Three historical projects that changed Wellington
Our steep terrain, regular earthquakes, and ferocious weather have been constant challenges, and Sir John knew good infrastructure was critical to making Wellington a success. Modern sewers helped rid the city of typhoid in the 1890s, trams and tunnels opened up new suburbs after 1900, and the urban motorway catered for the boom in car ownership in the 1960s. But three infrastructure projects – above all others – stand out as pivotal in shaping our city.
1860s Queens Wharf
Queens Wharf enables the government to move to the city after two devastating earthquakes
As SS Airedale steamed into Lambton Harbour late in the summer of 1863 the noise of its engines subsided, and sailors high in the rigging furled the canvas. Passengers eagerly lined the handrails for their first glimpse of Wellington, and the brand new Government Wharf, its reddish brown timber yet to be bleached by the sun.
Eight years earlier the Wairarapa earthquake had created a three-metre tsunami, which smashed ships onto the sea bed and washed out low-lying properties along Lambton Quay. When the waves subsided, the seabed had risen two metres, ruining access to the quays. Tectonic uplift and the destruction of wharves meant goods had to be ferried ashore by lighters – very time consuming, and the rapidly increasing size of the ships visiting Wellington meant they had to anchor further and further out.
So Queen’s Wharf was driven by a desire to play down Wellington’s shaky start. The devastating earthquakes of 1848 and 1855 could have been fatal for the young city’s reputation, particularly since Britannia, the New Zealand Company’s original settlement at Petone had been abandoned 14 years previously because of the Hutt River’s tendency to flood. The Chamber of Commerce (then as now advocating infrastructure spending) campaigned for a new deepwater wharf – considered “a universally recognised want”, with the surviving private jetties hopelessly too small.
The new 122m-long “double T” Government Wharf was a mixture of ironwork imported from Britain and totara from Foxton. Storms delayed the supply of timber and the wharf opened three months late. Stretching out from the city’s first major land reclamation around what is now Post Office Square, it quickly became known as “Queen’s Wharf” – not in celebration of Queen Victoria’s 25 years as monarch (the first silver jubilee celebrated Kaiser Wilhelm I and was in 1886), but more likely because of its location adjacent to the Queens Bond Store.
Queen’s Wharf was a huge vote of confidence in the 6,000-strong settlement, and a shot in the arm for business, as commercial developments rapidly filled the reclamation. It was seen as “a symbol that Wellington was becoming a port rather than merely a harbour”, said Wellington Maritime Trust historian, D Johnson, and proved so popular the “T”s were immediately extended to cope with the explosion of traffic.
The new wharf impressed the Australian Commissioners who visited Wellington in 1864 searching for Parliament’s new home. MPs travelled to their electorates by steamship, and our central location and modern infrastructure proved compelling: the capital was moved to Wellington a year later.
1930s Tawa Flat Deviation
Modern electric trains open up the northern suburbs to create metropolitan “Greater Wellington”
In the 1920s Wellingtonians enjoyed a comprehensive electric tram network connecting the city’s inner suburbs, but access from the north was far more challenging. Settlements at Johnsonville and Tawa were served by the Wellington & Manawatu Railway Company’s steep single-track railway, with steam engines wheezing through numerous tunnels as they hauled passengers up the gradients on the main line north.
For a nation with more than 28 million railway journeys each year, (according to Te Ara) the rail trip into Wellington must have been an embarrassment. There had been little progress since the line’s construction in 1885, and the railway was a chronic bottleneck in the capital’s growth. Rail travel was critical to New Zealanders wishing to travel around the country, and arriving in the capital via a steep single track mixed up with livestock movements did not send the right signals.
The Public Works Department formed a team in 1927 under railway surveyor Arnold Downer to build an express railway over 13km long, with 5.6km of double-track tunnels. Downer later led the Mt Victoria tunnel project – his name lives on in the eponymous construction company.
The Tawa Flat Deviation was completed in 1935, and allowed a major overhaul of the Johnsonville line, where cutting-edge English Electric trains were launched with fanfare (and ten speeches from the dignitaries assembled) in July 1938. The “delightfully smooth” journey was completed in 16 minutes – considerably faster than today’s scheduled services. Tawa got its electric trains a couple of years later.
Eyes were firmly on the Mother Country, and the electric railway bears striking similarities to the “Metroland” developments that turned the countryside north-west of London into prime commuter belt. Tawa’s new station offered a heated waiting room, and male and female lavatories. It was a big improvement for passengers, and was the catalyst for the suburb’s population growth from a few hundred in 1930 to just over 3,000 shortly after the war. Johnsonville was transformed from a sleepy agricultural centre nicknamed “Cowtown” to a suburb with booming property prices and a population growing at double the city’s average. Meanwhile Wellington’s neo-Georgian station, opened in 1937, bustled with passengers obtaining news from press-the-button information machines, vying for pies at the high speed cafeteria, and taking nicely-framed pictures of themselves at a shilling a shot. News, pies, and selfies – nothing much changes.
Enormous pride was taken in showing we could match the Empire’s best, and the Tawa Flat Deviation, track electrification, new rolling stock, and the gigantic Gray Young terminus were ambitious undertakings that laid the foundation for today’s Greater Wellington conurbation.
1950s Rongotai airport
International connections direct to the heart of the city after removing a hill
Charles Kingsford Smith’s first view of Wellington was from the cockpit of “Southern Cross”, his Fokker Trimotor aeroplane. The Australian circled above the city at dawn on September 11, 1928, having left Sydney 13 hours earlier, but ended his trailblazing journey in Christchurch: Wellington had nowhere suitable to land.
Kingsford Smith secured his place in history by making the first international flight to New Zealand. Aged 31, he told the crowds his ambition was simply to become the world’s oldest aviator. When he finally made it to Wellington (by ship) he advised Mayor Troup – another aviation enthusiast – that Lyall Bay would be perfect for Wellington’s main aerodrome. A basic airstrip opened in 1929, which often closed over winter when the grass runway became too boggy.
Rongotai was talked about as the ideal location for our city’s main airport for years after Kingsford Smith’s untimely death in 1935, but nearby facilities proved more popular: Trentham’s airstrip handled early mail flights, the Air Force operated seaplanes from its base at Shelly Bay, and by the late 1930s Imperial Airways’ Empire flying boats were a regular sight at Evans Bay. These were the height of luxury, and passengers were often warned not to rush to the lavatories at the rear to plunder the toiletries lest the plane slid backwards out of the sky.
Meanwhile Paraparaumu became New Zealand’s busiest airport in 1949: Rongotai airport had been forced to close two years earlier as the grass runway didn’t comply with safety standards. And Tasman Empire Airways Ltd flew flying boats four days a week to Sydney from Evans Bay in the early 1950s. The airline’s terminal at Greta Point was decidedly ad-hoc, with garages under the Casa Del Mar apartments on Evans Bay Parade used by Customs to process passengers.
Wellington was missing out. Prime Minister Peter Fraser announced in 1948 that a modern airport would be built at Rongotai, but construction took 11 long years. Passengers on the flying boats attempting to land when Evans Bay was choppy must have looked at the building work with longing – waves under two metres high were acceptable landing conditions.
The new Rongotai airport necessitated moving 3,000,000m3 of earth, and reclaiming 55 hectares of land to create Cobham Drive and the new runway (which was further extended in the 1970s to accommodate passenger jets).
The earthworks were impressive, but the facilities weren’t: the 1937 De Havilland factory was repurposed as a stopgap terminal, which was intended to be replaced by the 1960s. Inevitably the corrugated shed served Wellingtonians until 1999. But the building didn’t matter – we finally had a sealed runway capable of handling the latest aircraft like the Lockheed Electra that flew the Beatles in from Sydney.