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Tolaga Bay Wharf gets an upgrade

MEDIA RELEASE FROM
New Zealand Historic Places Trust Pouhere Taonga
For immediate release

Tolaga Bay Wharf gets an upgrade
April 15

The Tolaga Bay Wharf north of Gisborne has just had a promotion.



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The New Zealand Historic Places Trust – the country’s lead heritage agency – recently upgraded the 660m-long wharf to a Category I historic place, denoting it as a place of outstanding historical significance.

“The upgrade of the registration from Category II is a direct reflection of the historic importance of the Tolaga Bay Wharf,” says the Historic Places Trust’s Lower Northern Area Manager, Gail Henry.

“This extraordinary structure – widely regarded as the longest concrete wharf in the Southern Hemisphere – played an integral part in the growth and development of the East Coast, and is one of the great icons of the area.”

First registered as the equivalent of a Category II historic place by the Trust in 1984, the wharf’s increase in heritage status is a reflection of a change in people’s appreciation of heritage.

“People’s perception of what constitutes a heritage structure – and their understanding of what heritage actually means – has changed hugely in 25 years,” says Gail.

“Today, the Tolaga Bay Wharf is appreciated for its aesthetic value and the genius of its construction – as well as for less tangible qualities that somehow elevate a functional structure like this into something truly evocative.”

Save the Tolaga Bay Wharf funding director, Clive Bibby, is pleased that the wharf’s heritage status has been upgraded.

“The Category I classification is a true reflection of the wharf’s heritage significance,” says Clive.

“It is one of the great East Coast icons, as well as the most visited and photographed taonga in the area. More than that, the scale of this structure, and what it meant to the region and country as a whole makes it a place of national significance. It’s a monument to the halcyon days of the great pastoral economy.”

Today, the wharf is still used – though not for its original purpose. It’s a great recreational facility with people fishing from it and using it as a favourite picnic spot. Local Maori see it as a mahinga kai [garden] for gathering sea food – particularly mussels and crayfish hiding in the debris at the base of the wharf end.

People agree that the wharf is definitely worth preserving – despite its steady deterioration over the course of its 80-year life.

“The aggregate used in the wharf’s construction included local beach sand. The salts in the resulting concrete have attacked the reinforcing, which has expanded with the result that bits of concrete are dropping away,” says Clive.

Years of hard work and fundraising by Save the Tolaga Bay Wharf have seen two phases of the wharf restoration completed. A $1.2 million contract for phase three has been let with work beginning this month.

There is still much to be done, however, with deterioration still a problem.

“We’ve had great support in the past from the community as well as Gisborne District Council, the Historic Places Trust’s Tairawhiti Branch Committee, the Ministry of Tourism and Sport and the New Zealand Lotteries Board, but probably our greatest individual benefactor has been the Williams Family Trusts who have come to our aid time and time again. We are very grateful to all these groups,” says Clive.

For more information on the Tolaga Bay Wharf, people can go to www.gisborne.co.nz/tolagabay

Sidebar feature:

Why a wharf here?

So why would anyone build a concrete wharf stretching 660m out to sea, in what was one of the most isolated parts of the North Island?

The need for a wharf in Tolaga Bay emerged as early as 1913, with silting caused by the small tidal river flowing into the bay increasingly becoming an issue for farmers wanting to transport their produce to markets via coastal shipping. A series of floods three years later only exacerbated the problem.

“The situation became even more critical following the First World War. The Government settled returned servicemen on farms of 50-80 acres, increasing agricultural productivity in the area as well as pressure on the already shaky maritime transport network that was in place,” says Gail Henry of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

“The need for some kind of solution became pressing.”

In the end, it was good old parochialism that proved to be the driving force for change. The Tolaga Bay community formed its own Harbour Board, and in 1920 appointed Cyrus J Williams as consultant engineer to investigate and design a wharf that would address the issues.

The cost for the project was huge – so much so that special legislation was needed to enable the Harbour Board to borrow the money required to do the job. The Tolaga Bay Harbour Board Empowering Act was passed in Parliament in 1921 which authorized the Board to raise a loan of £100,000 – provided a poll of ratepayers was taken to seek their approval – and allowed the Board to charge an additional levy on ratepayers.

The final design for the wharf was signed off by no less a person than the Governor General in June 1924, with work approved to begin on New Year’s Day 1925.

The construction contract for the job was won by Frederick Goodman – who also built Gisborne’s Peel Street Bridge and the Gladstone Road Bridge.

“Building what was to be the largest reinforced concrete wharf in the southern hemisphere in an open, dynamic marine situation rather than a protected harbour, was seen as quite a daring undertaking – and it was certainly not without its challenges,” says Gail.

The initial stage of the wharf involved the construction of the first 12 pairs of piles followed by the concrete deck. This served as a work platform during the construction.

“The rest of the piles were cast horizontally on the deck or on the beach and were circular, with a flat side to them where the concrete was poured into the cast,” says Gail.

“Once they were set, they were hauled into position by winches attached to a gantry built at the seaward end of the jetty and manoeuvred into place.”

As might be expected with a construction project of this scale in what was essentially open sea, there was plenty of scope for things to go wrong.

On one occasion, three tidal waves struck the wharf in rapid succession during its construction shifting the gantry, washing away loose timber and fracturing five piles that had not been secured. On another occasion, two piles were pushed out of position and broken as a result of a storm.

Overall, however, the wharf survived its construction phase largely unscathed, and was officially opened on November 22 1929, almost five years after construction began. Its impact was felt immediately.

“The Tolaga Bay Wharf really opened up the pastoral economy in Gisborne and the wider Hawke’s Bay,” says Gail.

“At its peak in 1936, over 130 ships worked at the port – mainly motor vessels owned by the Gisborne Sheepfarmers Frozen Meat and Mercantile Company and the Napier-based Richardson and Company, including coastal traders like the Pukeko, Koutunui and the Pateke.”

The wharf’s all-too-brief heyday was about to come to an end, however. With the start of the Second World War, some of the coastal traders were requisitioned for the war effort, and these were no longer able to service Tolaga Bay Wharf.

Other factors – such as the 1951 waterfront strike – also had an effect, though it was the improvement of roads and the development of trucks capable of carrying heavier loads that signaled the beginning of the end for the Tolaga Bay Wharf as a working dock.

“It actually became cheaper and easier to shift both goods and livestock by road – especially as Gisborne was only 56km away,” she says.

“Ironically, perhaps, the shingle used to expand and upgrade the road network – and which ultimately closed the Tolaga Bay Wharf – was brought in through the wharf itself.”

The wharf was officially closed to shipping in 1967. Though, not surprisingly, the southern hemisphere’s longest reinforced concrete wharf simply wouldn’t go away. In 1996 a public meeting resolved that the wharf was worth saving, and a committee was formed to further these aims.

Two phases of the wharf restoration have been completed, and a $1.2 million contract for phase three has been let with work beginning this month.

For more information on the Tolaga Bay Wharf, people can go to www.gisborne.co.nz/tolagabay

ENDS

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