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Getting to Karori: before and after the tunnel

Here is an article by Judith Burch from The Stockade, Volume 33, 2000, p8-18.

The part played by roads in the development of a region is an interesting topic to speculate on. For unless the passage of people and goods to and from their destinations is made easy either by natural geography or modern transport technology the region is less likely to prosper than its more favourably endowed neighbours. Given the rugged topography of the south-west region of Wellington province, access to Karori was always going to pose problems. The issue of access to Karori has been a recurring theme from the early days of settlement to the present day.

Information about the original route the early settlers took to Karori is relatively sparse. But there are a sufficient number of accounts available to "best guess" they would have made their way there via Northland using an existing Maori walking track that gave access to their small gardens on both the eastern and western sides of the Northland ridge. (In more recent years the track came to be known as Old Military Road or Old Military Track.) They would have travelled along Karori Road (now Tinakori Road and Glenmore Street), up Orangi Kaupapa Road and Military Track or Road, crossing present-day Northland Road to Kaihuia Street; then down a short-cut at No. 31 to emerge at No. 8 Sydenham Street. The track then continued down to lower Randwick Road and across Curtis Street and present-day Western Park (the valley of the Kaiwharawhara Stream) over the stream and then up past Seaforth Terrace to reach present-day Karori Road. There is an Historic Places Trust blue sign at the bottom of Orangi Kaupapa Road marking this route.

Writing in 1840 of walking on the track from Pipitea up the valley near the Botanic Gardens, J.J. Taine says: "Alongside it ran a clear stream on the banks of which wild fuchsia and bulbil grew luxuriantly and the solitude of the bush was enlivened by the call or movement of numerous birds such as the tui, tomtit, fantail, little green parrot; the last with touching confidence would come so near when we were sitting down that we could almost seize them with our hands."

However this route to Karori, fit for foot and perhaps horse traffic, would have been used for about three years only. After the survey of Wellington town was completed, the New Zealand Company turned its attention to surveying a road to Karori. This was started in 1840-41, and followed the comparatively wide valley of Karori Road (now Tinakori Road and Glenmore Street), past the Orangi Kaupapa track and up The Rigi. Then it led over the saddle at Baker's Hill (later pierced by the Karori Tunnel), and along the sides of a rata-covered valley to present-day Curtis Street and Old Karori Road. After crossing the Kaiwharawhara Stream, by what came to be called Devil's Bridge, somewhat up-stream of the earlier track, it followed the Old Karori Road to join the present-day Karori Road near the cemetery. Stockade (vol. 22, p. 14) has a photograph of the plaque which commemorates this route erected by the Wellington City Council in 1989 near the Karori Garden Centre in Old Karori Road. The earlier track continued to be used to reach the farms on the Northland hills and later as an alternative access to the township of Creswick, the early subdivision on the western side of Northland.

The following extracts are comments from contemporary accounts about the surveying and building of the new road. Samuel Charles Brees (Principal Surveyor to the New Zealand Company) tells us that in 1843: "Karori was the only rural district in immediate connection with Thorndon: the land is generally not very hilly, but it is thickly timbered ... the commencement of Karori Road is at Hawkestone Street."

In 1842 Brees reported to Colonel Wakefield that "The Karori Road is now nearly completed to the Kaiwara stream across which I am constructing a bridge, simple but tolerably substantial and the road is formed for some distance on the other side." (The bridge referred to was known as the Devil's Bridge, and was named by Henry Jackson who was a paymaster/storeman with the survey party.) The Company had spent 1557 on the "rough construction" of the road in that year.

About the same date we learn the Karori Road is proceeding under Mr Allom cadet and Mr Master foreman... the distance from Wellington is 4 miles 7 furlongs. The road was "well on the way".

In 1843 an accident of a "fearful description" took place to one of the men employed on the Karori Road. A large tree was cut down and its top lodged in the branches of another. "Commenced sawing at this and when half way through it broke under the weight and a person named Mann was struck down and his arm and the back of his head was shattered. He was conveyed to town and is in a dangerous state."

It was reported that in 1843, "workmen have again been placed on the Karori Road near Mr Hair's allottment (near the present Library) where they had stopped for the purpose of finishing the lower part of the road. It is intended, we believe, to carry the road through the district on to the Makara flat which contains nearly as much level land as Karori itself. Several workingmen are now clearing their lots of 5 and 10 acres (in John Yules subdivision of Section 36) and in the course of the following summer Karori will be studded with farms of this description."

By 1844 we learn "the Karori Road is excellent and about three and a half miles in length. At its termination the best road to Makara commences (two and a half miles) making the Karori Road cost a considerable sum of money Most of the land there belongs to absentees who have not contributed 1/- though some of the settlers contributed as much as 3 per acre towards the work."

But the reality of travel to and from Karori then and for many years to come, no matter what type of conveyance was used, would have been very different and difficult, especially in winter. It would have been cold, the numerous streams along the route would probably have flooded, there would have been mud, and bridges collapsing. Parnell noted in 1855: "a heavy rain all night - washed away Devil's Bridge and three others. Several slips on the Karori Road. Impassable for carts."

Despite the difficulties of getting to Karori it did not prevent enterprising settlers taking up the New Zealand Company's offer to purchase country sections of 100 acres each as this extract from Adventure in New Zealand 1842 confirms: "In the upland valley of the Karore several people had begun to clear. The road has not yet reached this having to cross a steep point of the Kaiwharawhara Valley but the clearers used to find their way by an old Maori path and live in the bush for days together. This valley is situated at the elevation of about 800 ft above sea level, about 2 m SW of Wellington by the present road. This tract boasts of the very finest totara and other timber."

The first European settler in Karori, John Yule, had wasted no time in subdividing his land into 20 blocks of between 4 and 5 acres and one block (later taken up by J. Campbell) at the farthest end, of 16 and a half acres. By 1845 just over 200 inhabitants were recorded as living in Karori. They established themselves and developed farms which supplied the town of Wellington with much of its foodstuffs. The late C.J. Freeman Esq. remembered his mother telling him that the Baker girls went to town with gooseberries in pillow slips to sell. Karori was also a source of timber for its own and Wellington houses. From the point of view of the Karori farmers and their customers in Wellington it was essential to have an adequate road.

For those who did not have their own horse and trap, Spier's had started a coach service in 1875. Driving three horses it ran three times a day from Stewart Dawson's Corner in Wellington, along Lambton Quay to Molesworth Street, then across Hill Street to Tinakori Road. There was the invariable halt for refreshments at the Shepherd's Arms, before continuing the journey up Glenmore Street. The gradual slope of the horseshoe bend below the Viaduct had not yet been formed so fit passengers had to walk up The Rigi to the summit before re-boarding the coach. The descent down the Karori side must also have been quite dangerous. The terminus for the service was the stables at the foot of Makara Hill.

Long before the tunnel was cut there was dissatisfaction amongst the settlers with the state and gradient of the Karori Road. It was only 12 ft wide, and ratepayers were responsible for any repairs and maintenance. The Karori Road Board was formed in 1854 and in 1869 it became the Karori-Makara Road Board. A meeting of ratepayers was held at the schoolhouse in Karori on 10 January 1870 to elect office holders and impose a rate for maintenance and repairs to roads, and in 1881 there was a proposal to levy a toll unless government subsidies continued. It was believed that milk sellers and wood carters could be affected, and unless the toll was levied, roads would be reduced to the corduroy state "which drove from Karori many of its best settlers". The toll was never imposed. Residents wanted an easier and safer way to town other than over Baker's Hill. In 1889 Karori ratepayers saw Baker's Hill "as an obstacle to progress". "The road over the hill was difficult and were it not for this, Karori would be one of the most popular and thickly populated suburbs." A cable tram at the head of Polhill's Gully was one of the proposals.

Access to Karori from the city improved considerably when "The Deviation", as it was called, was completed. In 1881 the Karori- Makara Road Board called for tenders for a brick culvert over the Kaiwharawhara on Karori Road and forming the embankment there. Plans and specifications were at Mr F. Dowsett's in Tinakori Road. The deep Kaiwharawhara Gully was filled in, the stream culverted, the embankment built and the new road (Chaytor Street, the northern part) was cut. The new route to Karori by-passed the previous route down Curtis Street to the Devil's Bridge, where the Karori Garden Centre is now located, and up Old Karori Road. James Tarr, a well known settler and member of the Road Board, was the first man to ride across The Deviation when it was completed in 1885.

While this new route solved some of the problems of getting to and from Karori, the major stumbling block of Baker's Hill still remained. At the time there were many suggestions made by the settlers about various alternative routes and methods of transport - including railways.

When Karori became a borough in 1891 the need for better access to the city was the most important point in the mayor's address to the first meeting of the Council on 2 October of that year. Stephen Lancaster pointed out that Karori, from her healthy situation among the hills, was the natural sanatorium of Wellington. Within two miles of the city, and with every advantage of pure air, good water, and lovely scenery, Karori - with a good road - would become the most favourite suburb.

Similar sentiments were to be expressed several years later by the next mayor of Karori, Richard Bulkley, addressing a meeting of Karori ratepayers in the St Mary's Parochial Hall on Saturday, 12 June 1897. They had met to consider the Council's proposal of raising a loan to build a new road. A special meeting of the Council had already considered the Borough Engineer's plans for a new road. Mr Ward had suggested three different routes (Baker's Hill, Creswick, or Upland Estate) and after considerable discussion the Baker's Hill route was chosen.

Speaking at that meeting, the mayor thought there would be little discussion about the desirability of a new road of an easy grade and at a reasonable cost, but if in addition the value of Karori properties increased too it would become an absolute necessity! He then appealed to their parochialism and greed by saying that quarter acre sections in Newtown could not be bought for 500 whereas similar sections in Karori were going begging for 50. In addition, Karori's sanitation was much better than Newtown's. The supremacy of Newtown was due, of course, to its level road and its tram and bus facilities. Into the bargain the Borough could borrow money for 4.5 per cent interest.

The mayor convinced the ratepayers that such a road, with an easier grade and at a reasonable cost, would be advantageous. A poll of Karori ratepayers on June 29 voted 171 to 23 to raise a loan of 4000 to build this new road which was to be three-quarters of a mile long with a slope of no more than 1:25 (previously it had been 1:10). At that stage it was proposed the road should go through Baker's Hill with a "deep cutting". However, on Ward's recommendation the Borough Council decided that a short tunnel (3.5 chains) should be used in preference to an open cutting. It was to be wide enough to allow three vehicles abreast and to be 20 ft in height.

The contract to construct the road and tunnel was let to John McWilliams in December 1897. The work was to be completed in six months at a cost of 3780. However, the project soon ran into trouble. In October 1898 work stopped and McWilliams' men were discharged. By that stage the tunnel was almost through Baker's Hill. In November McWilliams was sued by his workmen for non- payment of wages.

According to "Ceramco Limited: a history 1929-79", William Murphy, a Yorkshire pipe-maker who was one of the guarantors for his friend John McWilliams, lined the sides and roof of the tunnel with bricks of his own manufacture when McWilliams abandoned the contract. His sureties (Lodder and Murphy), then arranged for Mr Slowey to complete the work. He was to do this in four months for the balance of the monies retained by the Karori Borough Council. There was a 5 per day penalty. Slowey in turn, experienced considerable difficulties, including slips of the road, and a partial collapse of the tunnel which resulted in considerable disruption to traffic. He later alleged that poor workmanship by McWilliams had been the cause of some of these problems.

In December 1898 a poll of Karori ratepayers was held to raise a further 2000 to complete the tunnel and main road. Out of a total of 203 ratepayers 112 voted in favour of the loan and 5 against. The money was obtained from the Wellington Harbour Board at the rate of 4 per cent interest. About July 1899 Slowey gave up the contract and the Karori Borough Council took over the work.

The tunnel was opened to traffic on Boxing Day 1899 between the hours of 8 am and 8 pm. However, the approaches were not fully formed, neither was the concrete facing at the mouth of the tunnel. An estimated 1200 was needed to complete the job. If a loan was not obtained it would be impossible to keep the new road open for the winter.

On 30 January 1900 a deputation, consisting of the mayor and four councillors, waited upon the Premier to ask Mr Seddon for assistance in completing the Baker's Hill tunnel and approaches. Despite the points made by Councillor Dasent that the work "might in a broad sense be termed a large public work and as it was eighteen years since any public money had been spent on the district", the Premier told the delegation that "the necessity for more money was obviously due to bungling on the part of somebody." The government could advance the money by way of a loan at 3 per cent as soon as the necessary forms were gone through. The mayor pointed out the difficulty in persuading ratepayers to sanction another loan. Mr Seddon repeated his offer. It was not until March of that year and after another lively public meeting, that a further 2000 was raised by a special loan which enabled the work to be completed. The vote was carried by a majority of 42 (80 versus 38).

The final cost of the tunnel was about 8000. Mr Slowey subsequently sued the Council and Messrs Lodder and Murphy for losses incurred and the case went eventually to the Privy Council, Mr Slowey being awarded damages.

The portal at the Karori end of the tunnel records the name of the Mayor and six Councillors in office in 1900, together with the name of the Town Clerk. The portal at the city end commemorates the Council of 1897 and has the following inscription: "Built by the Borough of Karori, Mayor R.C. Bulkley, Councillors C.I. Dasent, H. Dryden, L. Hill, S. Lancaster, J.F. Spiers and Town Clerk W.F. England"

This inscription was suggested by Councillor McDonald at a meeting in June 1900 so that Stephen Lancaster's name could be included. He had been the first Mayor of Karori and was a Councillor until shortly before his death on 29 October 1899.

When the Seatoun tunnel was completed the locals celebrated its opening in 1907, but there is no record of the ratepayers of Karori doing likewise when their tunnel was finished. Electricity was just reaching Karori at this time, and the Council minutes in May and June 1902 refer to the lighting of the tunnel. It cost the Karori Borough Council 4/10/- although the installation was carried out by the Electrical Syndicate at no cost. However, in 1902 and 1908 the Council expressed some dissatisfaction about the irregularity in the times the lights were switched on for the night and off again in the morning.

Throughout the 20th century much of the traffic to Karori has come through the tunnel. First horse-drawn coaches, then trams and motor coaches. The Wellington tram service, begun in 1878 at first ran only as far as the Botanic Gardens. It was not until 1907 that the trams went as far as the Karori cemetery; in 1911 the line reached the terminus at Karori Park. Until the Bowen Street short cut was completed in 1940 the Karori trams shared the Molesworth Street tracks with the Wadestown trams, branching off at Tinakori Road for the slow haul up to the tunnel. In 1955 trolley and diesel buses replaced the trams.

The building of the tunnel to Karori in the late 19th century was not an easy task and the problems encountered during its construction have a familiar ring to ratepayers of the 21st century. On the one hand there were the local politicians of the day - in this case the Mayor of Karori and his Borough Councillors - anxious to promote their suburb; on the other hand were the Karori ratepayers who would have to pay the bills, and lying in between was the intransigent Karori rock which would have to be tunnelled through before anyone would benefit. From the "Letters to the Editor" column it is clear that not all the ratepayers were in favour of the money which was being spent or of the standard of the work carried out.

Was the project a success? That depends on the criteria used to judge success. The work took at least three years to complete, rather than the six months originally quoted, the cost of the project almost doubled, there were numerous slips, and a partial collapse of the tunnel; two contractors and then the Council were involved in its construction, and there were Court cases plus an appeal to the Privy Council. However, if success was based on attracting settlers to the area and increasing land values, it probably was. In 1845 the population of Karori was 215 - consisting of 57 adult males, 49 adult females; 49 males and 60 females under the age of 14. By 1996 the population had increased to 13,446 (6354 males and 7092 females).


Lancaster of Karori - Marjorie J. Harris, 1997

Stockade. 7:1-4; 8:1-2; 9:1-9; 22:14.

Ceramco Limited: a history 1929-79. Auckland, Ceramco Limited. 1979.

From Bush to Suburb Karori 1840-1980 - Margaret G. Patrick

Karori Streets 1840-1991 - W.G. Chapman and K.M. Wood

The End of the Penny Section - Graham Stewart

High Point - Margaret H. Alington

Don Laing - ms notes

Pictorial Illustrations of New Zealand - S.C. Brees

Karori News, 11 April 1986, p. 13: Old Karori Road has an eventful history.

Statistics New Zealand - 1966 Census, Standard Regional Tables, Population and Sex for Usually Resident Population.

Northland School, the First Fifty Years - L. Standen and A.S. Wickens (eds).