Exploration of the area by Europeans began in the 1840's with Thomas Brunner, Charles Heaphy and Arthur Dudley Dobson. James Mackay completed the land sale of the West Coast from the Maori in 1860.
Gold was discovered by Day, Smart and French in the Taramakau and Greenstone area in January 1863 and an unsuccessful attempt was made to collect the reward offered by the Canterbury provincial Government for finding a payable gold field in the province. Albert Hunt was successful and was paid the reward for his discoveries in the Greenstone area.
On 22 July 1864 Reuben Waite, a storekeeper from Collingwood, crossed the Greymouth bar with 70 prospectors in a chartered paddle steamer.
He put his supplies ashore and opened the first store on the banks of the Grey River on what was to become the corner of Waite St and Mawhera Quay (this site is now occupied by DP1 Café).
By 1865 the population of the West Coast had grown to 16,000 and another 14,000 arrived during 1866. The reported gold recovery for the later year was 553,000 ounces.
The Canterbury Provincial Government proclaimed the area south of the Grey River and west of the Southern Alps as a goldfield, while the area to the north of the Grey River was under the control of the Nelson Provincial Council. An "Improvement Committee" of prominent citizens administered the town and improvements were paid for by a levy on merchants.
The first buildings in the area were little more than shacks made of canvas. Gradually more substantial buildings were constructed as businesses were established.
Floods, fires and earthquakes have taken their toll on buildings over the years and many have been lost.
Vessels entering the West Coast river ports had to deal with hazards of dangerous bars of submerged sand ridges that shifted with every storm. Vessels often had to wait in the roadstead for favourable conditions for over a week. This was a dangerous practice as well. Paddle tugs were essential to ferry passengers and cargo from large ships and help vessels in and out of the port. Many vessels came to grief in these river ports. At Hokitika there were 108 strandings over a two year period between 1865 and 1867.
Gold and passengers were the main cargo from the 1860's to 1870's and during 1865 and 1866 in Hokitika the arrivals of passengers numbers was the highest in New Zealand.
In 1867 the value of exports through Hokitika was the highest in New Zealand with Greymouth third, Brighton (Charleston) 8th and Okarito was also a significant port.
The outcrop of the Brunner Seam on the banks of the Grey River, about six miles (10 km) from the mouth was the first recorded occurrence of coal in the district and the credit for its discovery goes to Thomas Brunner, Surveyor and explorer. The first coal was worked in 1864 when the discovery of gold in the area resulted in a demand for coal to supply the steamers trading to the West Coast. Reuben Waite (pioneer storekeeper) was commissioned by the Nelson Provincial Government to procure 40 tons of coal from the Brunner Seam. The coal was hewn by a party of Maori overseen by a miner Matthew Batty, transported to the coast by canoe and loaded aboard s. s. Nelson. This ship then ran a regular service between Nelson and Greymouth, steaming on Brunner Coal. The Brunner mine is remembered for the disaster where 65 miners were killed.
The discovery of further bituminous coal soon followed and by 1878 162,000 tons were exported. The industry grew and by the 1900's over one million tons were being produced annually.
Mines were operating in Blackball in 1883 and Roa in 1905. In the Runanga area there were both private and State Mines. From 1904 to 1920 the Point Elizabeth Mine at Dunollie produced 2.25 million tons. The Liverpool mine at Rewanui was opened in 1913 and finally closed in 1984. The James Colliery was worked from 1922 to 1943 and the Government then opened the Strongman Mine in 1939 and in its heyday employed over 350 miners.
As the area was populated more and more timber was required for building, commercial use, railways and a lot more exported. Bush trams crossed the area.
Horse tram at Kokiri, circa 1890 (photo: History House)
After the railway network was up and running the timber industry flourished as timber could now be railed to the port, extending the market considerably.