 per copy, plus p&p $6 for up to two copies. Email me for my bank account details so you can make the deposit.

  3. Then a canal from Waiuku to the Waikato river could have been dug? would be cool to have river freight again. Had the joys of working on some in the Netherlands. Seen some cool photos of what used to go up and down the Waikato River.