Abel Tasman first saw New Zealand from off the West Coast in 1642. James Cook followed in 1769. Neither landed on the West Coast, but they are commemorated by having their names applied to Mount Cook and Mount Tasman.
Intrepid explorers and coastal traders
In 1846 Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy named the River ''Grey" in honour of Sir George Grey, Governor of the hinterland colony. On a subsequent journey in 1848, Brunner discovered and named the famous Brunner coal seam. The first coal was transported down the river to Greymouth by canoes and later in barges carrying 24tons. In a geological survey written by Julius von Haast in 1860, he quoted "coal would prove a great source of great wealth not only to this district, but to the colony at large.”
Although the first recorded vessel over the Greymouth bar was the schooner ‘Emerald Isle’ in 1857, the real history as a port began with the 1864 West Coast gold rush and with the arrival of the S.S. Nelson. Chartered by Mr Reuben Waite, the steamer unloaded 70 diggers and a full cargo of goods, departing in due course with 40 tons of coal bound for Nelson.
Early discoveries of coal and gold were earnestly followed by a rush of prospectors and miners from abroad, resulting in fleets of sailing vessels arriving to the West Coast. The whole of the river frontage from Erua Moana Lagoon to the Cobden Gorge was quickly taken up with business sites. This long street following the circular line of the river bank bustled with activity of trades and professions of all descriptions and bore the names Crescent City, The Grey, Grey River, and later Greymouth.
|1865 - Greymouth
||1870 - First wharf structure
||1884 - Star of the South|
Underpinning the survival of Grey District was the extraction and transport of coal. It was therefore of utmost importance to have a harbour fit for vessels to enter.
West Coast coal production began in mid 1860s with a trial shipment of 27 tonnes from Greymouth and Westport to Nelson. In 1865 Canterbury Provincial Port Officer, Fredk D. Gibson reported after careful inspection of the entrance to the River Grey, that the North Spit, situated in the Nelson Province, was to be the most suitable position for the erection of a flagstaff and it was this signal station that worked the whole of the shipping entering ‘The Grey’. It was 1867 when the first mooring piles were driven for the Canterbury Provincial Council below the present site of Cobden Bridge. Although flood waters subsequently swept away the first piles, the value of exports through Greymouth in this year were the third highest in New Zealand.
Control of the port was handed over to the Greymouth Borough Council in 1868 and a Local Loan of £5000 was raised for Harbour Works. In the following years the small existing wharves were strengthened, protective work began and plans drawn up for an internal training-wall and a breakwater on the south side of the river. Later these plans were modified to add a training-wall on the north side.
In late 1878 Sir John Coode reported favourably the formation of a harbour. The Public Works Department under the direction of Westland District Engineer Charles O'Connor, began the work the following year in accordance with his report.
The Greymouth Harbour Board was constituted by Special Act in 1884 with the government retaining power to appoint all or any of the board members. Mr Martin Kennedy was elected chairman at the first meeting of the new board on 22nd of December. Ample revenue was given from three main endowments:
- The rents and royalties from 15000 acres of coal reserves in the Brunner and surrounding district areas, a total of 14840 acres.
- Net revenue from the Greymouth - Brunner Coalfields railway, approximately 8 miles long.
- All wharfage and tonnage rates at the harbour of Greymouth.
At this time the colliers were lined up bow to stern along the quay loading coal directly from wagons. To cope with the increasing trade a comprehensive scheme of harbour development was carried out by this new body with £100,000 raised in London in 1885 to enable the completion of Sir John Coodes harbour improvement plans.
At the edge of the world - facing the storms - shipping it out
The tale of taming a bar harbour
Greymouth is a river mouth port at the mouth of a flood prone mountain generated river, entered across a constantly shifting sand bar swept by westerly ocean swells and storms on the southern edge of the world. This makes it one of the world's most difficult ports to operate - but it has operated successfully shipping out products and landing fish for over 140 years.
The South Island lies on a south-west to north-east angle, with the West Coast facing the Roaring Forties. Swells generated by these westerly winds in the Southern Ocean travel from Argentina, across the south Atlantic, south of South Africa, across the Indian ocean and south of Australia and across the Tasman Sea, to crash onto the shores of the South Island. The westerly winds pick up moisture from the oceans, and are forced up by the 2000 to 4000 metre high Southern Alps, causing cooling and heavy rainfall, among the most intense in the world.
The rivers carry down material eroded from the mountains. A littoral drift, predominantly from north to south along the coastline, carries the material northward to collect at Farewell Spit at the north of the South Island. From this littoral drift material bars across the river mouths are formed. The rivers pushing through this bar in times of high flow make it possible for ships to navigate the river mouths at Greymouth and Westport. Breakwaters at the river mouths concentrate the flow to produce greater scouring of the bar, greater depths for vessels, and more certain navigation channels. In times of low river flow the bars may silt up, until the next flood in the river clears them.
Two breakwaters, one each side of the Grey River were constructed to give an entrance width of 400ft on the low water line. Mssrs Hungerford & McKay were contracted to deliver rocks for the breakwaters using the locomotive “Ahaura”. The formation of training banks along the north side served to utilise the scour of the river current were completed in 1887, along with cattle landing and yards. Dredging allowed a new channel into the lagoon leading to Karoro Lake and deepening in front of Tainui Street wharf. A certain amount of reclamation work and the construction of 1240 feet of wharf were carried out. Upon completion of this comprehensive scheme a depth of 19ft at high water was obtained at the entrance and in the navigation channel.
No further works were carried out until 1903 when the construction of the new north breakwater parallel to the original was sanctioned. This resulted in an entrance width of 500ft on the low water line. During the next 25 years various small extensions were made to the breakwater and training walls, and a considerable amount of maintenance and restoration work was carried out on the entrance works which required constant attention due to being swept by heavy seas. The Board continued to provide the shipping industry with adequate accommodation and wharfage facilities. Hydraulic cranes used for coal loading on the Greymouth wharf were installed in 1887,speeding up the process of loading coal, and in 1892 a 100ft long cradle erected below the lagoon bridge for the slipping of vessels for repair. Improvements continued 1901 through 1904 with increased wharfage, lagoon tramway, new signal station with telephone connection to the Harbour Master and a cottage built on the outer end of the pier. Leading beacons were erected on the south breakwater, water laid on and sanitary improvements made to the Harbour Board office, another 10ton hydraulic crane made by Stothert & Pitt purchased and the State Coal Mine Railway was connected with the wharf.
New cargo sheds were built in 1907 with the three 7 tonne steam cranes. A commission of engineers in 1925 resulted in a methodology for improvement of the harbour entrance and navigation channel, designed to give an increased depth on the bar. The progressive extension seawards of both breakwaters and the development of a tidal compartment by dredging the lagoons south of the Grey River commenced in 1926. These protection works involved placing some 33,000 tonnes of rock. (By 1948 when the Cobden quarry was finally closed down after 60 years continuous operation, some 1600,000 tonnes of rock had been won for the Greymouth and Cobden quarries to stabilise the training walls, jetties and breakwaters of the Greymouth Harbour.)
In 1940 in an effort to stop the subsidence, large concrete armour blocks were used to quell the tremendous force of pounding seas and seal the existing rubble mounds with concrete caps and side walls. The Grey River mouth remained troublesome with a flood swollen river, dangerous bar and shifting ridges of silt. Although the arrival of the locomotive in 1872 enabled the coal to be landed at the wharf, shipping delays frustrated the Grey Valley coal industry. During 1946 an overseas consultant’s investigation recommended proceeding with the reconstruction of the half tide walls and also the fender piling project. The former work was completed in 1948 while the latter task of driving the piles was not started till 1958. The Mawhera continued to dredge at a rate of 500 tonnes in 45 minutes, accompanied by the screeching of steel on stone reverberating across Greymouth.
Coming of age
‘Gold gave birth to the West Coast but it was “Old King Coal” that kept it living.’ (Tony Nolan, NZ Today)
Construction of railways and better harbour facilities became the hallmark of a thriving trade of coal, timber, passengers and general cargo. 600,000 tonnes per year of coal and timber were exported through the port in the early 1900s, dropping off only after much of the South island trade was diverted to rail. The Australian annual trade kept buoyant for many years. By the 1950s indigenous timber exports were restricted and with the discovery of natural gas in the North Island in 1969 diminished the coal trade considerably. In 1988 SeaTow tug and barge services were introduced and regular services continue today, with the method of loading by portable conveyor belt increasing efficiency.
Greymouth marina is also home to 35 local fishing vessels, with up to 60 visiting vessels in the tuna (Jan – April) and hoki (July-September) seasons. With the warming of the coastal seas, 2005 witnessed an increase in big game fishing, attracting national and international anglers to Greymouth waters.
With over a century of history etched on its shores, Port Greymouth abounds with characters and stories that have been molded and shaped by the ebb and flow of time. Walk the spine of the river out to the sea to the impressive breakwaters. Talk to the fisherman, and drop by the original harbour board offices on Gresson Street. Here you will find a wealth of archival riches. Pore over the hand crafted registers of captains and harbour masters, whispering tales of escaping the treacherous storms by crossing the notorious Grey river bar. Let the wisdom of the gatekeepers, the harbour staff, infuse you with their knowledge and hot cup of tea. From the days when coal was king, through the tuna glory days of the 1970s up to today, Port of Greymouth history is remarkable.