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History - Waihou River History

"The Waihou will wake again when it feels the Paddles of Otunui dipping into the water and we travel to Stanley Landing."

Below are articles that relate to river transport in in the Waihou and connecting rivers:



Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 34, September 1990
By Hazel P Harris (Written in 1959)
Thanks to the Matamata Historical Society

Wharves and terminals are fascinating places at any time.

But imagine the pageantry, excitement and incident of the Waihou River landings of the days which the people now call the "old times".

When New Zealand's history had hardly begun, the Waihou commenced to play a dramatic part in the development of thousands of acres of land, stretching from the sea coast at Thames to an area bordering on the wonderland at Rotorua.

Ngahina Wharf was the landing of importance at Paeroa and three miles further up river was Puke Wharf. For some time the steamers went only as far as Paeroa, so goods and people had to be transferred - trans-shipped to smaller vessels that could negotiate shallower and more difficult waterways.

There would be miners with their swags, intent on reaching the hills in search of a fortune; men from all walks of life and many parts of the world, most of them sporting the whiskers that were then so fashionable.

The ladies too, still dressed as well as they could to the dictates of what was the "latest" in their long voluminous skirts and becoming bonnets - an outfit that as often as not required a parasol to make it complete.

All the way upriver impromptu landings existed where settlers could meet the boat to receive their stores, all where manure or seeds for their farms could be dumped. At Te Aroha as early as 1879 one could get off at Dibsell's Landing. William Dibsell set up an establishment to serve traveller and settler alike, on a point on the bank opposite the town, but it must have been a mile down river. Dibsell's place offered the public the services of a general store, a licensed house, accommodation and a bakery. An old friend told of the excellent bread he bought there at daybreak one morning when he was travelling by foot through the district. Could anyone buy bread at that hour anywhere today?


Prospectors, surveyors, ditch diggers, small farmers and capitalists for blocks of land came this way. Agents for land purchase, officers of the native land courts and the natives themselves all passed through the port, all aided and equipped by William Dibsell's service.

Stanley Landing was the last one up the river, situated on the west bank of the Waihou at Firth's Estate, a few miles from Matamata. Here was built an import store, 15 feet above the level of the river. In it could be stored manure and seed, machinery and household supplies needed for distribution on the estate that stretched for at least 23 miles. The wharf was large, even in those early times, and equipped with what must have been the first telephone so that ship's masters could inform the manager of the head station about cargoes, arrivals and departures.

There was also an export store, well constructed, being 130 feet by 30 feet and 20 feet high. It was capable of holding 60,000 bushels of grain and was rat and mouse proof.

Not only cargo, but romance too, floated on this waterway. Te Aroha was a popular thermal area, and pleasure boats catered for the enjoyment of young people and visitors. A passenger launch owned by W Belcher took parties of tourists for excursions upriver to a farmhouse for afternoon tea. The river and surroundings were considered beautiful, and Mr Everitt had rowing boats that could be hired by those wanting an outing on the river. There are still folk today who blush with pleasure at the remembrance of delightful evening cruises downriver in a barge towed by the Mataku, and the moonlight supper parties on the shore. When the first Methodist Church was built in Te Aroha some of the money was raised by using the Mataku for voyages on the river.

If there was a king of the Waihou River it must have been Mr J C Firth of Matamata. He loved the river, its beauty and its many moods, but although it was to become the lifeline for the thousands of acres he owned it did, on one occasion, nearly cause his death. One day, while waiting for the cargo of the Caroline to be shifted into canoes, all hands went swimming. Firth was caught in an under-current, and only the help of two Maoris, diving from the bank, saved his life.

The Waihou provided the most economical method of transporting produce from his holdings to the Auckland market, but above Te Aroha it was dangerous and not navigable in parts, even to the native canoe. There were sandbanks, rapids, snags and rock obstructions. Cargo had to be carried by Maori canoe, but even then it was perilous business, and frequently all goods had to be unloaded, carried overland and laboriously reloaded to circumvent the obstacles. Often, too, the skilful canoeist found his craft upside down or holed.


Firth tried to make a road over the ranges lying between Matamata and Cambridge, but it was a failure, so once again he attacked the river. There were many obstacles. The Maoris were suspicious and unwilling, but he had as a friend William Thompson, a Maori chief, and after wordy struggles with other powerful chiefs, gained consent to begin work.

This groundwork was almost undone, however, by the old Maori woman who refused to let snags be taken from the river, because it was there the largest and most numerous eels were caught. Perhaps Firth thought that the eels would not really be missed, as he undertook the work of supplying the river with salmon ova that had been presented to the colony by the Fish Commissioner of the United States.

Captain Tizard was put in charge of the dangerous work of clearing the river. Using a whaleboat and the crew of a Maori canoe, he began below Te Aroha. He employed cross-cut saws, gun-powder and other tackle. No sooner was one obstacle removed than another took its place. What a heart of courage this man must have had. One ton of dynamite alone was used to remove "Te-Au-0-Tonga" (The Terror), a formidable barrier caused by a great quartz reef.

There were other things like the tremendous posts that formed parts of the native eel weirs. There were regrettable things too like the removal of the old fallen forest giants that had served Maoris for many years as a bridge. Eventually a narrow channel was made upstream as far as Pakopako, later called Stanley, the northern boundary of Firth's land.

Firth built a steamer which he called Kotuku (White Crane), and a punt of shallow draft, and so the work went on. He ran a regular service for outward cargo and an inward one for freight. The waterway prospered, and even the natives were not slow to appreciate the new benefits.


About 1889, when the Matamata, Hinuera and Waharoa areas were beginning to produce, sheep were transported by water. Between 13,000 and 14,000 were driven to Te Aroha and shipped in barges holding 700 to 1000 head.

They were towed downriver, taken through the Waiheke Channel, then up the Tamaki River to Buckland's farm, which was a short distance from the Auckland market. Racehorses, too, found themselves sailing gaily up and down the river between meetings.

Over a period of seven years Mr Firth spent more than 10,000 of his own money on this great river-clearing project, but he felt every penny was worth it.

So commerce flowed merrily along the river. From Auckland it reached as far as Rotorua and many other farming districts on either side. The Waihou was the life-giver to the whole of the Thames Valley, and most of the Waikato, when traffic was at its peak.

Unnoticed at first, activity steadily began to decline. There were many contributing factors, but the most important was the building of roads and railways. A road was put through from Thames to Te Aroha and, with the construction of bridges, stopbanks and floodgates, it at last became a passable highway. Tracts of peat land held up the progress of road making.

The railway from Hamilton to Te Aroha was opened in 1886, but even though it found its way as far as Thames, Rotorua and Cambridge, for a long time river transport was cheaper. The cost of sheep was 6d a head against 10d by rail. Wool was taken by traction engines, the cost being 1s 6d a bale against 6s 6d by rail. Cheese and dairy produce continued to be shipped away by sea until 1930.


Firth's Estate was sold and cut into smaller farms. To hold the banks of the river against the wash of the steamers he planted thousands of beautiful willows but unattended they encroached upon the waters and now closed the upper reaches of the channel he had so arduously opened.

By 1947 the Northern Steamship Company ceased operating after 36 years splendid service. Except for a few scows, Taniwha was the last ship to sail the winding waterway. The Waihou River has returned to sleep, quieter by far than the days when canoe song and battle cry quivered over its length.EDITORS NOTE: The Paeroa Gazette of March 15 1990 reported "A Waihou River festival to celebrate the river's historical and present day importance is being planned for November 1990.

Maori canoes and a steamboat will be the focal point of the event, with each carrying messages of goodwill amongst the townson the Waihou River, Thames, Paeroa, Matamata and Te Aroha."

River Transport to the Matamata Estate

Navigation on the upper Waihou
By Joan C. Stanley, Matamata Historical Society

Transport and communication were two important factors in the successful establishment of the Matamata estate by Josiah Clifton Firth'in the 1869's and '70's. He realised the importance of easy access to his 56,000 acres both for arranging far goods to come to Matamata and for transporting produce back to Auckland. The Waihou (or Thames) River was the key to his transport problems as it led directly from his estate to Thames and boats could easily reach the Auckland markets from there.

Auckland was where Firth had his flour mills, and he perhaps envisaged a demand for fruit and vegetables in the growing town which he would be able to supply from his country estate at Matamata. He hoped to grow huge paddocks of wheat (much on South island lines) which would supply his Auckland mills, but good transport was essential to his plans.

Firth began to lease land in the Matamata area in 1865. His line of communications up the Waihou River was broken when Tana, son of the deceased chief Wiremu Tamihana, turned back canoes full of seeds and manures in the early days. This Maori opposition which closed the Waihou to Firth forced him to have a dray road built by his men over the hills from Hinuera to Cambridge via the present Taotaoroa Road. Access was thus obtained to the outside world, but the transport of thousands of bushels of wheat over this road to Cambridge, dow,n the Waikato River, over the portage at Waiuku to the Manukau Harbour, and finally from Onehunga to Auckland would be a tedious business involving multiple handling of the goods.

Firth did not give tip his original idea of access down the Waihou River, which would be a much more direct route to Auckland and would require much less re-handling of goods, but there were many obstacles in the way. Not only did he have to overcome Maori opposition but there were also the physical barriers of seven eel-weirs above the Ohinemuri River junction at Paeroa and miles of water blocked by rocks, old tree trunks, rapids and sandbanks.

In 1873 Firth made a start, at his own expense, to clear the river above the Ohinemuri junction for some -l5 miles to the northern boundary of his Matamata estate. Gunpowder and dynamite were used to blow up the snags, but it was seven years before the river was cleared sufficiently to allow shallow-draught steamers to come as far as the Matamata estate. Here, at the head of the navigable part of the river, was a cataract called Pakopako. Firth changed the name to Stanley, commemorating the famous explorer H.M. Stanley who in 1871 had found the missionary Dr Livingstone at Ujiji near Lake Tanganyika. From the landing at Stanley there was a good road to the head station of the estate, now the Firth Tower Museum, though the Tower itself was not built until 1881.

At Stanley Landing, Firth built a riverside platform so that steamers could berth and unload. In November 1880 he erected the first telephone line in the Matamata area so that the captains could notify the station manager seven miles away at the homestead that they had arrived or were about to depart.

A traction engine with six trailers was used to convey goods from the landing. A circular route thirty feet wide with a gradient of one in twelve was necessary to reach the top of the steep riverside terrace. Along the road to the homestead brick-lined wells were built at two mile intervals to provide water for the engine.

To store manure, seeds and household goods until they could be transported to the estate Firth built a receiving store of corrugated iron about 15 feet above the level of the river. The dimensions of this store were 60 feet by 20 feet.

A drawing of the "Kotukte" ready to load at the Stanley landing. Picture supplied by Mrs Slanley.

Higher than the import store, but still 20 feet below the top of the river terrace (which is about 60 feet above river level) Firth built a very large export store, the concrete floor of which can still be seen today. This building was also of corrugated iron and measured 160 feet by 30 feet and was 20 feet high. It was said to have been capable of storing 60,000 bushels of grain. The concrete floor was rat and mouse proof. Sacks of wheat could easily be lowered into the store from the top of the bank and later lowered down to the wharf when the steamers arrived. It is thought that a winch or flying fox was used for this purpose.

There were probably no trees near Stanley Landing when it was built in 1879 and 1880 but Firth planted 10,000 willows along the banks of the Waihou to prevent the wash from the steamers affecting the banks. These willows were later to cause problems.

In 1879 firth commissioned C. Hawkeswood to build a small iron steamer to carry goods up the river. She was named Kotuku (White Heron) and although no beauty she was built for the job which she did. The Kotuku was 82 feet long with a beam of 20 feet and a shallow draught so that she could easily glide over any remaining snags in the river. She carried thirty to forty tons of cargo between Auckland and Stanley, the first trip being made on 19th August 1879. Captain Tizard, who helped with the clearing of the Waihou, was the first master of the Kotuku, and William Smith was the engineer. Later Captain William Sullivan took command when the Kotuku was on the river run. Other steam' launches used at this time were the Tui and the Fairy. Three barges were also used.

To celebrate the official opening of the Waihou River from Paeroa to Matamata J.C. Firth invited the Premier (the Hon John Hall), and the Attorney-General (Hon F. Whitaker) to a luncheon and a display of snagging at Stanley Landing on 11th March 1880. Other invited guests included Messrs T. Peacock (Mayor of Auckland), Mr Ehrenfried (Mayor of Thames). Mr Brodie (Chairman of the Thames County Council), D.L. Murdoch. Thomas Morrin, J. Cosgrove, Wm. Aitken, T. MacFarlane, S. Patterson, S.J. Edmonds, Adam Porter, the Rev J. Robertson and the Hon James Williamson.

The official party left Auckland by train on 10th March 1880 and travelled to Hamilton. There they were met by Carter's coaches and transported to Cambridge to spend the night. Early next morning the
Auckland party was joined by about fifty local gentlemen, including Messrs E. Maclean. E. Walker, J. Sheehan, J.B. Whyte (MP for Waikato), W.L. Grace W.I,.C. Williams, R. Kirkwood, W.H. Grace and Captain Steele. Despite the pouring rain the party left Cambridge at 7 a.m. They were accommodated 'in two of Carter's coaches, each drawn by five horses, and in several buggies end carriages. Many ciders on horseback accompanied the cavalcade.

Model of the Stanley Landing with the two store sheds, made for the Centenary by R.D. and J.C. Stanley, of Matamata

It was a long journey of about six hours to Matamata over roads which were little more than rough tracks. One of the coaches went off the road into the fern and the occupants were soaked as it was hauled back. At Stanley Landing a large crowd of Maori guests had camped on the Waihou River flats and were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Premier's party, as was Josiah Firth, who had gone on ahead to make preparations for his guests. They were seen at last and a crowd of riders galloped across the plain to greet the coaches and buggies and escort them on the last lap to Stanley. Here the official party was welcomed by Mr Firth. From the bank the guests watched several snags being dynamited in the river. As each charge exploded a huge tower of water rose into the air. The crowd cheered, the horses bucked and the barking dogs raced along the river bank.

The official party entered the large grain store where long tables had been set up to accommodate over a hundred guests including representatives of the Maori people. The luncheon- was cooked by Mr
Rikys, the steward on the Kotuku. Afterwards toasts and speeches were made to celebrate the completion of the project. Mr Firth reported that the clearing of the Waihou had cost him 2018.4.5.

The guests then boarded the Koruku which proceeded downstream so that they could watch sixty pounds of dynamite being ignited and see the huge column of water which reached about 300 feet in height as a result of the tremendous explosion.

At five o'clock the party went back to the Matamata homestead where they were entertained and accommodated for the night before leaving early the next morning for Hamilton to catch the 1.46 p.m.
train to Auckland. Back at Matamata a sports day held, at. which all the local Maori people competed. The Waihou River was now opened to steamers from Paeroa up to Stanley Landing at Matamata and this waterway was used for some years. On 6th January 1883 the Auckland Weekly News reported that Mr J.C. Firth was calling for tenders "to cart 1000 tons of wheat (about 40,000 bushels) and 1500 tons of pressed hay from the station to Stanley, the point where the navigation of the Thames (or Waihou) River begins.

By 1884, however, the wheat harvest was not as good as was expected and Firth had to dismiss many of his men at the Harvest Home celebrations. The failure of the wheat growing experiment was partly because of the humid climate which did not suit the ripening grain and partly because of rust which was passed on to the wheat crops from the hawthorn hedges planted in the area. Another factor which probably affected the use of the river transport system was the building of the railway by the Thames Valley and Rotorua Railway Company from Morrinsville through Matamata and on to Tirau at the end of 1885 and the beginning of 1886.

Josiah Clifton Firth (1826-97) the pioneer landowner who developed the Matamata Estate.
Picture borrowed from "The Golden Age of Josiah Clifton Firth" (Mona Gordon)

Eventually Firth became involved in personal financial difficulties which, combined with the economic depression of the time, resulted in his losing the Matamata Estate and the Kotuku in 1887. Although river services from Te Aroha to Auckland continued for a number of years after this, navigation from 'I'e Aroha to Stanley had probably ceased by the early twentieth century.

Thanks to the Matamata Historical Society

Otunui - The Paddleboat Company